Friday, October 27, 2006

university, politics, therapeutic abortion

Hi everybody,

There are a bunch of things I'd like to write about today, but first I
want to thank everybody who wrote to me in response to my infant
mortality essay. I haven't gotten back to all of you individually
yet, but I have really appreciated your sympathy and your courage in
allowing yourselves to be touched. I also will convey your sympathy
to the family.

So, on Wednesday I went to Managua to give a talk to a class of
Anthropology students at the UNAN, or the Universidad Nacional
Autonoma de Nicaragua (I think I've got that acronym right, but don't
quote me). It was my first-ever lecture given in Spanish, and it went
pretty well, especially considering it was about 100 degrees in the
classroom. The topic was "Anthropological methodology", and I had a
half hour to talk. But happily, the students paid attention, appeared
to understand me despite my accent, and even asked some good questions
at the end.

After my part was over, I stuck around to listen to the rest of the
class. At the end of the class, one student got up to make an
announcement, and it seemed that this class is actually a group of
students who go through the whole university together. They work
together and plan trips together and even do political organizing
together. It sounds like a great model.

Another thing that really impressed me was how politically engaged
this university is. (And I've read that it's not the only one, the
other major U in Managua is the same or more so, although I haven't
spent much time at that campus.) It is pretty much a one-party
environment—you see NO propaganda except for the Sandinistas, although
I did see one person with a t-shirt for the schism branch of the
Sandinistas. When, in my lecture, I mentioned the campaign and the
campaign theme of the Sandinistas (reconciliation and peace), a couple
of my overall very respectful listeners actually silently cheered.

What a difference from the general political disengagement and apathy
among the students I taught in New York! It's not as if there are
large differences between the general social profile of the students
at the UNAN and at CUNY. Both are public universities, both charge
low tuition, and both student groups are generally upwardly mobile
children of lower economic classes, probably working or on scholarship
to get through college. The major difference is, perhaps, that in
Nicaragua they have had a very recent historical experience of actual
major changes being made to the system of government in response to
political activism. Most of these students would have been small
children when the revolutionary government lost the elections of 1990,
but their older siblings and parents were very possibly closely

So, speaking of the elections… a CID/Gallup poll that came out
yesterday indicates that Daniel Ortega, the president of the
Sandinistas in the 1980s and the current Sandinista presidential
candidate, is running eleven percentage points ahead of his nearest
rival, the schism liberal candidate, Eduardo Montealegre (2.8 % margin
of error). People who are supporting the Sandinistas aren't relaxing,
however—there is worry about electoral fraud, as apparently was a
problem in the 1992 elections in which according to the official
results Daniel Ortega lost by a very thin margin.

I've been paying attention to the claims made by the campaigns, and
it's been interesting to me to see that three out of the four major
parties are claiming that the Contras (or the Resistance) support
them. Daniel Ortega's vice-presidential running mate was a negotiator
for the Contras. And both Liberal candidates have ads in which
prominent Contra commanders endorse them. I don't see anything
similar from any other group, although the Sandinistas are perhaps
also trumpeting the support they have from the Catholic church, a very
new development (more on this in a minute). But why are the
Resistence leaders such a hot commodity? I have a suspicion, although
I don't know for sure, that it is not because the opinions of the
ex-Resistance are so respected. Rather, I think that if I claim the
support of the Contras I am saying that the war will not return if I
am elected. At least, this is definitely what the Sandinistas are
saying, and probably the other parties, too.

In a bizarre, nightmare-like scenario, Oliver North was in Nicaragua
earlier this week. Yes, the same Oliver North who managed the
Iran-Contra affair, in which weapons were sold to a group in Iran,
against express orders given by Congress, and then the money was used
to fund the Contras, again against several express orders given by
Congress. The same Iran-Contra affair which should have warned the
people of United States to be on the alert against permitting the
executive branch to gather more power and dispense with checks from
the Congressional and Judicial branches. This is the same Oliver
North who was fired by President Reagan and convicted on several
counts related to the affair, although his sentence was overturned on
a technicality. Apparently the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua forced North
to call his visit a "private" one, in which he was going to visit some
friends. However, these friends included the mainstream Liberal
candidate and a former Contra commander, and part of his tourist
activities included laying a wreath at a monument to fallen Contra
soldiers and giving a press conference in which, predictably, he
warned about the red menace should Ortega win. Very amusingly, he
also said something like, Nicaragua has suffered enough from foreign
intervention. (Although he himself was referring to left-wing
regional governments.)

Anyways, about the Catholic church: yesterday, in response to an
agreement with the church, the Nicaraguan Congress outlawed
therapeutic abortion. Abortion for other reasons was already illegal
in Nicaragua, however, an exception was made for instances in which
the life of the woman was in danger. Now, however, a doctor can be
thrown in jail for 1 to 7 years if she or he performs an abortion to
save the life of the mother. This includes, by the way, the abortion
of an ectopic pregnancy, in which the embryo has implanted outside the
womb and has no chance of ever surviving. According to the newspaper,
approximately one in fifty pregnancies is ectopic. If the embryo is
not extracted, it is extremely dangerous for the woman and can lead to
internal hemorrhaging, which is a life-threatening condition.

