Thursday, November 28, 2013

Shades of grey

It’s complicated. I find myself using that phrase a lot these days, pretty much every time a friend from back home asks me my opinion on any of the big issues at play in Honduras.
    Were the elections clean? It’s complicated. Which party would best serve Honduras? Complicated. Is it true narco-traficantes are calling all the shots? Well, that’s…complicated. Is the country being ruined by drug trafficking? Sorry, that one’s complicated, too.
    You get the picture. I thought I saw the world in shades of grey already, but it took Honduras to introduce me to just how many shades there really are. Even things that I once thought I had nailed in terms of how I felt about them – poverty, child labour, murder, violence – I now find myself rethinking.
    A friend sent me an article this week that talked about the vast majority of Hondurans living in “abject poverty." It struck me that while it’s true that millions of people here lack worldly goods, secure incomes and money, it’s simplistic and even insulting to portray their lives as one of abject poverty.
     I don’t know how they manage with so few resources, but they do. There is much to be admired in people who can take a small plot of land and feed themselves and their families, and who keep moving forward despite being constantly beset by new problems. While I’ll certainly never use the phrase “poor but happy” again or romanticize a simple life off the grid, we’re not doing Hondurans any favours by painting everybody here as helpless victims living desperate lives.
    That’s not to suggest we should quit paying attention to poverty reduction, or that developed countries should get a free ride on policies and practices that create and support poverty in the countries where they have commercial interests. But slapping an “abject poverty” label on the country really does a disservice to the resilient, resourceful people who have figured out how to live on scant and irregular incomes of $150 or less a month.
    As for murder, that’s a black-and-white issue until you live in a country where there’s no functional justice system. Murder is never a good way to settle scores, of course, but it does become more understandable when you think about families and towns left on their own to manage the crimes committed against them.
    If somebody killed one of your loved ones, for instance, what would you do if there was almost no chance that the killer would ever be arrested, tried and jailed, even in cases where everyone in town knew who did it? What might a group of subsistence farmers be capable of one night when they finally caught the thief who had been ruining their lives by stealing their cows and commercial crops?
    In Canada, our police and courts take such awful decisions out of our hands and permit us to believe that “justice will prevail," with no need to take the law into our own hands. Sure, we complain about court decisions, but in general our justice system serves us quite well.
   Not in Honduras. The police don’t come when called, and in truth nobody really wants to call them anyway because they’re scary and unpredictable.  The “bad guys” don’t get arrested very often. The courts don’t work. The prisoners essentially run the prisons. (And even that starts to make sense when you understand that if it weren't for prisoners finding ways to generate money on the inside, there’d be nobody to feed and clothe them.)
    As for whether narco-traficantes are the bad guys here, I’d have to say… it’s complicated.
Yes, I suspect the cocaine distribution business (Honduras is essentially the FedEx of the industry) is responsible for much of the staggering murder rate in Honduras, although there are no official numbers. Yes, the business in all likelihood has tremendous influence in the country - as does any lucrative, job-creating industry anywhere in the world – and is well-integrated into every level of government and public service.
    But looking at the issue from a purely economic viewpoint, this country would be sunk without narcos. However you feel about the product they’re moving, they create a lot of jobs.
    They've got money - to eat at restaurants, stay at hotels, shop at the malls, buy medical services and new vehicles, build nice houses. They've got money for all the things that stimulate more economic activity, which is the only thing that ever truly pulls a country out of poverty.  
    They like real estate, and at least in Copan Ruinas are said to be responsible for much of the new construction in town. They apparently love owning dairy cattle and are among the few farmers who can actually afford good care for their cows, assuring a better supply of Honduran-produced milk and beef. They are clearly intelligent people who know how to run a business, because even while the country staggers from one crisis to the next, the cocaine keeps flowing north.
     Not enough narcos understand that they could really improve their image by funding more good works in their communities, but I've heard quite a few stories of generous narcos building a new school, paving a road, coming to the rescue of villagers in financial jams. Yes, they lack a sense of proportion in settling scores and really need to get a grip on the violence in their industry, but characterizing them as hateful villains to be eradicated is gross oversimplification.
    So. That’s my new world view – shades of grey as far as the eye can see. Sometimes I long for the days when I was more certain, and question whether I’ll be certain about anything at all by the time I die if this keeps up.
    But I guess that’s what happens when what you used to “know” collides with what you now know first-hand. It’s complicated. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The scene the day after: Copan Ruinas

