Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nicaragua: Developed but unequal



  It’s a typical Saturday afternoon at the flashy Metro Centro mall in Managua, Nicaragua, and the joint is jumping. As I watch a young barista crank out $4 iced cappuccinos at the Casa de Café kiosk, I find myself reflecting yet again on the mysterious phrase “developing country.”
  To those who don’t know this part of the world, the phrase suggests poverty and deprivation - chicken buses spilling over with skinny peasants making slow progress along dirt roads; neighbourhoods of rickety houses built from bamboo and banana leaves; poor people with seven or eight children scratching out meagre livings in tiny villages.
  Paul and I are just beginning our third posting as Cuso International volunteers in Central America. I suspect more than a few of our acquaintances back home imagine us living in just such a country. They assume that working with non-profit organizations in countries like Nicaragua and Honduras means giving up the good life.
  Yet the reality of life in a modern-day Central American city looks a lot like life in Canada in many ways. And the more time I spend in the south, the more my confusion grows over what we mean when we talk about development.
  All the stuff of “developed” countries like Canada exists here in Nicaragua, from beautifully maintained highways to fancy malls, big universities, well-equipped hospitals, 60-inch televisions, pricey iced-coffee makers, and luxury cars. The view from where I’m sitting as I write this is of attractive pink-plaster houses with immaculate gardens as far as the eye can see.
  But were I to walk a few blocks to the eight-lane highway that cuts through this part of town, I’d see a different view.
   I’d see wooden shacks with thin curls of smoke coming out from wood cooking fires inside. I’d see skinny dogs sleeping on dirt floors and families in worn hand-me-down clothes shipped in bales from the U.S., sitting in cheap plastic chairs in scrubby dirt yards. Employment is scarce and notoriously low-paid for families in those kinds of neighbourhoods.
  So the real problem is not a lack of modern conveniences, it’s that so many people who live here can’t access them. The problem is not a lack of development, but of inequality – both in terms of income and in having the political clout to be able to change that reality. The World Bank rates Nicaragua as the second-poorest nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, but that poverty definitely isn’t shared equally among the country’s six million citizens.
  The bad roads, rickety houses, and impoverished families that come to mind for those who haven’t been to Central America do still prevail in many rural areas. Rural development efforts tend to concentrate along three lines: Helping people improve food security through better agricultural practices and diversity; encouraging people to engage more effectively with their governments; and helping communities organize themselves better to prevent or respond to emergencies such as floods, mud slides, drought and other natural disasters. (I haven’t seen much development work focused on the needs of the urban poor.)
  It’s important work, of course.
  Better and more diverse agricultural yields can mean the difference between life and death for subsistence farmers, as can better logging practices that stop the deforestation that turn a regular rain storm into a devastating flood or slide. Democracy is still a fragile concept in Central America, and building a more informed and engaged citizenry is an integral part of sustaining that. Development work that improves the lives of women and girls is fundamental to improving a country’s economic performance.
  But can those efforts change the structural inequalities, cultural habits, and harmful government policies that feed the growing gap between rich and poor around the world? I don’t know. Like so any other global problems, it’s complicated, and there are many competing interests at stake – most notably, the interests of consumers in wealthy countries like my own.
  For instance, Central American farmers wouldn’t be nearly so poor if they got paid more for their crops. (The price people pay for the coffee beans in their iced cappuccino is about 100 times more than what the farmer got for growing them.)
  Workers in the giant maquilas that make clothing, auto parts, and electronics for the world would benefit immensely from higher wages. The countries that host those maquilas would have more money for infrastructure, education, health care, and social programs if the multinationals that owned the factories paid taxes, like they would have to do if the factories were located in wealthier countries.
  But in the global market, consumers demand low prices. Were the government of Nicaragua to take a stand on behalf of factory workers and farmers, corporations doing business here would instantly start scoping out even poorer countries where they could set up shop. The resulting loss of jobs and markets would be disastrous for the country.
  And consumers around the world would barely blink, because it’s our buying habits (which in turn are fuelled by our own falling purchasing power as the income gap grows in our own countries) that have led to this situation.
  What to do? Pay attention. Reject easy labels that hide what the real problems are. Come see for yourself. No country’s problems are ever as simple as they appear from a distance, nor are any of us as different from each other as we might believe.

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International! Here's our fundraising site. 

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