Friday, August 26, 2005

Gettin' settled

Hey everyone,

As mom noted, the spambots have found my page. This probably means I will have to shut off anonymous comments eventually, but I'll give it a few weeks and see if things get worse. In the meantime, those of you (like parents) who really wish to keep posting comments will just have to find a way to login. I'm sure it's possible. Mom, if you want I can send you an invite to my email service (gmail) which I'm sure would work for you. It's also a really nice thing to have a good web-based email service.

So what have I been up to lately? Surprisingly, quite a bit. We finally got my house nice and fixed up/secure so I could move into it, and I've been running around trying to get furniture and whatnot since it was totally empty to start with. I began a compost pile and tilled part of what will my garden with a pick and hoe, and today I'm going to start trying to get seeds. I promised the "maestro en casa" program in Agua Fria that I'd teach English, so today I have to plan that all out for tomorrow. Speaking of which, mom, I've been trying to find a way to contact you by phone from Agua Fria and I'm just not sure if it's possible. Some way or another I would really like to talk to you, so could you try calling me on the community telephone in Agua Fria? The number is 999-8666 (yes, that's really the number, unless I managed to forget it). I'll be waiting there Monday at say.... 5 pm (4 pm your time).

So anyways I have to plan this thing for Maestro en Casa. It's a government program to get people who don't have time to go to school a decent education with only classes on Saturday by giving them books on a variety of subjects and having them do the majority of studying independently during the week. The teachers are regular elementary school teachers that do it as volunteer work for the community. I don't know how well this is gonna work for language acquisition, so I've already asked for a little more time than just one hour on Saturdays. We'll see if we can squeeze it in. I'm also going to spend an extra hour with the teachers so I can get some more help with this, because I really need the support.... the program has 60 students and we might try to implement something in the elementary school also..... ideally the existing teachers would do that.

Also, USAID (a large US government organization for various types of foreign aid, from food to development projects) is starting a very large watershed project in Honduras with something like 25 million bucks to be invested eventually. Among other large watersheds, they want to work with the Choluteca watershed, which pertains to the largest river in the area here, and also the Rio Negro watershed which is a smaller river between me and Nicaragua. But first they're doing a pilot project in the San Juan micro-watershed, which is right in my backyard! So yesterday I went to a preliminary meeting with a couple USAID representatives and a lot of community members to check it out. They want to take a more community based approach than in past attempts, which is really good. There have been an awful lot of development projects in the past here, both in my area up in the mountains and down in the valley also, since Choluteca is one of the places in Honduras with the worst poverty and environmental degradation. There have even been one or two government projects specifically in the San Juan micro-watershed, which, from what the community members at the meeting seemed to think, accomplished absolutely nothing. Hence trying to switch up the strategy and get the community more involved this time.

One of their goals is to improve production and access to better markets for the producers in the area. My official local counterpart organization, the organic coffee cooperative COCAGUAL (Cooperativa Cafetelera Guanacaure Limitida) is VERY interested in this. They have thirty producers that have certified organic coffee and are selling it at normal coffee prices in Choluteca. The project also wants to improve general agriculture practices et cetera in the micro-watershed. I still don't really know how exactly I can get myself involved in this project, but both myself and COCAGUAL are very interested in finding out how we can work with USAID here. Sunday there's a meeting with the cooperative and I have a feeling we're going to be discussing this a lot. Also I'm gonna try and get in on a soccer game on Sunday. It's funny how I assumed my first couple months would be spent mainly fixing up my house, tending my garden and meeting people..... that was the plan anyways. I am, however, very happy to be getting involved in stuff right away.

A word about development projects, since I touched on it a little above. We've been thoroughly trained by the peace corps to take a certain approach to development, which tries to evict as much as possible the mistakes that have been made in the past. When I came here, I really had no idea exactly how much time and money have been spent already in aid projects and development projects here (central america is definitely a hotspot) but probably in the rest of the world also. The simple fact of the matter is, investing money in the development of other countries, a lot of the time, doesn't do anything and in fact is often more harmful than good. Why?

Because most development organizations make two mistakes:

1. They run their projects from the top down

This means that some organization, which wants to donate money for a development project, says to another organization which is going to carry out the project: "give me your plan so we can see exactly what our money is going to be invested in." So the other organization develops a plan completely outside the community they're going to apply it in. They then go into said community with a fixed amount of money which may or may not be enough (it usually is plenty, but in countries with weak and corrupt governmental systems like, for example, Honduras, they money present often does not get used correctly). Then there's some executive guy from outside the community where the project is going making top-down decisions. He may not know the social or political climate present and sometimes has a very limited idea of the local factors to take into consideration.