One of the Congressmen who made statements defending this vote is
described in the newspaper as assuring that "he never had sent any of
his women to have an abortion, without clarifying how many women he
had." (This could also be translated as "his wives".) The
unbelievable level of chauvinism in this statement, and in the law in
general, turns my stomach. And I'm not the only one—there were strong
protests outside the Congress yesterday, and both doctors and
theologians made statements against the provision.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

A follow-up

My husband, a medical student, says the baby probably died of
"neonatal respiratory distress syndrome; it happens with premature
children who don't make enough surfactant, the chemical that keeps the
air sacs of the lungs open". He said "purple hands is cyanosis, a
sign of lack of oxygen", and that "a 48 hour 'grace period' is typical
because the baby starts with some, but it gets inactivated faster than
it is regenerated". "sadly, there are both prenatal and postnatal
things that could have been done": "they give steroids if it looks
like a baby will be delivered prematurely, which reduces mortality by
50%; less good is if a baby shows signs after birth they can give it

infant mortality

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,

Please join me in bearing witness.

Last night I went to the wake for a little baby girl who died
yesterday. She was three days old.

A wake in Nicaragua usually takes place in the family's house the
first night after the death occurs, and lasts all night. The baby's
mother lives about fifteen minutes' walk from where I stayed in the
campo last night and is a cousin of my hostess. My hosts and I waited
until after dark, and walked over with flashlights.

When we arrived, the small concrete house was already full of people.
We ducked into the doorway and were in a dark room, lit by
candlelight. People were lining benches which filled the room,
talking in low voices. At the front of the room was a small table.
On the table, something very small was covered with a sheet of white
lace. Red flowers were scattered around the edges of the lace, and
two candles were burning nearby.

My hostess, who had been uncharacteristically quiet on the walk over,
found me a place to sit and then ducked through a curtain into the
back of the house. Last week, she had told me that her own first
child had died as a newborn, too.

I asked some guarded questions of my hostess's children. The problem,
they told me, was that the baby came early by about four weeks. When
the mother started to feel pains, she set out walking for the nearest
health clinic, which is a stiff hike of about five kilometers from her
house. They told me she fell or fainted twice on the road. When she
got to the clinic, the doctor was not there, so she was taken back to
her house, and the baby was born there. It was her first child.

After sitting quietly in the main room for a while, I was beckoned
through the curtain at the back. It turned out that this led, not to
the back of the house as I had supposed, but out a door. I was led
through a small yard and into the kitchen of another, much smaller
house—instead of concrete, this house was constructed with pieces of
wood, with a piece of corrugated zinc for a roof and a dirt floor. It
turned out that the wake was being held in the house of a relative,
since there was no space here in the mother's house. I was given a
mug of coffee and a sweet roll which I ate on a wood bench in the
kitchen, listening to other visitors making desultory conversation.

The infant mortality rate for Nicaragua was 31 in 2004, according to
the United Nation . This means that for every thousand babies born
alive, 31 die before the age of one year. For comparison, the rate in
the U.S. was 7 in 2004, and in Sweden it was 3. In Nicaragua,
breakdowns shown that the rate in the campo is about twice that in the

Once we returned to the concrete house, I watched my hostess gently
lift the white lace sheet. Several other women approached the table,
and we all looked down at a tiny face with round baby cheeks. Her
eyes were gently closed, as if she were sleeping. But she wasn't.
One woman stroked the tiny cheek with one finger. Then my hostess
replaced the lace. Her face was expressionless as she carefully
rearranged the red flowers.

We stayed another hour or so, sitting in the bench-lined room in the
candlelight, and then walked home. My hostess told me that the mother
had not received any prenatal care. Since it was her first baby, she
hadn't known anything was wrong when the child's hands started turning
purple. When her grandmother saw the child's hands, she set out to
find a remedy. But when she got back, the baby was already dead. And
the mother hadn't yet noticed—she was cradling the tiny form in her

I asked what the baby had died of. But nobody knew. And nobody is
ever likely to know. The baby was born without a birth certificate,
and will be buried in the campo without a death certificate.

Carolyn Fisher

Thursday, October 19, 2006

a methodology reflection

Hi Everybody,

So I'm writing right now on my laptop as I'm sitting in the hammock in
the patio of my rented house. The power is out, AGAIN, so I'm running
on battery. I never thought, when I bought an extra battery for my
laptop, that I would be using it in the city where there is, in
theory, electrical power. Rather, I thought I would be typing up my
fieldnotes in the campo where there is no electricity. However, as it
turns out, I'm too chicken to bring my computer to the campo because
of the huge amount of attention I know it would generate—my motorcycle
is bad enough. I just write by hand in notebooks out there to avoid
being the center of a huge group of staring kids. And I use my extra
computer battery to be able to work through the really annoying daily
rolling blackouts here in the city. Some say there's some political
dispute between the power distributor and the government, but others
say the power generating infrastructure in the country is outdated and
hasn't gotten any investment for years due to business-unfriendly
laws. Whatever, I don't know, I'm sick of speculating, I just wish
they would stop turning off the lights in the middle of my chats and
telephone conversations with Tom.

