Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

High CEO Salaries

Posted by mikeonpurpose on October 15, 2013

Charity Navigator has released a study of the salaries of charity CEOs for 2013. Of the 3,929 charities they surveyed, 11 paid their top executive over $1,000,000. 78 paid their top executive between $500,000 and $1,000,000. There is nothing quite like being able to enrich yourself off of other people’s altruism.

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Don’t give money to child beggars

Posted by mikeonpurpose on October 1, 2013

This article from Slate Magazine explains why, no matter how much child beggars might break your heart when you see them as you travel through a developing country, you should never give money or gifts to them. There are alternative ways of channeling financial or other kinds of support to the people in local communities, through working with community groups, giving to charities, volunteering, or working for social and economic justice–which this article touches on here and there (it also mentions micro-loans, which I have some problems with, but that’s another matter altogether). But giving money directly to child beggars unfortunately feeds into a system of human trafficking and mistreatment of children, it disrupts families and communities and does not empower the people who you want to help.

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Greed is good, apparently

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 29, 2013

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I recently ran across an organization with the rather curious name of the Charity Defense Council, and whose main function appears, as best as I can tell, to be not so much to defend charities per se as it is to defend the payment of stratospherically high salaries for executives of non-profit agencies.

This organization appears to be the brainchild of a guy named Dan Pallotta, who, it turns out, has a vested interest in this issue.   Pallotta seems to have discovered at some point in his life  that he could enrich himself by getting involved in charity work.  Some people might think that charity work is primarily about serving one’s community, rather than achieving  maximum personal gain, but apparently not everyone sees it that way.  Sadly, given some of the salaries that some charities pay their executives, Pallotta was clearly onto something, because there are definitely people there who are profiting handsomely from their jobs at the helms of non-profits.   Wikipedia reports that he was criticized for making a salary of $394,000 as head of his non-profit organization Pallotta Teamworks (I guess if you are going to take in nearly $400,000 from a charity that you created, you have the privilege of naming the charity after yourself.)  While most wealthy charity executives who profit extensively off other people’s altruism might be crying all the way to the bank in response to this kind of negative publicity, Pallotta apparently took these criticisms personally enough that he has taken a proactive stance to defend his personal enrichment strategy, having done such things as writing a book, giving a TED lecture, and creating the above named organization–which appears to be designed to promote his ideas about what non-profits should do with the hard-earned money that people altruistically donate to them for the purpose of helping those in need but which in some cases ends up in the coffers of those who would use that money to pay for their mansions, swimming pools, expensive cars, and first class plane tickets.  Yes, I know what you are thinking, and yet he and other the proponents of this idea are making this case with a straight face.

A look at the organization’s website shows a board of directors that includes other individuals who have a vested interest in justifying and protecting high salaries as executives of charities.  Besides Pallotta, there is Peter Diamandis, who, according to Charity Navigator, was paid over $360,000 in 2011 as CEO of X PRIZE Foundation, and Milton Little of United Way of Metro Atlanta, who also made a similar salary.

From what I can tell, the ideological edifice that Pallotta has constructed to justify this kind of self-enrichment is that charities (and those who evaluate the efficiency of charities) should not be concerned with such petty details as how efficiently a charity uses the money that people contribute to them for the ostensible benefit of those in need,   Efficiency, in other words–which happens to be a criterion very commonly used by many people to evaluate the quality of charities–is just not important, or so he would have us believe.   What matters instead is to look strictly at whatever the charity happens to accomplish, completely abstracted from any consideration how much money it took to get there, or how much money is being spent on the enrichment of certain people.  Offensive as this may sound to many people’s ears, where things get even odder, at least from my perspective, is the suggestion that non-profits should emulate the corporate world in not nickel-and-diming themselves, which supposedly only serves to limit what they can accomplish, but rather by executing bold visions of how they can spend more money to get more things done.  Now perhaps i am just plain misinterpreting the argument that Pallotta is making here, but from what I can tell, this argument seems bizarre on a few levels.  Never mind the little detail that charities might, at least ostensibly, actually serve a different function in society than corporations do.  The first way that this seems just plain wrong is that charities are based on the idea of community service, and they rely heavily on contributions from people who expect as much of their money as possible to go towards those who need it.  The idea that some of what we give might be helping to finance some fat cat’s Jaguar is not exactly what many of us have in mind.  The Charity Defense Council actually says–and this is truly amazing–that it will defend the “free speech rights” of all charities to refuse to describe how efficiently they use their money, insisting that “we will not be forced to speak about overhead when we want to speak about impact.”   It seems that we who give money to them don’t need to know about such things as how efficiently they use our hard-earned money when we give it to them.  Every rip-off “charity” in the country must love hearing this.  In any case–and maybe it’s just me–but from where I sit it seems that all of this is just a  conveniently self-serving ideological framework for those who benefit from it, both those who draw the high salaries and those who don’t want to undergo much scrutiny.

