Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Archive for December, 2010

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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