So I've been thinking about my methodology, partly because I have some
grant applications due. (What ridiculous system makes you turn in
these crazy elaborate grant proposals from the field? It's really
logistically complicated, and I want to publicly thank Tom for all the
work he has, and is about to, put into assembling and mailing my

I have realized that a lot of what I do is look for cultural
differences between myself and the people I'm working with.
Anthropologists have been self-critical of this very tendency for a
while now. We have told ourselves that it produces exoticized
accounts of people's lives—when we write up these things, we tend to
leave out the things that are the same about "us" and "them". And in
fact, the whole notion of "us" vs. "them", which is a fairly central
concept to the whole original idea of anthropology, has been pretty
extensively criticized as well. But that is an issue for a different
blog entry.

I think that there is, indeed, a problem with the type of anthropology
which, presenting itself as a way to generate abstract knowledge,
creates accounts of a "culture" in which only the ways it differs from
United States (or European) intelligentsia culture is emphasized. On
the other hand, I want to offer a defense here for one underlying
reason-for-being (is that raison de etre, or something, any French
speakers?) of Anthropology.

Have you heard of Margaret Mead? She was one of the first-ever female
anthropologists, and she was also one of the most popularly famous
anthropologists ever. She was a Unitedstatesean and worked in the
1920s through 1950s(ish) in the South Pacific. Her books, including
"Coming of Age in Samoa" and "Sex and Temperament", were popularly
read, and were used as a basis for challenging some pretty basic
assumptions about gender roles and family structure in the U.S..
These challenges were very important to second-wave feminism, in the
1960s and 70s—in addition, of course, she was a pioneer in her
individual life, too, as a female university professor and world
traveller. My undergraduate advisor knew her at Columbia University,
and described her as a short but formidable old lady who clumped
around with a heavy walking stick.

My point about Margaret Mead is that she very explicitly wrote her
books not as contributions to a corpus of abstract knowledge, but as a
contribution to an internal dialogue within the society she came from.
It was not a dialogue, perhaps, because there was not an attempt to
talk back to the people she described, but she was explicitly making
contrasts, not describing an entire culture from a fictitious unbiased
perspective. She shared this goal with some of her United States and
European contemporaries—Marcel Mauss comes to mind, for example—but
many others went off onto the much more dubious path of trying to
construct scientific theories of human society. This might
conceivably be possible in the far future, (by psycho-historians?),
but with the current state of the art, the attempt usually results in
unintentionally ethnocentric and harmful work. (In case Katy's
reading, I want to make clear here that I'm not referring to
large-scale statistical studies, or all of social science necessarily,
but rather to anthropological evolutionist typologies and similar
things in other disciplines.)

I think that Margaret Mead's project is very worthwhile, and is one of
the best arguments I can come up with for why people should do
anthropology. A contrast with other societies can be a very
productive way to reflect on who we are as a society and to reveal
that our own assumptions are not necessarily universal. The problem
comes when we forget about the contrast part of this project, and
present our descriptions of other societies as wholes-unto-themselves,
as stand-alone abstract knowledge. Anthropology is and should remain
part of a conversation engaged in by people—not unbiased observers—who
always act from within their own sets of relationships. We should
also never forget that neither our own society nor any human society
ever is homogenous. There are always debates and different positions
on important matters. So we should not fall into the trap of talking
about "what Nicaraguans believe" or "what Unitedstateseans
believe"—instead we should remember to say things like "many male
Nicaraguan war veterans who are currently small scale coffee farmers
often speak with the assumption that…" or "mainstream political
discourse in the United States often contains assumptions that…". Or
maybe even better: "there is disagreement among Nicaraguan
participants in development aid programs around the question of…".

This brings me, however, to my methodological issue. I have been
comparing Nicaraguan points of view with, not a well-analyzed
discourse among people in the United States, but my own conscious and
unconscious assumptions. Is this legitimate? Am I, as one person,
with an admittedly non-mainstream political orientation and overly
introspective tendencies, a good representative sample of
Unitedstatesean thought?

