Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Archive for July, 2010

Fear and curiosity

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 23, 2010

Going to Guatemala has inspired me to do a lot of research into the country, its history, and its culture, and one thing that I find myself coming back to again and again is the problem of crime.  Guatemala City in particular has a terrible reputation as one of the most dangerous, if not the most crime-ridden, major cities in the world.  And yet, while guidebooks do mention this problem, they also give plenty of information about places to visit and things to do there, essentially presenting the city as a worthwhile tourist destination.  If you search the internet you find that a lot of people discuss the crime problem there, and you get a mixture of responses.  A frequent response is that if you use common sense, watch your surroundings, avoid the public buses, take taxis at night, and avoid dark alleys, you will be fine.  Some say they have gone to Zone 1 in the city without problem, and others say to avoid it like the plague.

I don’t expect that my travels to Guatemala City will actually take me into the city.  The plan is probably that I will just take a shuttle from the airport to Antigua.  But I still find myself strangely attracted to the idea of seeing Guatemala City for myself.  It is almost as if there is an exotic appeal about a place that is off the tourist radar.  I find myself looking in Youtube for videos of Guatemala.  For example, one video is taken by an American man as he walks through a market in Zone 1 of the city.  There isn’t much taking place in the video–just images of people doing things in the market, and it seems quite innocuous (although at the beginning the man points out that he is being discrete about filming), and it brings home the point that Guatemala City is a place where millions of people go about their everyday lives:

I you type things like Guatemala Crime into Youtube’s search engine, you will find a great number of videos that come back–news reports and documentaries that tell a tale of a society in which thousands are murdered each year, with only a tiny percentage of those murders ever resulting in a conviction in Guatemalan courts.

The worst of this is clearly found in Guatemala City itself.  Antigua, I am told, is light years apart from the violence found in the capital, although I also am aware that Antigua is hardly crime-free either.  Since I don’t expect to be spending time in Guatemala City, this is all a moot point anyway.  Still, there is a part of me that is strangely intrigued by Guatemala City.  It is a place that inspires in me both a sense of fear and a strange sort of curiosity.

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The Human Connection

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 14, 2010

While volunteering for One Brick recently, I had a conversation with another volunteer about other volunteer activities each of us had done.  I mentioned that I had found it particularly satisfying to participate in food distribution events because, in the act of handing food directly to the recipient, I was experiencing a direct human connection with the people who were benefiting from the work I was doing.  The other volunteer said that she had once done something similar but had found in that case that the people she was interacting with were not particularly grateful and she found that frustrating.

That had not really been my own experience.  While it was true that some of the people who I handed food to were selective about which kinds of food they wanted, I didn’t consider that to be due to a lack of gratitude.  Being a picky eater myself, I can actually relate.  Many of the recipients of the food distribution at that event were immigrants who perhaps did not speak a lot of English, many were elderly, and I could only imagine what drove them to take the step of waiting in line to receive whatever amounts of food could be given to them.  My heart went out to them.  I think that any kind of volunteer work can be satisfying, but having that direct contact with the people I was helping had a special quality.

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Benjamin Linder

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 10, 2010

I ran across this blog entry from the other day that  talks about Benjamin Linder, an American who was murdered by the Contras in Nicaragua in 1987 while “working on a small hydroelectric dam to bring electricity to the northern Nicaraguan town of El Cuá, where he also participated in vaccination campaigns and used his skills as a juggler and unicyclist to entertain kids.”

According to one of the comments in that blog, his legacy lives on to this day.  His family created a memorial fund which later became an organization called Green Empowerment:

Green Empowerment provides technical, organizational, and financial support to local partner organizations in developing countries to construct community-based renewable energy systems associated with residential electricity, economic development, potable water, and watershed protection. They now work in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand and The Philippines.

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Voluntourism and Guidebooks

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 10, 2010

Since the itineraries, lodging, and meals of many types of short term voluntourism trips are pre-defined, the usefulness of guidebooks is an interesting question.  If you decide to extend your stay before or after the voluntourism period, of course, then guidebooks can fulfill the need for information about hotels, restaurants, and travel options.  But what if that isn’t going to be the case?  Suppose you are met at the airport, taken to pre-arranged lodging, and have no real decisions to make about travel plans within the country?  What is the point of shelling out money for information that you aren’t going to be using?

I have, in fact, been going on a guidebook buying spree for two Central American countries I will be doing voluntourism trips to in the future.  One explanation is simply that guidebooks are in this case largely about getting background information and about a country’s geography, history, and culture.  I suspect that for me there is more to it than that, though; I think reading these books are a way of dealing with the anticipation.  I would like to go to these countries sooner than later, but that is not how the schedule has turned out; so, in the meantime, as I wait at home for the months to pass so I can do my next voluntourism trips, at the very least I can imagine what it is like to be in that other place right now by reading a book that takes my imagination there.  Guidebooks are my means of voluntourism fantasy.  I can look at pictures, and I can read about the towns and the history and the fauna and flora of the country, and I can study the maps.