     While we were theoretically confined to the house yesterday due to concerns our organization had about unrest after Sunday's election, we just had to venture out later in the afternoon to see what all the hub-bub was coming from the town square.
     Here's a two-minute video I made of what we saw there, which turned out to be a mix of Nacional supporters celebrating what appears to be a presidential win for the party, and young boys using that as an excuse to light off a whole lot of big firecrackers. Hondurans do love their firecrackers.
    The country looks to be a long way from having all the results in even two days after the election. Having seen some TV footage of how they have to do the count, I understand.
    Each ballot has to be held up for observers to see who the vote was for and that the back of the ballot has been stamped. And every political position in the country is up for grabs on election day here - the president, all the mayoral positions, 128 diputados who make up the national congress. It's a lot of counting by any standards, let alone when every ballot has to be carefully verified by hand in the presence of international observers.
     There's no evidence of unrest so far in the country, but I guess we'll see when the count's fully done. Hondurans haven't struck me so far as a people who launch into public protest easily, although a really tight finish between the Nacional and Libre parties could start things sparking in the cities.
    In the meantime, it's a great time for firecracker sales. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Honduras election: Hoping for miracles, bracing for more of the same

The scene in Tegucigalpa after the 2009 coup
Tomorrow is Election Day in Honduras. They have this odd system where every elected position in the entire country is up for grabs on the same day every four years, and I don’t think I’m just imagining that today feels kind of ramped-up and tense, even in quiet little Copan Ruinas.
    Politics are politics all over the world, and the strutting and throwing around of money in the runup to the election has been familiar. Canadian parties might not drive hooting and hollering supporters around in the backs of honking trucks playing the party song at top volume, but the pageantry is similar.
    But unlike Canada, Honduras has a recent history of playing a little rough in its elections. People have advised us to stay home Monday, the day after the election, just in case things get intense. Cuso International has in fact ordered all of us to stay home, and even the Honduran organization I work for is closing its doors for the day. Cuso has talked about flying us back to Canada out of Guatemala City if the post-election scene really gets wild.
    I’m having a hard time imagining my Copaneco neighbours getting wild, but I guess we’ll see. I found myself buying an extra jar of peanut butter at the grocery store today and stocking up on dog food just in case.
    Honduras is a democracy, but my sense of the place is they haven’t really got the hang of that system just yet. In 2009, the government of Mel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup, something fairly untypical for a democratic country. The current president was elected democratically the following year, but the wounds from the coup are still pretty raw.
    Zelaya’s wife is running in this election under the banner of a new party, Libre, which has added an interesting undercurrent. Certainly things are zizzy in quiet Copan at this very moment, with many trucks decorated in party colours making their way around town in a hunt for treats to transport to the villages tomorrow to lure voters. (One of my friends in the Moskitia says her Garifuna community loves election years, because the politicians are always coming around with free meat.)
    I wish I could feel excited about the changes a new government might bring. But I don’t see a lot of hope of that. The polls are calling 50-50 between the Nationals and Libre, and I don’t think either outcome would give Honduras the dynamic, committed government that it so desperately needs. There’s a former sports journalist who I’m rooting for, running on an anti-corruption platform, but the election will almost certainly go either to the conservatives or the slightly-less conservatives, as seems to be the way of the democratic world right now.
    At any rate, this is a country that is still very much governed by wealthy families with long histories here. My sense is that they will get what they want. I just wish they wanted competent government, because you sure don’t see nearly enough of that down here.
    One of the country’s crazier political policies is a prohibition preventing presidents from serving more than one four-year term. It’s intended to prevent the buildup of power that can lead to a dictatorship, but how it manifests is as a disruptive and destabilizing force that condemns the poor country to spin its wheels ever more.
    While most governments of the world are self-serving these days, the lack of voter accountability that results from a single four-year term has created a monster in Honduras. Government takes no responsibility for addressing the country’s staggering problems, none of which are going to go away in a four-year term. I see more hope at the municipal level, but politicians at that level have neither the power nor the money to do much.
    But hey, nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about all of this. Maybe the very nice people of Honduras are finally going to get a government that takes its responsibilities seriously. Maybe you really can work miracles in a mere four years. Maybe even hungry people get to thinking sooner or later that one day of free meat is a lousy trade for 1,459 days of neglectful, uninterested governance.
    Go, Honduras. You deserve so much better.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Call me when you're ready to rise up

