Monday, January 05, 2015

The cost of development

Wealthy nations depend on poor countries to produce
cheap goods, in factories that enjoy tax-free status
in the countries where they operate.
     What actually works to "develop" a country? I think about that a lot in this work in Central America, but the answers remain elusive.
     Let's start with the most obvious issue: Who defines "development"? Do the people who live in poor countries understand what we mean by it, and that the price to be paid for it is essentially a total overhaul of their culture?
     At its essence, development is about an improved economy, both for the country and individual families. More buying power. Better health so you can stay active in the workforce longer. Improved conditions for women and other vulnerable populations. A bigger and better GDP.
     But sometimes I wonder if the drive to make that happen in poor countries is more about those of us from rich nations presuming that every culture not only wants the same things we want, but is prepared and able to change all the things about their own culture that get in the way.
     One of the issues faced by the organization I'm working with here in Nicaragua is a lack of commitment among its 2,000 members - who are women farmers - to grow crops large enough to both feed their families and sell at the markets. For true economic development, these farmers need to end up with money in their pockets that they can now spend on consumer goods, invest, or use to create new jobs.
     Nicaragua believes in farming cooperatives as a way out of poverty, especially for women. And all things being equal, I'm sure they would be. Women's economic power is critical to development. We may talk a good game about valuing the unpaid aspects of life as a woman - reproduction, child-rearing, housekeeping and so on - but the simplest way to improve a country's economy is to get both men and women into the paid workforce.
    But while it's all well and good to strive to empower a woman to see herself as the farmer and not just the wife or daughter of one, the fact is that Nicaragua is still very much a country where women carry a vastly disproportionate burden of household and family duties. That's not only a standard cultural practice, it's a necessity - if not for women, then for someone else in the family.
     There are no day care centres. No money for a paid housekeeper to make those 50 tortillas for your family every day. No government support for children with disabilities or aging parents unable to look after themselves. No old-age homes to tuck the ancianos into while you head off to sell your produce in the market, and a cultural reluctance to do that to a family member anyway.
     As was the case in Canada and the United States back in the 1940s and 50s, those very real barriers have to be dealt with before women can move easily into the paid economy. The women farmers who I meet through my work are already getting up long before dawn to get their housework done and their kids organized just so they can devote time to their farms. They don't have any more time in the day - let alone transport - to take their goods to market.
    To make development work for them, then, you need as much work going on at the level of government as you do on the ground. The many international organizations that work on development are clearly a critical part of the success of a country like Nicaragua, but there are no projects that will ever be enough on their own to break down systemic barriers to economic improvement.
     For that, you need a system of taxation. A responsible and accountable government. A long-term national plan. A government commitment to better education, because no economy moves forward on a mediocre Grade 6 education and significant functional illiteracy. Jobs that pay, unlike the $160 a month that Nicaraguans are earning to work six days a week in some internationally owned maquila. 
     (And for that matter, factories that pay taxes in the countries where they operate, rather than the maquila system that gives them a free ride in tax-free zones so they can make goods even cheaper for buyers in wealthy nations like mine.)
     Even then, a country also has to recognize what will be lost by taking a more aggressive step into western-style capitalism. One day over lunch hour, I listened as two of my co-workers talked about how hard it was to care for their aging mothers and get to work on time. But they were horrified to think that in other cultures like mine, old people were shuffled off into care homes because nobody in their own families had the time to care for them.
     To embrace the level of capitalism that has made Canada and the U.S. economic powerhouses, my co-workers would have to give up their two-hour lunch breaks during which they go home and prepare food for their families. In all likelihood they would also have to give up a flexible workplace that at the moment understands that sometimes, people are going to have to arrive at work late, leave early, or miss a day entirely to look after their old moms or their sick kids.
     Before Nicaraguan women can enter the paid workforce and become a society more like ours, their aging parents will simply have to be placed into someone else's care. Their children will have to go to day care, which means the wage level will have to be high enough to cover those costs and the family will have to be prepared to give up the cultural principle that a family takes care of its own. Their traditional foods will either have to be bought from third parties or let go of, because a person simply can't make several dozen tortillas a day from scratch for her family's consumption and also participate in the paid workforce.
      There's a price to pay for enhanced economic performance.
     I have no doubt that poor Nicaraguans would love all the trappings of a middle-class life, at least until they find out how completely disruptive that life is to family connections and household routines. But the longer I watch the world trying to bring on development with strings of one-off projects while disengaged governments sit idly by - the more I come to understand the "laid back" work styles in these countries as being about the necessity of taking care of everything back home that no one else is taking care of - the less certain I become that we can get there from here.
***
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 
     

1 comment:

Gail Snider said...

Hey Jody Great blog about what those of us who have "progressed" are now dealing with when it comes to the balancing act. An entirely new set of industries springs up to provide support for the loss of caring by the family (childcare/seniors care) and still those industries are dominated by women who are paid pathetically low wages for their work.Bottom line,caregiving is undervalued no matter where you live as it is predominantly women's work. I see if everyday as I know you do.