It isn’t even so much about learning about the specific destinations I will be going to within those countries.  I happen to know the names of the towns that I will be traveling to in both of my upcoming trips.  They are small, off the beaten path; and the guidebooks I have bought do not provide much information about either town.  I might see a paragraph or two in a given book, if I am lucky.

It also isn’t entirely about learning about the histories of these countries.  In fact, when you get to what can be rather contentious recent historical events you sometimes have to take what you read in those books with a grain of salt.  Every author has an opinion, of course, but I ran into one example that illustrates the problem to an annoying degree.  The Hunter Travel Guide for  Nicaragua makes some categorically untrue claims about the Sandinista government of the 1980s.  (The book asserted that they established a one party state, when in fact they created a multi-party democracy with free elections and they faced opposition parties in parliament.)  Running into something like this serves as a reminder of why it is useful to consult multiple sources.  Perhaps that is why I have already bought several guidebooks, but I have also been doing a fair amount of internet research about the countries I will be visiting.

Of course, as I mentioned, these books are as much about being taken away in my imagination as they are about learning facts about where I will be going.  Voluntourism is both deeply fulfilling and adventurous, and both of these aspects of voluntourism can make for quite a contrast to the often mundane nature of ordinary life as a working citizen of the United States.  There are several ways of biding time until I get my next voluntourism fix.  One way is to do volunteer work where I live–it may not be adventurous, but at least it is fulfilling.  Another way, for me anyway, is to blog about the subject of voluntourism.  Given all of that, reading guidebooks is just one more way of getting me through my everyday and sometimes humdrum existence until the next voluntourism trip begins.

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Good news from Cornell

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 7, 2010

Inside Higher Education reports that Cornell, following in the footsteps of the University of Wisconsin, will be terminating its licensing agreement with Nike.

As the second institution – and the only Ivy League university – to take a stand on the labor issue, Cornell’s move is sure to escalate pressure on a company that has been increasingly under fire since the closures of two Honduran factories 16 months ago. At issue is an estimated $2 million in legally mandated severance owed to workers at two Nike supplier factories, Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex, in Honduras.

This might seem like a small victory, but the article reports that

past campaigns – such as one against Russell Athletic – have shown that once a few universities take a stand, others often follow.

Many people may be under the mistaken impression that the sweatshop issue with respect to Nike was resolved away years ago, but in fact it has not, and there are people out there who are still fighting the good fight for the victims of corporate exploitation of workers in developing countries.  Jim Keady has been a leading figure in this fight, as founder of the organization Team Sweat.  This article describes Keady’s journey towards activism:

Back in 1997, Keady was a soccer coach at St. John’s University while simultaneously working towards his masters in theology. A class assignment led him to research how Nike’s labor practices violate human rights. Concurrently, St. John’s was negotiating a $3.5 million endorsement deal with Nike, meaning that he, as a coach, would be required to wear and endorse Nike. Keady realized that it would be hypocritical for a Catholic school, supposedly an institution of Catholic social thought, to partner itself with a transnational sports empire that was violating human rights. This realization turned to activism and he lost his coaching job because he refused to drop the issue and wear Nike. Soon after, he embarked on his life-changing trip to Indonesia and formed Team Sweat, an organization committed to changing Nike’s labor practices.

I think that this illustrates the point that the service that we do to help those in developing countries cannot be separated from developing an understanding of the context that surrounds the economic problems that we witness.  When one visits a country like Honduras (where the closed Nike factories that the Cornell case refers to are located) and sees massive poverty, it is worth remembering that there are often institutionalized forces with vested interests at work that often lead to the poverty we witness.  There are many points of attack for addressing these problems.  Traveling overseas and doing volunteer work is engaging in one point of attack; but once we come home from our trip, that doesn’t mean that the work suddenly stops; there are things we can do right here at home that can have an impact.  In this modern world of globalization, we are more interconnected than ever.  That doesn’t just mean that we are globally connected to the problems, but that we are globally connected to the solutions as well.

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Voluntourism and Latin American history

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 5, 2010

I recently had a chance to view the 1996 Ken Loach film “Carla’s Song”, which uses the vehicle of love triangle (of a sort) to look back on life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution. I appreciated the politics of the film, and I felt that the story had a lot of the right elements for a good story, but as a feature film I found it unsatisfying.  The Scottish bus driver was clearly meant to be portrayed as a passionate and impulsive rebel against the uncaring bureaucracy in his own country before taking off to Nicaragua, but I found his behavior a little over the top and his relationship to Carla while in Scotland struck me as more than a little like stalking.  The American Witness for Peace volunteer who was in Nicaragua, played by Scott Glenn, also seemed over the top and as much as I wanted to be moved by his own story of transformation I just couldn’t feel any connection to his character.

Despite all of that, the images of the Sandinista revolution itself (the film took place in 1987) were somehow inspiring.  I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in Nicaragua during those heady days of optimism when the people had banded together to build a better society.  The images of Contra violence in the film were also a stark reminder of all the forces that exist in the world who will use any means necessary to sabotage efforts to strive for justice.  This has especially been true throughout much of Latin America’s history.