The other way that this “we should borrow the corporate model and refuse to talk about overhead” model seems bizarre is that corporations do, in many contexts, concern themselves with efficiency all the time. For example, during contract negotiations with labor unions, corporations can and do hold the holy grail of “efficiency” over the head of organized labor as a bargaining chip and as a means of extracting concessions from workers–usually while their executives continue to make very high salaries, and of course these executives impose no austerity upon themselves in the name of efficiency.   In general,  corporations like efficiency, because higher efficiency means higher profits for the shareholders, except for the one glaring contradiction that does exist in corporate policy in this area, which involves the salaries of their top executives.  And so when Pallotta says that charities should emulate the corporate model, this is really he seems to be getting at.

Another way in which this argument seems rather bizarre is that lots of non-profits, charities or otherwise, already do pay their CEOs very large salaries, which is to say that whatever it is that Pallotta is fighting for is really already the dominant paradigm in our society.  From CARE to Susan G. Komen to the above mentioned United Way of Greater Atlanta to various non-charities like public universities, high salaries for executives are already quite common, which is exactly what Pallota is advocating for.   In fact, public  as well as private universities are quite notorious in this regard.  Just in the past week or so, reports circulated on  the death of a woman who was part of the non-tenured part-time faculty at Duquesne University and who lived on a salary of $25,000 a year, while the President of that university was making over $700,000 a year.  The problem of high executive pay is, alas, endemic in American society, and charities and other non-profits are not immune from this. So it is a little hard to see what Pallota is going on about, given that what he advocates for is so mainstream.  Maybe he just objects to the fact that there are rumblings of discontent directed at this practice, some of which got directed at him, but that is a far cry from there being any sea change in the works that would challenge the prevailing corporate-based paradigm for high executive pay in the non-profit world.  Of course, there are also many non-profits, especially smaller ones that do not pay their executives excessively high salaries, and I am also sure that some or many charities don’t pay their executives high salaries as a matter of principle.  This practice does vary from organization to organization.  One supposes that Pallotta would like more such organizations emulate the prevailing model of CARE or Susan G. Komen or United Way of Greater Atlanta, although how small organizations that receive little in the way of contributions could afford to pay high salaries to its executives is anyone’s guess.

It appears that Pallotta borrows heavily from the corporate playbook on this whole issue.  The corporate justification for these high salaries is that this is the only way to attract anyone competent enough to do the complex and difficult work of running a big company.  Thus, according to this playbook, if they just paid high salaries to charity CEOs, they would attract those who would accomplish better results.  This has always been a self-serving argument in the corporate world, and it is just as self-serving in the non-profit world.  Never mind all those examples of gross incompetence or companies being run into the ground because of poor business decisions by some of these very executives who are paid so much because of their ostensible skills that are so rare and in high demand (can you say “Blackberry”, anyone?  Or how about, “If it weren’t for the high salaries that BP paid, it could never have attracted someone as skilled as Tony Heywood to run the company.  Oops.  Never mind.”)   However, logic doesn’t play a role in any of this.  The argument for paying executives such high salaries is part and parcel of a rigged system that benefits those at the top of the corporate ladder, nothing more and nothing less.  This is a system that has produced the highest economic inequality in the United States since the 1920s, a system that has resulted in years of economic stagnation for most Americans while the 1% continues to ensure that more or less all the productivity gains achieved in the last generation go exclusively to themselves.  Using assistance for those in need as a means of hitching a ride with the 1% in this inherently unjust system represents just one of many ways of gaming this system.