  I was having one of those days today that I recognize as the start of my “What is wrong with you people?” stage that I reach sooner or later in every job.
    I’m not exactly sure what the triggers are, but I know that once it starts, I find it harder to be Nice Jody and get increasingly intense in all my workplace and social interactions. Paul calls it my “looming” stage, based on my habit of projecting my intensity onto whoever I might be talking with. Usually it makes them quite nervous.
    I think the mood starts to kick in when I've been long enough in a job that I can see where mistakes are being made while also recognizing my inability to do anything about that. Twenty years ago when I experienced my first intensity surge, it drove me into management in the belief that I could affect change by getting higher up the ladder. I quickly learned that things are even more intense in the higher ranks and you still don’t have the power to change anything, so now I usually just push hard from whatever position I occupy until I run screaming from the building (metaphorically speaking).
    The most memorable manifestation of it was when I was at PEERS Victoria. About two years in, I was so deeply frustrated with the lack of options for participants and the stupid, stupid things that were said about sex workers that I always seemed to be pinning somebody up against the wall while I sounded off about everything that was wrong with everything.
    I’m entering that same phase now in my Honduras work. I used to be content to slip in a well-planned word every now and then about the importance of good workplace practices in creating productive, effective employees who feel valued (a bug-bear of mine on behalf of my Honduran co-workers). But today I found myself going into a near-rant about it at the Monday morning devotional, triggered by a slightly smirky little U.S. video that one of the administrators showed about battling the “virus” of bad attitudes in the workplace.
    I guess a rant is a positive sign that I’m feeling more comfortable in Spanish, but I did see the vaguely alarmed looks on my co-workers’ faces that I recognize as the sign of Going Too Far. I saw the same look on the faces of hapless friends who had the misfortune to ask me how things were going at PEERS during my last few months.
    In the latter case, the source of my frustration was pretty much the whole wide world. In the case of Honduras, it’s the widespread disregard for basic workers’ rights. I’m not a big union advocate in general, but I feel as fired up as a Scottish trade unionist when I contemplate the work practices in Honduras, chief among them the complete lack of job security and the flat-line wages that doom even full-time workers to a life of scrambling. Going unpaid is also a strikingly common problem in the country, as is being ordered to work 7 days a week.
    So off I went about all of it this morning. I think it was pretty pointless. Nobody chimed in, even though they’re all just 3 weeks away from receiving the standard letter every one of them gets every December telling them that their contract is over. (Some will get a new contract. Some won’t.)
    The worst of this stage for me is that once you feel too intensely about something, you lose your ability to talk about it convincingly with people who just aren’t there yet. And on this particular subject, nobody’s there yet.
    Now what? Oh, the mood will come and go over these last 4 months at my job, and I’ll alternate between ranting and keeping to myself in order not to rant. And then I’ll leave, and later have only this blog to remind me of how crazy-making it is to want something more for people than they want for themselves.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Apocalypse now? Rural Hondurans can handle it