Alas, the United States has played a very unfortunate role in the history of this region.  In 1954, for example, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected government in Guatemala.  The legacy of this horrible history of intervention lingers on there, as a recent story in the New York Times reveals:

Guatemala’s criminal networks extend deep into the institutions of state. Even the language of Guatemala’s agreement with the United Nations refers to “illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations” with the ability to “avoid investigation or punishment.”

When the democratic political fabric is destroyed and when aid is given to death squads and military dictators, is it any surprise that even once a country is at “peace” after a protracted civil war that it is a long way from the normality of civil society?  I often ponder how different things would be today in Guatemala had the events of 1954 not taken place; or how Chile would have been different had the events of 1973 been different; or how Nicaragua would have been different had the US not armed the Contras to terrorize the country into submitting to the aims of Washington policymakers.

I used to own a vinyl copy of the Clash’s 1980 album “Sandinista”.  The song “Washington Bullets”, published just a year after the Sandinista revolution, celebrated the events in Nicaragua with this hopeful but (in retrospect) clearly naive lyric:

For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America

Of course, that was 1980, and we all know what happened later.  There was plenty of interference.

Fast forward many years later, and in 2009 we saw a coup in Honduras, in which a democratically elected government was overthrown by the military.  Deja vu all over again.   Honduras was expelled from the OAS, but the US government refused to take part in any sanctions against the new military backed regime.  And just last month, the Obama administration came out publicly in favor of re-admitting Honduras back into the OAS.  As one writer describes it:

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras and has continued to resist efforts of Secretary of State Clinton to pressure them into readmitting Honduras. However, the US pushed for and was able to secure the formation of a high-level OAS panel to “study” the re-entry of Honduras at its recent meeting in Peru. We may well start to see the international community beginning to normalize relations with this illegitimate government.

As it stands now the coup government of Honduras’ biggest ally is the United States….

Once again the US is on the wrong side in Latin America.

Once again, the US government is undermining democracy and actively supporting a government that is murdering its own people.

Once again, the US has sided with anti-democracy forces and is trying to bully the world into rubber-stamp approval of our mistakes.

Because this is par for the course, my response to this is angry and yet in some ways muted. I am just not surprised by any of this.   It does remind me of why I invest so much personal energy into the concept of volunteering overseas.  If I have no faith in the political establishment to do the right thing with respect to Latin America, then I instead put my faith and hope in the efforts of impoverished and indigenous peoples of this region (and elsewhere) to organize themselves, and my efforts at voluntourism are directed with this sense of solidarity in mind.   As people struggle to survive financially in the face of the powerful forces of neo-liberalism, globalization, and free markets, not to mention racism and government repression, then the volunteer work that we do can express our support in their struggles for economic self-determination.

This gets back to a point I have raised earlier in this blog.  I think that volunteering abroad is not about solving other people’s problems, but rather assisting and participating in the basic work that a people are engaged in to make their lives better.

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Quick fixes versus long term change

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 1, 2010

People volunteer because they want to make a difference.  And yet it is clear that spending a week, two weeks, or month doing short-term volunteering in a developing country is not going to solve the underlying problems of poverty that plague certain parts of the world.   Looking at the big picture can lead one to despair, but perhaps it is a despair borne of misplaced expectations.

To begin with, I think that if sees the purpose of a volunteer trip as being that of “solving problems” then one definitely runs the risk of setting one’s self up for disappointment. At the very least, this may take on the condescending air of defining one’s role as that of savior instead of seeing the project as a form of assistance in a mutually respectful cooperative venture.  A recent online article on voluntourism quotes Linda Stuart from Global Citizens Network, who

gave the example of the volunteer who, when visiting a village with a slow-moving building project, said, “Let’s get a bulldozer and get this done!” Visitors may think they know best, but Stuart said the clinic is far more likely to be a successful and valuable addition to the community when locals are primarily responsible for its construction. This approach also reduces the risk of a community becoming dependent on outside help, “quick fixes,” or donations for what it needs.

But there is another thing to consider.  I think that if we are not careful, the “solving problems” mentality may lead to confusing the distinction between treating symptoms and curing the disease.  Building a clinic in a community addresses  the immediate need for a clinic, to be sure, but does it not solve any of the root problems of  economic injustice that resulted in the need for volunteer help to get that clinic built in the first place.  The global economic problems of inequality and political repression will not be solved by voluntourism, but that doesn’t mean that voluntourism doesn’t serve a valuable purpose.

I did not invent the following analogy, but I think it has some use here.  Imagine someone going to the doctor because they have a boil.   They need to have the boil lanced, because that addresses the immediate need, but at the same time there is an underlying bacterial infection that needs to be treated as well.  These are not mutually exclusive responses to the boil.  We can address immediate needs and also look towards the broader and more complex issues that underlie the symptom.

I am reminded of the following rather famous quote from Dom Helder Camara,:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

I think it is hard to find many people who do not support feeding the poor.   But asking the hard questions–including the one that demands to know why the poor have no food–then you run into entrenched interests that may not appreciate that the question is being asked.

That’ s the price we may have to pay.  The point is that I think we need to both give food to the poor and also ask why the poor have no food.   These are complementary priorities, all directed by a solidarity and sympathy for the struggles of others who are impoverished financially but rich in determination and spirit.

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