But since we aren’t talking about for-profit corporations here, but charities, and since charities are ostensibly about community service rather than simply selling a good or service to earn money for shareholders, there is also another angle to this whole issue.  When one argues that charities have to pay big salaries to executives in order to attract people who are competent enough to run them, they area also saying, “Hey, if they didn’t pay people like me such big salaries, we would take our ball home with us.  We would take our rare and superior skills into the for-profit business world where we would be paid what we deserve.”  For anyone running a non-profit, they are, in other words, telling us that as far as they are concerned, working at a charity is just another job among many possibilities, just another means for them of enriching themselves, and that such a job at a charity or other non-profit is fungible with any other job that they might take in the for-profit business world.  Working at a charity isn’t for them, in other words, about commitment to the values and mission of helping others that the charity represents, it is about making as much money as they can for themselves through whatever means to make it work, and if they can do it in the charity world, that’s great, but if they can’t, they’ll go elsewhere to find a means of financing their mansions, swimming pools, expensive cars, and first class plane tickets.

Because, you know, this is America, and in America, greed is good.

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Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Posted by mikeonpurpose on April 25, 2012

It should be quite obvious that I am a proponent of international volunteering in developing countries–I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise.  But the question that always informs my decision to volunteer is what I think I am accomplishing, and how volunteering fits into the bigger questions surrounding the poverty that exists in developing countries.  I have observed, from paging through the websites of some organizations that send volunteers abroad or that do international relief projects–and I will not name names here–that some seem to suffer from an unfortunate hubris.  You will sometimes see these organizations bragging about how they offer a “proven solution” to the problems of poverty in developing nations.  This is, I am afraid to say, nonsense.

It is indeed wonderful when non-profits form partnerships with local communities abroad that can lead to greater opportunities for those who live in difficult circumstances.  I am all for that.  But let’s not overstate what an NGO or volunteer organization can accomplish, and let’s not pretend that we are “solving” anything at a deeper level with these kinds of activities.  Giving people more tools to cope with an unjust economic system may help individuals and communities negotiate their ways through that system, but it will not end the injustice.  Certainly, people in dire circumstances need to be in charge of their own destinies, and the assistance that we give should not be about Westerners taking charge of their lives, but rather about a partnership between peoples of different cultures–that’s a given.

But when you travel to a developing country, what should be obvious is that the problems of poverty are deeply systemic.  In countries, such as those in Latin America that I have visited, that are controlled by powerful economic oligarchies that control most of the wealth and land, where these oligarchies employ violence, war, and genocide as the means in which to defend their privilege against those who want simply a fairer piece of the pie, then to say that the problems of inequality can be solved by giving poor people the tools to better function in a society like that–well, that’s just more than a little naive.   (I also think here is something just a little condescending about the attitude that some organization can sweep into a developing country and find a way to rescue its poorest people from their dire circumstances through some “proven technique”.  Local communities in these countries are fighting their own struggles.  What they need and ask for us in the West is partnership, and the solutions to economic injustice will ultimately come out of their own efforts.)

I think that international aid to a developing country is akin to giving an aspirin to a person who has an infection.  It treats the symptom, but it does not cure the disease.  Knowing this doesn’t mean that we stop giving out the aspirin.  But it does mean that we have to recognize the deeper issues that are at stake.

To underscore these points, I would like to recommend a wonderful video of a talk given at Swarthmore College by a woman who is originally from Rwanda and who speaks to these issues directly.  I think that anyone who is interested in international volunteering or other issues relating to international development in poorer parts of the world should see this video.  Among the insightful comments that the speaker, Stephanie Nyombayire, has to say, are these:

I am not saying, “Don’t donate a meal to someone who is starving.” What I am saying is, how can we design campaigns the change the system, or at least undermine the system, rather than sustain it?  These pictures that we see and the lives that people are leading are not the result of, did not come from a vacuum. They are the result of a man-made system, a system made by men and women like you and me, and maintained by men and women like you and me…

Yes, do give where you can, but most importantly, question the relationships that have led to a unidirectional flow of resources…

Instead of fighting the war on poverty, why aren’t we fighting the war on pathological power?