I guess what I will answer to myself, in this blog/echo-chamber
format, is that maybe what I'm doing is a good starting point, but in
order to do a good job with the dialogue-anthropology that I've been
advocating here, I need to do some rigorous testing of my intuitions
about Unitedstatesean assumptions before publishing anything
explicitly contrasting them with Nicaraguan assumptions. Ho hum,
another chapter in my dissertation, perhaps. Fortunately, it's one
that I should be able to research from the comfort of my own home.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006



Well, Tom left on Friday. Partly to keep myself from missing him so
much, and partly to get on with my work, I spent Saturday through
Tuesday in el campo. Up until now, I have been going back and forth
between a number of different communities in different zones (would
they be micro-climates?). They all have slightly different ecological
and social issues to deal with—one has a worse road (I mean, even
worse than normal), one is at a higher altitude and therefore colder
and can't grow certain crops, one has trouble with potable water, etc.
From now on, however, I am more or less planning to spend most of my
time focused on one particular community, or rather set of
communities, to the south of the city.

This set of communities is where I have spent a fair amount of time
already and have some ongoing relationships. In fact, if you were
tuned in to this blog around August, I wrote about some interpersonal
issues I was having with one person who lives there. Well, I feel
like I have come to a working arrangement with that person. In fact,
working through these issues, and seeing how other people work through
similar issues, has been very instructive for me. I feel like this is
maybe one of the first times in my life when I have had a serious
disagreement with somebody (outside of family) and have managed to
work through it. Previously, I realize that I have had a tendency to
just stop being friends with people when there was any serious issue
between us. But partly following the model of some other people in
the community, I have come to understand emotionally how it is
possible to both disagree with someone and co-exist with them.

I have a feeling that this is a skill which is very necessary for
people who live in small communities. And maybe it is especially
necessary for agriculturalists, who are tied to a particular place,
and therefore to their particular neighbors. (But it is certainly not
a situation unique to poor countries—my grandparents, who have lived
in the same town for maybe more than forty years, say they are still
seen as outsiders by some life-long residents.) In my life, on the
other hand, I have been extremely mobile. In the 11 years since I
left for college, I have lived in 11 rooms/apartments/houses in 6
cities/towns in 3 different countries, not counting when I moved back
with my family for a couple of summers during college. And despite
the fact that being an anthropologist has brought me to an unusual
situation currently, I don't think that on the whole I've been
unusually mobile for somebody of my age and situation. Maybe I'm
towards the upper end of the curve, but I don't think I'm a radical
outlier. The friends I've kept have generally been those with whom I
get along especially well (and I haven't kept enough of those), and
obviously I've left any enemies, or even any people with whom I had a
slight disagreement, far, far behind. In consequence, I'm good at
figuring out a new situation, and not so good at maintaining an old

But here I'm learning that not everybody has that luxury. And there
are tools that people use to get along despite disagreements. For
example, people talk about problems indirectly. Oftentimes, if there
is a problem people will criticize a general situation rather than a
particular individual. For example, instead of saying "You were
careless and let your chickens into the field where I had just planted
beans! They ate half the seed and I lost a lot of my crop!", somebody
might say "People should control their animals. Animals can sometimes
do a lot of damage to other people's fields. It is very good when
people have control over where their animals are roaming." Another
thing people do is to avoid using personal names, but rather refer to
people's job titles, or house locations, or some other impersonal
quality. This can make it challenging at first for an anthropologist
trying to figure out what people are talking about!

Indirectness is a quality that I've recently been coming to appreciate
more and more. For example, in a meeting, there is a great reluctance
to contradict people when they have already spoken. Sometimes this
means that disagreements just remain unspoken. Sometimes it means
that disagreements are voiced in a round-about way. Somebody might
start out by seeking any common ground. For example, the person whose
chickens ate the recently-planted beans might respond in a meeting by
saying, "I just want to reinforce what Frank just said about how
important it is to control animals. This is very important, and it
points to a need we have in our community, which is that there is not
enough chicken wire. Many people can't afford to buy chicken wire,
and so their animals escape and they can't do anything about it. It
is impossible to be always chasing after chickens, because people have
other things to do. If you shut up chickens they get sad and don't
lay as much, and we need the eggs from the chickens. We are all in
the same situation." In this fictional scenario, my fictional person
here has been defending herself against an accusation, but presenting
herself as merely agreeing with the accuser and expressing a unanimous
concern of the community.

In political discussions, this problem is even more complicated!
People will almost never directly declare themselves in favor of one
party or another, except if they are well-known to be working as a
leader of a particular campaign. And yet everybody knows everybody
else's affiliations. Sometimes this is because campaign materials are
posted (and they're posted EVERYwhere lately—a rural farmer who lives
far off the road will place a flag with their party's colors on a high
pole or tree so it can be seen from the road, and people put posters
up all over the outside and inside of their houses). But sometimes
you can also tell from indirect things that people say. For example,
if somebody says that candidates from party A are supported by a
particular industry, that means they're in favor of party B, because
that particular industry is strongly criticized by the campaign of
party B. Many people say that there is a lot of fighting by ignorant
people over campaigns. Yesterday in the north there was a man who was
stabbed to death in a fight over campaigns, for example, they tell me.
And some people say that this is why there was the war in the 1980s.
Therefore many people are disgusted by and reluctant to participate in
politics directly, since it involves so much direct confrontation,
which can lead to deadly violence.