New biodigester in Aceituno, Lempira
Should the apocalypse come one day, we'd all be well-advised to ride it out with a Honduran campesino.
    Picture a typical Canadian in the event of an apocalypse – electricity gone, supermarkets empty, no gas for the car, that sort of thing. We'd be hooped.
    Sure, some of us keep backyard gardens, maybe even a few chickens. But it’d be a rare Canadian who could feed themselves even through a short-lived apocalypse. Our country talks a good game about 100-mile diets, but almost a third of our food comes from outside the country and most of us would have a heck of a time accessing the other 70 per cent without transportation and refrigeration.
    Not so a rural Honduran. Their diet may not be the most exciting in the world, but virtually all of it is grown a few steps away from their home. And speaking of that home, they can build one out of dirt. Yesterday I visited a woman in her comfy and clean adobe house who was busy making all-purpose soap out of olive pits she'd boiled up, while taking care of two mentally handicapped adult children and grinding corn for the 35 or so tortillas her family eats every day. They are resourceful and resilient people.
    Yesterday’s lunch was a fine example of self-sustainability. We had eggs, tortillas, a type of fresh cheese they call cuajada, orange juice and fried squash, all of it from the family’s teeny little farm. People in the Honduran countryside are very poor, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that everyone’s diets meet Canada Food Guide standards.  But land ownership is still within reach for most Hondurans and they don’t waste it planting big lawns. When the apocalypse comes, at least they’ll still be eating.
    They can also take cow poo and create methane gas for cooking. This is high science in places like Canada, but in Honduras it’s accomplished with a minimum of fuss and almost no money using heavy black plastic and a lot of bits and pieces of scrounged-up stuff.
    Just today I watched the construction of a biodigestor, as they’re called. As they tied up parts of it with ripped-up bits of inner tube and fashioned seals out of the bottoms of plastic bottles, I imagined all the crazy lengths we’d be going to back home to have the exact right parts, the exact measurements for each step, probably even a gas fitter on hand and a biodigestor inspector waiting in the wings.
    In Honduras, they just dig a coffin-size hole in the ground, do a lot of accordion-style folds with a really giant black-plastic bag worked over and around old buckets with the bottoms cut out, and voila – they’ve got something that’s not only good for the environment because it’s taking cow-poo contamination out of the equation, but producing four hours of methane every day for cooking.

    And when the roads collapse and our cars are useless? Hondurans live with that problem every day. When the apocalypse comes, they’ll just throw a blanket and some firewood on the mule and start walking. 

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Lessons from the frontlines: If at first you don't succeed, reevaluate