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Guatemala and Reverse Cultural Shock

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 23, 2011

As usual, I am trying to get my bearings after having returned from a volunteer trip in Latin America.   It is the phenomenon of reverse cultural shock.  Apparently you never get over it, no matter how many times you take trips like these.

I have found that by the time these trips are nearly over, I am ready to return home to the comforts of home.  There is a certain level of stress that accompanies going on volunteer and cultural exchange trips, at least for me.  There is the stress of adjusting to a lifestyle that is so different from what I am used to.  There is the stress of worrying about where my passport is.  There is the stress of worrying about the safety of the food I eat and the water I drink.  There is the stress of finding toilets that have seats on them.  On top of all that, there is the stress of air travel itself, from the cramped airplane seats to the rude TSA agents barking orders at you.

You might wonder, with all that stress, what are the rewards in going on trips like these.   But in fact the rewards are many, and so profound that they make it worth all the stress that I endure.

On the trip to Guatemala, I probably did the least amount of what might be called “volunteer work” of any volunteer trip I have done.  And I was okay with that.  Global Citizens Network describes its trips in terms of cultural exchange, with a view towards partnering with a local community.  The volunteer project serves the goal of cultural exchange, rather than being the goal in and of itself.  On this trip, I spent a lot of time with many Mayans in a village in the Western Highlands, and supported in some small way the work of the Mayan Center for Peace.  I got to know several people who came to feel like family.

The GCN delegation heads back from the market with some members of the host community

One of the most remarkable people I met during the trip was Marta, whose family had been persecuted by the military during the civil war, who had fled much of her life from government repression.  She now has settled down into a home, and has committed her self to helping Mayan women in her community.  She heads up a women’s cooperative that is involved with teaching women the craft of traditional Mayan weaving, as well as teaching illiterate women to read and write. The people of this community are taking matters into their own hands to try to build a better life.  I was deeply touched when our delegation met women from that cooperative.  They pleaded with our delegation to help them.   I nearly cried.

Guatemala is a country that has suffered a terrible history, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the United States government.  The 1954 coup, engineered by the CIA, overthrew a democratically elected government and set the stage for decades of military lawlessness, the legacy of which remains even to this day.  The brutal civil war of the 1980s brought untold atrocities by the right wing backed military that had the support of the Reagan administration, and much of the violence and atrocities were directed against indigenous people.  And, unfortunately, one of the war criminals from that time, a retired general named Oscar Perez Molina (who has also been linked to narcotics trafficking), is the favorite to win the Presidential election this year.  Guatemala is ostensibly a democracy, and its electoral process seems vibrant, with many political parties and with billboards and signs and trucks with bullhorns everywhere.  However, in a country where an oligarchy of several families controls the vast majority of the land and wealth, money plays a significant role the electoral process.  The Broad Front of the Left, for example, lacks the financial resources to compete against these well-financed forces.  That being said, the people do take their politics seriously.  The day our delegation arrived at the Mayan Center for Peace, we watched a forum in which eight candidates for the mayor of Cantel answered questions and presented their views on women’s health issues.  The room was filled with people who were very interested in the political process.

There is no easy solution to the problems that Guatemala faces, and our job as a cultural exchange delegation was certainly not to fix them or to take sides in the elections.  Our relationship was not based on dependence, but instead was one of partnership.  The Mayan Center for Peace is part of an effort for the people of the Cantel community to self-organize and take steps towards promoting Mayan culture and helping people improve their lives.  The  executive director of the center, Arcadio, is a man with incredible energy, charm, and vision.  We supplied video equipment and external hard drives to the center that the Center could embark on a project of  recording traditional Mayan weaving practices, and we also supplied yarn so that looms in the Center could be used towards expanding the weaving  as an economic project.

A Mayan woman demonstrates the weaving process

There was a bit of irony in this.  One day, we went on a trip to the nearby city of Xela (Quetzaltenango) to make some purchases for the Center.  We needed to buy a lock box so that the hard drives and video equipment could be safely stored.   Where did we go to make this purchase?  The answer, I am afraid, is that we went to Wal*Mart, a symbol as great as any of the extensive reach of multi-national corporations, and an inescapable part of life in the developing world.