Well, that's it for tonight. I'll probably be able to bring this blog
entry to an internet café to post tomorrow, assuming there's power
(we've been having rolling blackouts every day at unpredictable times
for the last month or so) but it's past my bedtime now, so I'm off to


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

recommendations for NGOs


I've been working on a first draft of some recommendations for
Unitedstatesean charities and development projects which are planning
to work in Nicaragua. This makes an even longer than usual entry, but
I'm posting it here just in case anyone's interested.

First, disclaimers: I don't claim that what I'm writing here is
generalizable to all of Nicaragua. I've been working on the
Spanish-speaking Pacific side of the country, specifically in the
northern mountainous region (the poorest region of the country,
according to the census), around Matagalpa/Jinotega. However, my work
also has relevance for other areas in Latin America with a similar
combination of agriculture for export by small-scale farmers and heavy
NGO concentration. (Sorry if I sound like a research proposal here.)
As you will be able to see, also, I'm focused on programs which bring
services to small agriculturalists in the countryside, not urban
inhabitants. But that out of the way, here are some observations and
some tentative recommendations.

Project Location and Logistics
There is a heavy concentration of development organizations and
international aid projects in Nicaragua. However, it is important to
know that this does not mean that poverty and underdevelopment are
being solved, even for the recipients of multiple forms of aid. And
this is even less true for people who live off the beaten track.
Transportation is an enormous logistical challenge in Nicaragua, even
in relatively central places. Paved highways are usually full of
dangerous, axle-breaking potholes. Dirt roads of varying degrees of
terribleness are the norm in rural locations, and many communities can
only be reached by muddy foot paths. Many rural inhabitants have
access to a bus route to the city, but this often will run only once
or twice a day, and may sometimes be cancelled when the roads become
impassable, especially in the rainy season (May-October).
Perhaps understandably, therefore, many development projects plan to
locate their projects in small cities or in rural communities
relatively near to cities, with relatively good roads. But this means
that far-flung rural communities are very underserved. I'd recommend
that projects consider locating projects further out in the rural
countryside, away from the cities, and that the logistical
difficulties be planned for from the very beginning (for example,
greatly increased travel time, hiring of heavy-duty vehicles for
transportation of equipment and personnel, possible need for
electrical generators, and depending on the project resources the
possibility of constructing lodging for personnel in the project
location or improving the roads).
Other logistical issues to take into account are frequent electrical
blackouts (it's been about 3-4 hours daily, recently) in areas where
there is electricity, and the lack of electricity in many rural
locations. Also, in cities there are frequently times when there is
no water in the taps, and in many rural locations access to potable
water is difficult. Communication with rural inhabitants is almost
always only possible through face-to-face contact: in other words,
usually by going to their homes. Next, there is a dual currency
system: some things (usually more expensive items) can only be bought
with U.S. dollars, and people are always planning for inflation of the
Nicaraguan cordoba (loans made in cordobas always include a provision
for the borrower to pay, not only interest, but "value maintenance",
or any slippage in the value of the cordoba against the U.S. dollar).
Finally, there are high levels of illiteracy or only functional
literacy in the countryside, especially among women.

Project Design
Many projects arrive to their intended recipients with the design of
the project already elaborated. Recipients are invited to participate
or not to participate, but are not often offered a genuine role in
planning the project. This is true even with many projects which
claim "grassroots" status (see section below on the local leader
paradox) or to involve a local planning component. People are used to
this model of aid, and this is what they will probably expect.
However, this causes people to take a relatively passive role towards
projects. Often, when a project involves the delivery of a material
benefit (donated goods, relatively low-interest credit, etc.) along
with an educational or training component, some people will
participate in the training just enough to get access to the material
benefit. This should be understood as a rational response to an
atmosphere in which projects are designed outside with an agenda not
necessarily shared by the participants, (greater gender equality,
environmental conservation, organic agriculture, micro-businesses,
etc.), and are typically present for a few years and then leave again.
The trainings and educational components are often seen by
participants as hoops that must be jumped through in order to get
access to the aid, and they take time away from other economic
(agricultural work, wage work, small business activities) and
community (church, community committees, political organizing, other
projects) activities.
I believe that organizations should therefore carefully consider what
is their most important goal before beginning a project. Is it mostly
to convince people of a certain agenda, mostly to solve a particular
problem, or mostly to provide people with badly-needed material aid?
If either of the latter two, the project should be open to the
possibility that their intended recipients may have other ideas about
how the problem may be solved or what type of aid is needed, and
provide genuine, culturally appropriate venues for people to express
those ideas before the project design is finalized (see section below
on democracy and disagremeent).