With less than five months left in my Cuso posting, I'm reflecting more and more on how I'm doing. I have the rather challenging and nebulous task of building capacity in communications for the Honduran non-profit that I work for, and as the end draws nearer I am thinking a lot about how it's gone.
     In all honesty, I had only the vaguest idea of what I was supposed to be doing when we arrived in Honduras in January 2012. I had a great title - Communications and Knowledge Management Facilitator - and an idea that I would be doing work similar to what I'd been doing in B.C. for non-profit clients. But everyone with Cuso International had stressed to me that the job would really only become clear after I started working in the country and saw what was needed (and possible).
    That certainly turned out to be true, although what I didn't know at the time was that even the organization I would be working with in Honduras would have no real idea of what my job was, or how to put my skill set to work. Or even that I had a skill set.
    Nor did I know that they hadn't put much thought into whether they even wanted to be better at communications. That meant my job for the first few months was just convincing my new employer that being out there in the public eye would be good for the organization, for the funders, and for the people of Honduras, many of whom have no idea about the meaningful work going on here to create change in this troubled country.
    As for my poor Spanish skills in the first few months of my placement - well, let's just say that while I'm grateful to Cuso for giving me a chance despite my poor grasp of the language, it was extremely difficult and even laughable to be trying to do communications work when I could barely speak the language.
    Because I could understand written Spanish better than spoken, I'd hoped to be able to get my hands on written documents in those early months that would help me get a quick grasp on all things Honduran, including the specifics of the work done by my organization. But that turned out to be the first communications challenge in my shiny new communications job: To find anything that had actually been written down in this overwhelmingly oral culture.
     But time passed and I got the hang of things. I worked hard at my Spanish, and eventually drew the interest of my co-workers due to throwing myself cheerfully into their projects in any way I could. Sure, sometimes that involved essentially working as a typist - I suspect my rapid keyboarding is still the thing they admire the most about me - but they gradually came to see that maybe I could be useful.
     At first the work was just get-'er-done kinds of things: Making brochures; taking photos of projects to keep the funders happy; making a PowerPoint for somebody. Not having enough to do was a theme in those early days, and I was glad I at least had a blog and an orphanage volunteer project on the side  to occupy my time.
     I'd anticipated spending much of the initial months helping my organization  - the Comision de Accion Social Menonita - develop a communications plan that would define the who-what-why-when-how kinds of things that have to be talked about. After running headlong into complete indifference, however, I had to scrap that pretty quick.
     But I'm a pushy person. So I just kept pushing. I started making Facebook pages for the six regions, whether they asked for them or not. I started showing up at their doorsteps and asking to take photos of their projects and read their proposals so I could understand their work. Then I moved on to making web sites for each region, counting on being a quick enough study that I could get past the fact that I know nothing at all about how to do that.
     I made myself helpful to head office, burning the midnight oil along with the rest of them as we wrestled with translating some complex proposal into English so they could meet the (unreasonable) demand of a funder. The work had very little to do with building capacity in communications, but I found that if I helped them with what they needed, they were more receptive to my constant suggestions for improved communication.
    At this moment, everyone's mad for the little 10-minute videos I've started making for the regions, another example of something I know almost nothing about. I'm loving it, and wish I'd thought about video work from the beginning, because it's a great way to tell stories in an oral culture. I spent the first year scrabbling to find enough work to do, but I can tell by all the video requests flooding in that I'm going to be run off my feet for the final five months.
     Will I have created capacity at the end of the day? Ah, that's the question.
    The test will be if CASM has the knowledge, interest and tools to carry on with good communications after I'm gone. They will enthusiastically maintain their Facebook pages, update and improve their web sites, take better photos, share the work of their organizations, think a little more about design and readability when they're making their brochures, PowerPoints and how-to guides.
    But I'm still the only one who posts on the regions' Facebook sites. And I'm quite sure that administrators in at least three of the regions have yet to even glance at the web sites I made for them. Yes, CASM does have a national communications plan now, but I see no evidence that anyone is paying any attention to it. (It's kind of like all the nice laws in Honduras - pretty to look at, utterly ignored.)
     In some theoretical world, my workmates are newly motivated to take better photos, because the bosses really do love a decent set of photos of their projects to show the funders. But whether my co-workers know more about taking better photos doesn't matter much given their lack of access to decent cameras, computer programs for minor enhancements and cropping, or even a computer of their own where they can download photos.
     As for videos, even the most amateur undertakings require a better camera than any of them have as well as an editing program, a hard drive big and fast enough to handle those giant video files, and a strong enough internet connection to get the finished work on-line. It also requires an understanding of how to tell a story, a skill I've spent 30 years learning.
    And while I'd like to hound my pals to maintain their Facebook page and web site, I've also experienced for myself the hopeless internet services in some of the regions. I've seen the lone cellphone modem that my six co-workers in the Moskitia have to share. I know that "staying connected" in Honduras still mostly means chatting face to face with people, not posting something on-line.
    Lest this all sound like a lament, in truth I'm feeling all right about things. OK, the job has been nothing like what I'd expected, and I've had to modify my expectations many times over. But if nothing else, the work of CASM is a lot more visible. If nothing else, my relentless nagging about better communications will echo at least occasionally in the heads of my co-workers after I'm gone. If nothing else, they have seen that the stories of their work really are worth telling.
    The regions have their own web sites, and the power to post news of their projects without having to wait six or seven years (really) for head office to get funding together for a web site update. The bosses now know that better photos are possible, which I hope has set the bar higher for photo quality in the future.
     As for me, I'm practically bursting with new capacity. Wherever the future is taking me, I will arrive with new insights, skills, and real-life experiences that up until two short years ago I hadn't even contemplated needing or developing. I have felt the depths of frustration, and learned that I can crawl out of them still smiling  And I can speak Spanish to boot.
     Thank you, Cuso. Thank you, CASM. I hope it ends up being as good for you as it has been for me. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Dia de Los Difuntos: The Movie

Here's a little video of the scene in the Copan Ruinas cemetery yesterday, Dia de Los Difuntos. This is my favourite Honduran celebration, as it's wonderful to see the graves all painted and decorated, and everyone in such a festive mood as they remember their loved ones. Nothing sombre about Day of the Departed.