Throughout this experience, what really moved me was the hospitality of the people we met.  Manuel was kind enough to perform a special Mayan ceremony just for our delegation.  Most of the ceremony was in the K’iche’ language, which of course we did not understand, but like many religious ceremonies that are about sights and smells and sensations, it wasn’t really necessary to know what he was saying.

Manuel performs a special Mayan ceremony just for the GCN delegation

We experienced hospitality and generosity many times during this trip.  It was very common for people we visited to offer us bread with tea or coffee, or to offer us some gift.  I found the hospitality of the people very touching, and it was one of the things that inspired me to feel such affection for the people of that community.

A Mayan family in their home

After spending time with a people you care about who are struggling to make their lives better in the face of such difficult odds, the return home forces you to deal with a lot of difficult feelings.  You want to make a difference, and your everyday life may be comfortable in certain ways, but there is also the tremendous discomfort and wistful sadness that the world is so screwed up.  You wonder if you are doing all you can.

I have a high tech job that may be interesting and economically useful, but it is also provides no profound emotional satisfaction.  And yet it is my high-tech job that affords me the resources and vacation time to take trips like these.  Ultimately, eventually, I will settle back into the routine life that I had before I took this trip, and the reverse cultural shock I am experiencing will fade away, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to lose what I am feeling now.  I want to be spurred on to make more of a difference.  The only question is what can I do that I am not already doing?

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The value of voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on February 26, 2011

Blogger Scott Gilmore criticizes the voluntourism industry with a litany of complaints that are commonly leveled at overseas volunteerism, for example arguing that people who go on these sorts of trips are unskilled workers who cannot do the work of local professionals and that they also take jobs away from the locals, and also that voluntourism operators are just expensive middlemen.

There were several excellent comments in response to what he wrote that probably address the issue better than I can.  I responded to these criticisms not directly in his blog, but rather in comments in another blog, but I think what I had to say is worth repeating here as well, because while I think that Gilmore’s criticisms could have validity depending on the type of voluntourism that is on offer, I also think he to a great extent misses the point of what legitimate voluntourism is or should be about.  More specifically, my experiences with Global Citizens Network and El Porvenir really do not jibe with his criticisms.  I think it is unfortunate that a lot of misconceptions about voluntourism get bandied about, based on generalizations and misunderstandings.

Here is what I wrote:

The reputable non-profit voluntourism organizations have a philosophy that understands the issues involved with professional work versus unskilled volunteer labor. When I went down to Nicaragua with an organization that does water sanitation projects, the project was really managed by professional labor. Our role as volunteers was subsidiary and carefully supervised, and more importantly, our role was as much or more about community partnership. When voluntourism operators are focused on cultural exchange, bridging international differences, and partnership, a lot of those objections that you cited go away.

It’s great if people want to go off on their own to a foreign land and volunteer directly at a site, but that kind of volunteer work is different than that offered by reputable voluntourism organizations. It’s a different kind of focus that is not just about the labor–the labor is really part of a complete package that focuses on community issues.

And for many people, traveling overseas to another country, where one speaks the language poorly if at all, where crime rates are high and the infrastructure is poor, there is value added in being part of a group of people who travel there together, where personal safety is paramount, where translation services are available, and where community exchange and learning activities can be incorporated into the overall schedule of activities.

I think both kinds of volunteering–the group and community focused, and the individual traveling on their own to donate their labor–have their place.

I also like what a commenter named Sinead had to say in response to this issue.  I will repeat part of it here:

With these projects and interactions, friendships are built, skills and knowledge shared and most importantly, solidarity, a sign that they’ve not been forgotten. The volunteers work and live in the community, spend there money at local venders, walk the streets and talk with the community. I spent 13 months in Haiti over 2 projects and the chances are the “blanc” walking the streets, hanging out at local venders are volunteers working for small grassroots organisations, and although the budgets might be small the impact they have on the community is large. The org I worked with is based in Leogane, the epicentre of the Haiti earthquake, and well known and respected amongst the local community although maybe not so much amongst the larger NGO’s (I am guessing thats because there may be some with similar views to Scott). Because of the relationship which the volunteers built up with the community, they were the only org invited by the mayor to attend the 1st year memorial, which was a huge honour.