One-On-One Communication
There are a number of cultural barriers which often prevent good
communication between rural and non-rural people in Nicaragua (people
from the United States count as non-rural people in this schema, but
so do middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans). The following are some
tips that I have found useful.
• Be patient. It is frequently impossible to give people notice that
you are coming, so expect to find people not at home. Be prepared to
have to make several return visits. Be prepared to do a lot of
hiking. Be prepared to be forced by circumstances to change your
plans (for example, I always carry what I'd need in case of being
forced to stay overnight unexpectedly etc.)
• Arrive at a good time of day. If you want to talk to a man, it's
best to arrive in the mid- to late- afternoon, when the agricultural
work of the day will be finished. If you want to talk to a woman, I
have found that it is frequently more productive to visit when a
husband/brother/son is not at home, to prevent him from taking over
the conversation. A good time is at mid-morning (after breakfast,
before lunch preparation begins). I also believe that in order to
talk to a woman, it is better, if not sufficient, to be a woman.
• Indirectness, patience, silence. Some people will immediately start
talking to outsiders with no problem, but others may seem shy and
non-communicative, even after relatively long acquaintance. This does
not mean that they are incapable of communication, or necessarily even
that they do not want to communicate with you. In order to draw out
less-communicative people, it is often helpful to foster a gradual
approach to initiating conversation. It is perfectly culturally
acceptable to show up at someone's house with no specific objective,
but just to "pasear" or visit. So don't feel like you have to
announce a purpose the instant you walk in the door. Start out by
talking about the weather, inquiring about people's health, the crops,
etc. (Politics, however, is not a neutral topic to bring up—see
below.) In general, it is more comfortable for people if you ask
questions indirectly. So, instead of asking "What did you think about
developments at last week's meeting?", you can ask "I have been asking
myself what people around here are saying about the developments at
last week's meeting." And if you ask several questions on the same
topic indirectly, and people don't open up, allow the subject to drop
and move on, or retreat to more neutral talk about the weather, the
crops... Finally, allow silences to develop in conversations. This
may be very uncomfortable at first: a two-minute silence may feel like
an awkward eternity. But stick it out, and people may start talking.
• Accept small gifts and favors. There is a huge economic gap between
almost all outsiders, especially gringos, and most rural inhabitants
who will be recipients of development projects. In the beginning, I
was very uncomfortable with accepting the gifts of food, hospitality,
fruits and vegetables, and small services, which I am frequently
offered. However, I have come to see these gifts as an attempt to
establish a relationship of reciprocity and equality. When one person
gives and the other receives without ever offering anything in return,
this is a purely asymmetrical relationship. It is an undignified
position for the receiver and makes personal relationships and
communication difficult and awkward. But when both parties are giving
and receiving, they maintain a more nearly symmetrical relation,
making communication and friendship possible. (I have tried in vain
to convince people that them talking to me is a huge gift—because my
listening to them is usually interpreted by them as a gift.)

Democracy and Disagreement
North Americans with a specific idea of how democratic
decision-making works within an organization should be aware that
while many of the structures for this type of decision making are
similar in organizations in Nicaragua, some cultural factors may be
different. Specifically, debate and open disagreement are very
distasteful. The point of view which usually prevails is the one
which is expressed by one or two leaders with the most assertive
personalities. Often, a minority view will never be expressed in a
meeting, because the holders of this view will believe that they will
not prevail, and do not want to create needless open disagreement.
This may create the false impression of unanimity—dissension, rather
than being talked about in meetings, is more likely to be expressed by
people leaving an organization, or ceasing to participate and giving
other reasons (ex: I don't have time any more). [I have been told that
this reluctance to disagree is related to the circumstances in the
countryside during the Contra War of the 1980s. Both Sandinista and
Contra forces would show up and demand to know the allegiance of the
people they encountered, without necessarily divulging which side they
represented. However, this may also represent the necessity of
getting along with others in small communities in which people may
live their entire lives.] An organization hoping to start a process of
democratic decision-making in a rural community should therefore not
limit this process to meetings. Just as one suggestion, it might be a
good idea to attempt to gather a diverse range of opinions in
one-on-one conversations before a meeting. Prepared ahead of time in
this way, a meeting leader might be able to facilitate a
less-contentious expression of contrasting opinions during a meeting.
In contrast, politics in Nicaragua are contentious and rancorous.
Maybe as a consequence, many people in the countryside (and the
cities) express strong distaste for politics and politicians,
associating them universally with corruption, despite any claims to
the contrary by the politicians themselves. Also, all or nearly all
government institutions are partisan. It is a good idea, therefore,
for international organizations to steer clear of involvement with
government and/or politically affiliated organizations unless they are
prepared to deal with the consequences of this perception.