2. They assume the society present is ready for these changes

It may sound fairly arrogant and patronizing to assume that poor communities throughout the world are not socially ready to be helped by new technologies and systems and whatnot that we bring them, but the fact is that if there are not members of the community present with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to run these projects after the development organization leaves, then they WILL fail. We take this kind of thing for granted because in the United States the government does a lot of the infrastructure stuff for us. Here it becomes more obvious how incredibly difficult it is to support a large, complicated project like (for example) a water system. Just getting the resources is the easy part here. It also takes a group of people with lots of leadership and organizational skills, it takes technical knowledge, and it takes the participation of the community members who not only know enough about what's going on to trust the new ideas and participate, they also have to get involved to the extent that someone's watching to make sure the leaders aren't screwing things up. The third world is filled with rusting introduced technology that broke down and nobody knew how to fix it, top quality seed grain that somebody ate because they didn't know what to do with it or didn't trust the innovation to work, et cetera.

As a peace corps volunteer, we can forget about introducing big projects or resources because we don't have that stuff. All we have is knowledge and two years to build trust and friendship within the community, and if we're lucky SPA grants from USAID (Small Project Assistance, usually somewhere between $US 1k and 5k). There are definitely good development organizations out there, and the peace corps is actually a very small one compared to some. Whether or not we are effective depends largely on the individual volunteer.

One thing I would like to say here, since I have this medium to publicize my thoughts about this stuff, is that if any of you 5 or so readers are thinking about donating money to a world charity organization, think again. Research who you're giving it to and where it's going and what it will be used for. Projects that give away stuff, except probably in cases of immediate disaster relief, are definitely doing more harm than good. Paternalism fosters dependency and a feeling of inadequacy which I can sense every day here. People who are so used to being given stuff or helped with stuff eventually start to rely on that stuff, and worst of all, believe that they can't advance on their own. Religious charity organizations are some of the worst with the way they hand out clothes and food, but there's plenty of others.

It's kind of funny, because since I've been living amongst central americans and their perception of the United States my perspective is changing and I've started to involuntarily see the US the way they see it... a perfect land of opportunity where there aren't social and environmental problems the way there is here. Nobody here has any idea of the kinds of problems the USA actually has. Now sometimes I have to remind myself that the USA has crime, poverty, drug addiction (lots of that in fact) and plenty of environmental degradation as well. It's not that central america is so much worse, they just see themselves that way. It's sort of hilarious and sad at the same time.

So to wrap up all this rambling, what then, exactly, am I here for? I strongly believe that things here aren't going to change by the hand of outsiders. Any real, meaningful, lasting change has to come from within because it has to start with social change. I reckon the answer to that question, then, is that I'm here to work with the people on projects they're already interested in, lend technical support and knowledge, and most of all serve as an example to hopefully help motivate those who are interested in and hope for change. Crap.... that's a lot of responsibility still. Well hopefully I'll be able to avoid taking myself too seriously, but I think I'm already screwing that up.

I miss you all very much, especially Sam and Maya. Hope things are well on the homefront, and it's always nice to get your emails.

Oh, I can't remember if I mentioned this or not? But Dad and Anna, both your packages came. Thanks guys! Anna, the host family in Siguat was thrilled.


At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be glad to call. Will try and quickly put together some materials for you too. Do you possibly have access to a photocopier? Would you like the basic outline for a Newcomer curriculum? A nice balance for Beginning English learners is 10 minutes of conversation (you provide the phrasing for daily conversation that they ask for and review it every time),5-10 minutes of TPR,(Total Physical Response...the fun stuff), and a half hour or so of book work based on the other learning so it's totally relevant. I'll try and call for sure on Monday, Boogz. If you read this before tomorrow, remember to start with the individual ("My name is, I am from, I live, I am _____ - years-old," etc.) to the family..."I have 3 sons, and two daughters," etc.) You can't lose simply doing numbers, colors, and body parts either!
You could invite me to gmail, and I could break down and get my own version of Windows! I'll ask Tyler if he'll help.
In response to your observations regarding how it makes a person/group feel to just be given things (you need to teach them to fish, etc.), I remember how when the CARE bags of nutritional supplement would arrive at the schools in Belize, the teacher would pick a responsible kid to divvy it up, and kids would bring pieces of paper bags to wrap it in, but end up just eating it 'Lik 'm Ade' style before they got home. It's amazing how we continue to mess up this way, isn't it?
Good luck, Gabe. If anyone can figure out how to get a community to identify with its own needs and begin to take responsibility for the change, I'm sure you can! Wouldn't you like to go back and visit Costa Rica and ask how they got started down this road?
Your very own Mom
P.S. We got Maya into an apartment with a roommate right next to the old Cornish campus. Whew!

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Banana said...

Gabe! Im overwhelmed by all that you have accomplished so far -- good for you! Im glad my package finally arrived. Stupid USPS told me it would get there in 4 days...more like 4 weeks! Keep blogging, I love reading about your adventures. ~ Anna Banana

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne said...

Make that 6 reading your blog, Gabe! Even if we┬┤re both in the Peace Corps and both in Honduras, I have no doubt that our experiences are going to be very different and I am already learning from yours. Keep it on down south!


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