Volunteering is much more than the end product, a school , a shelter, a cleared foundation. They boost the local economy by supporting small businesses, they build relationships, support local communities, fund raise and advocate and share their stories so that those effected by disaster and poverty are not forgotten.  (emphasis added)

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Rick Steves celebrates Christmas in Nicaragua

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 31, 2010

Rick Steves has posted to his blog a description of his celebration of Christmas mass in Managua, Nicaragua.  Of course, I found this interesting because I have recently traveled to Nicaragua, but I also appreciated the sentiment that infused his posting.  Steves is most famous for his books and TV shows about travel to Europe, but it seems to me that he has lately been taking up the cause of travel as expression of social justice, which inevitably takes him to places much more impoverished than Europe.

I especially appreciated his discussion of meeting with Fernando Cardenal, who incorporated social justice teachings into his vision of Christianity.  As Rick Steves put it, “Christians are to be more than charitable. They are to ask why there is poverty and to organize to work for economic justice and dignity in the face of hunger and suffering.”

Whether one is a Christian or not, I think this is a good thing to remember.  Volunteering abroad is not a solution to the problem of poverty.  It is necessary that we do what we can to help others, of course,and that is what inspires us to volunteer; but I think it is important to never stop “asking why”, and working to change the root causes of poverty and injustice.  As the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Camara famously once said, “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

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The dangers of microcredit

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 31, 2010

I found an interesting article with the provocative title “Suicides in India Revealing How Men Made a Mess of Microcredit”.  It turns out that many impoverished recipients of microcredit loans in India have become so saddled with debt that they have been driven to kill themselves:

As India struggles to provide decent education, health care and jobs to millions still locked in poverty, microlending — the loaning of small sums to the world’s neediest people to help them earn a living — has taken a perverse turn.

Microcredit has become “Walmartized” by unrestrained selling of cheap products to the poor, says Malcolm Harper, chairman of ratings company Micro-Credit Ratings International Ltd. in Gurgaon, India.

“Selling debt is like selling drugs,” says Harper, 75, the author of more than 20 books on microfinance and other topics. “Selling debt to illiterate women in Andhra Pradesh, you’ve got to be a lot more responsible.”

When a charitable project becomes sullied by naked  profiteering, the results are, unfortunately, foreseeable, especially when such profiteering is directed at a society’s most vulnerable segment.

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The return to normal

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 14, 2010

When I returned about a month ago from spending some time in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I was emotionally drained.  I had only spent a little over a week in Nicaragua, but that experience was deeply affecting.  I felt a measure of sadness about the poverty I witnessed, along with a deep affection for the people I spent time with.  I spent the first few days after my return looking up Nicaraguan charities that I could give money to.  I just wanted to help more, to make more of  a difference.

After a while, of course, as the everyday, mundane details of life here in the US begin to occupy my mind, I slowly but inevitably returned to something akin to my  pre-trip  emotional stasis.  I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

The thing about short-term voluntourism trips is that one’s contribution tends to be rather limited.  We worked on a project that was mostly managed by professional masons.  We did help in ways whatever that we could–hauling bricks, helping with the laying of bricks–but a lot of the serious  work was done by professionals who were hired for the project.

In some ways, our assistance was more about emotional support and making connections.  Some of my most memorable moments include the conversations I had with the people of the village.  For example, there were the brother and sister, ages seven and nine, who seemed tickled to death to converse with strange foreigners from a land far away.   They knew their own ages but not their birthdays–a jarring bit of cultural shock as I came to learn that in poor communities there,  people often didn’t know the day they were born.

There was Fabio, the mason who three of us volunteers worked with over a few days, who would address Phil, a fellow voluntourist, as “Fili”.  There was Ofilio, an older man with a leathery tan who wore shoes with holes in them, but managed to dress up a little more for the final fiesta before we parted.  Ofilio asked me at that fiesta if my camera was expensive.  It pained me and embarrassed me to realize that I was holding in my hand a device that would cost most of those people several months’ salary.