The Local Leader Paradox
Many development aid organizations administer their programs by
employing "local leaders"—people who originate from the beneficiary
community (or even just the same country), but perhaps through higher
than average levels of education and/or an articulate and assertive
personality are seen as leaders. This strategy, I believe, is usually
a good-faith attempt to deal with the problems of cultural
communication barriers and democratic decision-making. The idea may
be that a "local leader", as a representative of the beneficiary
community, can participate in planning on its behalf and be a quicker,
and therefore less expensive, substitute for democratic
However, it is important to recognize that this is not always the
best strategy, and that the mere fact of origin does not mean that a
person values local knowledges or even always has the interests of the
community at heart. Employment with NGOs is one of few opportunities
for upward class mobility in Nicaragua. Even low salaries, paid in
U.S. dollars, put NGO employees a step above their families and
neighbors. And people all over the world with aspirations for upward
mobility frequently reject values and expectations that they grew up
with, instead embracing the values and expectations of the class to
which they aspire. "Local leaders" who hope to find employment with
NGOs are in the paradoxical situation of needing to claim affiliation
with the local community in order to escape from it. This sometimes
puts these "local leaders" in a position in which their personal goals
conflict with the goals of their employer.
On the other hand, an organization may want to consider whether the
employment of local leaders, improving their economic situation and
perhaps their rise into the middle class, may actually be an important
part of the goals of the program. If so, perhaps an acknowledgement
of the legitimate aspirations of these employees, together with a
democratic planning process within the community which does not place
all the burden for planning on the employees, may be helpful in
working within the constraints created by the local leader paradox.

Charity and Legitimate Need
A frequent assumption of North American charities is that the giving
of free aid to people fosters an unhealthy dependency and that
accepting charity indicates a shameful condition of need. In
contrast, wage work is dignified and fosters healthy independence.
Perhaps for both of these reasons, many charitable programs are
structured to be opportunities for people to earn the aid, rather than
just being "hand-outs." For example, medical clinics may charge a
nominal fee, or housing programs may donate construction materials
with the condition that recipients donate their labor to complete the
project. Two factors in Nicaragua, however, maybe ought to affect how
charities think about their work. First, the condition of need is not
shameful among most poor people in the countryside. [Although the
condition of need is not necessarily shameful among most poor people
in the countryside, many middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans do
consider need to be shameful or dishonorable. These people will
generally discuss charity in ways which much more closely resemble
North American assumptions. It is important to be sensitive to the
cultural differences between people from different economic situations
and not to assume that "Nicaragua" is a single cultural unit.] While
asking for charity may be embarassing, accepting charity does not
indicate a condition of dishonor. There is a popular saying that goes
"it is better to ask (for charity) than to steal". This saying poses
two possibilities for ways to acquire something that is needed:
(honestly) accepting charity or (dishonestly) stealing. In recognition
of the extremely limited employment opportunities for people in the
rural countryside with relatively low levels of formal education, a
third possibility (earning the thing by working) is not posed.
Second, there is not necessarily a strict black-and-white contrast in
Nicaragua between charity and work. Jobs or opportunities for
share-cropping are often given to people out of pity, rather than
because the labor is strictly needed, for example. And there are
almost no charities or development aid programs which just hand out
things without an expectation that something will be done in return.
Even a program which distributed food during an economic crisis
several years ago was described to me by recipients as having the
objective of "giving us strength so that we could work"—preserving
people's lives and health for the sake of their labor, rather than out
of an abstract valoration of life and health. This final section is
more an observation than a preliminary to any concrete
recommendations, but it may lead an organizers of projects to reflect
on their underlying assumptions.

I would be very interested in any comments anyone has, or thoughts
about whether what I've written here might be constructive/useful for
North American organizations.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

money corrupts

Hi everyone,

My husband Tom got here a few days ago, and it's been really wonderful
to have him around—he'll be here until mid-October. While he's here,
though, he's not exactly on one long vacation. We set up an exchange
for him with the nice doctor who helped me when I was sick a couple of
weeks ago. The doctor lets Tom follow him around and teaches Tom
medicine, and Tom talks with the doctor in English and corrects his
pronounciation. It seems to be working out satisfactorily all around.

As happened the last time he visited, I have been doing a lot of
talking with Tom and not so much soliloquizing on this blog, but I
have just realized something interesting that I want to share here.

I have generally emphasized differences between Nicaraguans' and
Unitedstateseans' cultural understandings of morality, charity and
market… but today I'm going to talk about one thing they have in
common. Both in Nicaragua and in the United States, people feel that
money corrupts. The only reason I know the Spanish word for "camel"
is because people here have quoted the bible verse to me that says
approximately "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle than for a rich man to get into heaven". In both places,
people feel that the desire for profit and wealth leads people to
commit immoral acts… maybe the desire for money is one of the few ways
that ordinary people can explain to themselves why some
incomprehensibly bad things happen. For example, many people in the
U.S. lost their jobs and retirement savings when Enron collapsed. Was
this attributed to random bad luck? No, it happened because of the
actions of some very arrogant and greedy people.