Friday, November 01, 2013

It's not the crack, it's the character flaws

  I for one will be very glad when this Rob Ford business is over. He has been an embarrassing and poorly considered choice for Toronto mayor on all kinds of fronts, and whether he did or didn't smoke crack on video is really just one small detail in the long Ford story.
    What to do with morally errant politicians? We're all over the map on that one, but for me it mostly comes down to putting the various specifics in context and deciding if the picture of the person who emerges is the kind of person you want running your town, province or country.
    For instance, politicians cheating on their spouses. All kinds of factors have to be considered before a voter can conclude there's cause for alarm.
    If it's a garden-variety cheat, I'm probably going to be OK with it. Sure, I dream of a world where garden-variety cheating is unnecessary because we're all so happy in our relationships, but for now, I don't think it indicates anything about whether a person is fit to govern, other than they're a lot like the rest of us. (They do lose a lot of credibility with me if they lie, though.)
     But now let's consider Elliot Spitzer, the New York governor who got caught out buying high-end services from sex workers. I felt very differently about that form of cheating  - not because it involved sex workers, but because Spitzer in his political life had played the morality card and led crack-downs on sex workers.
    So I would judge a guy like that to be a liar and a hypocrite, not to mention stupidly wasteful given how much he was paying for the sex. That is not a person I would deem fit to lead. The "crime" - cheating on your spouse - is the same, but the different contexts change everything.
     The problem from a voter's perspective ought not to be whether a politician's heart (and brain) goes wandering, but if it wanders in a way that reveals deeper character flaws indicating aspects of the person that go completely against the qualities of a leader.
    And in that context, consider Rob Ford.
    Again, I don't think things like illegal drug use, colourful friends or histories with addiction are absolute indicators as to whether a politician is fit for office. I don't know about you, but I could think of at least a dozen moments in my own life that I would not want caught on video. (Happily, smoking crack is not one of them.)
    I accept that people are complex. I remind myself regularly of my own glass house anytime I feel the urge to become high and mighty. We are the sum of all our parts, and in my experience people who have known darkness and trouble often make the very best leaders.
     In the context of the Ford story, however, the alleged act of smoking crack on video is just a sidebar. That was just the latest story line to be added to the heap of story lines that the Toronto mayor has generated since taking office. Truthfully, given all that has gone before about him, is it that big of a surprise to think that Rob Ford might have smoked crack?
    So in this particular instance, I was already convinced that Ford is not political leadership material. We don't want our communities and countries led by people who repeatedly make disastrous personal decisions and then lie to cover them up. It's not about whether there are skeletons in the closet, it's when they're still piling up like crazy, reinforcing the image of a dysfunctional, disorganized and chaotic person who doesn't learn from failure. Is that the person to lead your town?
    I think a person can have secrets and still be an excellent leader. An act has to be put into context, and measured against the actions the person subsequently took to resolve the problem. I once saw a provincial cabinet minister survive being outed as a former heroin addict, because the moment the news hit she responded with dignity and honesty about that period in her life. The way she handled the situation made me respect her even more as a leader.
     But that's not how the Ford story has played out. He went into the smoking-crack revelations already looking all wrong, and everything that has happened since has underlined my perception of the man as an unfit mayor.
   The thing that gets me the most is that Ford had to know the video was out there, and that one day people would see for themselves the truth about whether he did or didn't. But nope, he just kept denying it. The sheer stupidity of that is indicator enough of a man who isn't leadership material, which is why I lost respect for Bill Clinton after his "I never had sexual relations with that woman" speech. Past secrets don't define a leader, but really poor decision-making before and after certainly does.
    As does honesty, a quality that I think we've really let slide in our governments. What does it say about a country or community when people can't trust that their political leaders are being honest with them? I've got no problem with political leaders having skeletons, I just want to know they have the insight, courage and maturity to grow through their mistakes, not just stumble incoherently through one after another.
     So yes, the way a politician manages personal problems definitely counts for me. As does honesty. And competent at their jobs, because honesty and ethics are important but so is being able to do the work.
    It's rare that someone comes along who scores badly in every category. But those ones just have to go, and should be cause for serious reflection among the citizenry as to what they were thinking by electing such a person. The Rob Ford video might be the final nail, but he's been building that coffin of his for a very long time.