I was as affected by the poverty these people lived in, with unsanitary water and in many cases without even an outhouse, as I was moved by the gentle and kind spirit they exhibited.

Spending time, even a short period of time, in a developing country in the tropics is a trying experience that affects you in significant ways.  The time has passed now since I came back, and I am settling into my routine as a more privileged citizen of a developed country.   Of course, even in the US, privileges and wealth are not equitably distributed, and in many ways the inequality here is getting worse.  Poverty is a problem that plagues all present and past human societies, and it is one that should not exist if we had the will power to address it.

I said earlier that I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I settled back into my routine.  On the one hand, I think it is pretty hard to go on perpetually in the sort of emotionally affected state that I was in when I came back.  Life does go on, after all.  On the other hand, maybe we who are more privileged should be a little more plagued by the suffering of others, maybe we need not to compartmentalize things so much, and maybe we need to be prodded and inspired to do more than we do.

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Poverty in Nicaragua

Posted by mikeonpurpose on November 29, 2010

During my recent trip to Nicaragua, I had a chance to witness some of the poverty that is so prevalent in that country.   I spent time in a village where people lived in homes with dirt floors and no doors, where they drank polluted river water, and if they were lucky, they had an outhouse–if they weren’t so lucky, they just dug a hole in the ground somewhere when they wanted to go the bathroom.   The people were so warm and generous of spirit, and the poverty I saw was heartbreaking.

I was there with a group of people for a voluntourism project, and early in the trip the group was treated to a Nicaraguan history lesson from a university professor.  I enjoyed a great deal what she had to say, but she did make one comment that I had a problem with.  Referring to the Sandinistas of the 1980s as poets rather than economists, she blamed them for incompetence in economic management and asserted that it was their fault that the Nicaraguan economy was in such bad shape during that time.  Even as she said that, I was thinking to myself that it seemed unfair to blame the Sandinistas for economic problems suffered at a time when the United States was launching a full scale terrorist assault against the nation, not to mention illegally mining Nicaragua’s harbors.  (The United States was found guilty of violating international law by the International Court of Justice.)  It is hard to see how anyone can expect a small country, especially one that was attempting to recovery from an earlier civil war, to do well economically under such horrific conditions.

Shortly after returning to the USA, I picked up the current issue of the NACLA journal, which coincidentally contains an article about the ideology of neoliberalism in Latin America.  The article mentions the Sandinistas:

In the 1980s, throughout their decade-long support for Washington’s illegal Contra war against Nicaragua, U.S. media outlets…implied that “economic mismanagement” was most to blame for the Nicaraguan economic crisis.  The title of a typical 1985 column in the Washington Post proclaimed that “the Sandinistas are allowing the economy to collapse.”  Three years later, after the Sandinista government had been forced to adopt a series of neoliberal reforms, The New York Times‘ Flora Lewis wrote that “the civil war has hurt Nicaragua’s economy, but not nearly so much as the Sandinistas’ own mismanagement and terrible policy.

The reality, again, was quite different, and very seldom given much serious attention.  Although the Sandinista government was guilty of a fair amount of incompetence, dogmatism, and even corruption at times, the primary cause of Nicaragua’s economic crisis was the brutal U.S.-funded war that killed 30,000 people, devastated much of the rural infrastructure, and forced the Sandinista government to prioritize military spending over health care and education.  In 1980 the Sandinistas spent about half of the national budget on health care and education and 18% on defense; seven years later, the figures had reversed.

The sad truth is that, not only did the Sandinistas end up adopting neoliberal policies at the end of the revolutionary period, but now that the Sandinistas are back in power in these post-revolutionary times, neoliberalism continues to be the foundation of their policies.  The old ideals are gone.  Reagan’s illegal actions against the revolution ultimately succeeded.  No matter who is in power now in Nicaragua.  A revolution that inspired so many around the world has ended up adopting economic policies that embrace the neoliberal, free market ideology that Reagan sought to impose.  And the massive poverty that we find in Nicaragua continues.  As the Who once sang, “Meet the new boss–same as the old boss.”

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