In the last two weeks in Nicaragua, some 200 people have been
poisoned, over 40 died and a bunch more blinded by drinking what had
been sold to them as liquor, but which was actually a high percentage
of methanol, or rubbing alcohol. Before the culprits were arrested, I
heard a number of theories about how this could have happened,
including attempts to drive a local brewing company out of business by
a rival company. And it turns out that the methanol was deliberately
stolen from an industrial chemical company and re-packaged as
drinkable alcohol. This is only comprehensible to anybody here as the
action of somebody who was so driven by the desire for money that he
didn't care about the people he knew would be hurt.

Interestingly, both in the U.S. and in Nicaragua, the evil of the
profit motive is seen to be only occurring "here", whereever "here"
is. In Nicaragua, people have a sense that since this is a poor
country, the desire for money often overwhelms people here. They
often say things to me like "of course this sort of thing never
happens where you come from". People have a keen sense that they live
in an "underdeveloped" country, and "underdeveloped" implies both
poverty and a generalized sense of educational, cultural and moral
inferiority. I feel like I constantly am telling people that yes,
there is crime in the U.S., yes, there is poverty, yes, there is
corruption. (People here generally assume that I have no experience
with protecting myself against burglars and pickpockets, despite the
fact that I've lived in not-the-swankiest parts of New York City for
the last 5 years!)

In the U.S., on the other hand, ordinary people in poor countries are
often described in ways that make them seem innocent of the corruption
of the profit motive. There have been a number of times I've seen in
fair trade literature, for example, a description of coffee farming as
a job which is done by artisans, using techniques which have been
passed down through generations, for the sheer pleasure that an
artisan takes in creating a high-quality craft. Readers are told that
we ought to support these craftspeople in their art, because if we
don't, sordid economic realities may force them to quit. We are also
frequently told that farmers are trying to support their families—a
euphemism for making money which emphasizes moral and cultural values
rather than anything associated with morally dubious profit.

Of course, there are also contradictory tendencies in both worldviews.
In the U.S., while "small farmers" may be viewed as morally pure and
innocent of greed, governments and high officials are often portrayed
as irredeemably corrupt and undemocratic. And in Nicaragua, while
ordinary Unitedstateseans are portrayed as benevolent and innocent of
both politics and greed, the heavy-handed intervention of the U.S.
government (and the governments of other rich countries) and foreign
corporations and organizations are widely resented.

There is one important difference I can see between these narratives
(except, of course, for the power inequities which shape the
narratives). In Nicaragua, there is a stronger idea of wealth as a
limited good. A couple of months ago there was an expose in one of
the newspapers describing the lifestyle of a Nicaraguan baseball
player, Vicente Padilla, who is pitching in the major leagues for the
Texas Rangers. I was hanging out in the office of the cooperative,
and a number of people were discussing his multiple sports cars, his
expensive houses, his boat. Like there would probably have been in a
similar conversation in the U.S., there was a certain amount of
disgust and a certain amount of envy mixed in with people's reactions.
But people also commented on the contrast between this pitcher's
salary and the salaries of people in the Matagalpa area. Several
people commented on how many people that salary could feed, how many
poor people could be helped with that salary. Would these comments
have been made very often in the U.S.? My feeling is that they would
be made less often, that people do not feel that when one person is
rich there is less money to go around for everybody else.

But, as always, I'm open to being corrected on these points.


P.S. Speaking of baseball, I would like to hereby apologize to all
Red Sox fans—I feel responsible for their poor finish this season,
since I haven't been doing my part to root them. ;-) I'll do much
better next year, I promise! (And hopefully the new Nicaraguan
pitcher Devorn Hansack will help, too!)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Instability of Organizations (and some personal stuff)

Hi Everybody,

I'm back in Matagalpa today, but unfortunately I've been taken out of
commission for a few days due to some health problems. Amusingly,
it's not one of the myriad frightening-sounding diseases with which
The Tropics supposedly menace Unitedstateseans, but rather just an
infection. I won't get into the unpleasant details, but I saw a
doctor yesterday and he prescribed me to take some medications which
add up to about $5.71 per day. Or in other words, about 3 and 1/3
days' salary for an agricultural worker around here.

As I'm writing this, however, it occurs to me to wonder whether
infections might be more common and/or stronger around here than in
the United States. I am taking a strong antibiotic, but the doctor
did not give me a length of time to take it for—he wrote on the
prescription that I should take it "until you get better", (although
he did advise me to take it for at least 5 days.) And I bought the
pills individually. In the U.S. patients on antibiotics are warned to
always finish the entire regimen, even though they may feel better
after only half, in order to be sure to kill 100% of the germs and
avoid breeding extra-strong germs which were able to survive the first
half. But around here, if you're paying 3 and 1/3 days' salary for
every pill you take, the economic incentives are obviously high to
stop when you feel better. And doctors take these realities into
account. (Health insurance is unheard of, but sometimes hospitals may
give out some pills for free, although people have told me that one of
the things that has gotten much worse since the Sandinista government
left is that the hospitals no longer have any medicine.) About there
being stronger germs here, though, I don't have any sense of how local
such a phenomenon would be… any pathologists (or med students, or
doctors of other specialties) reading this blog and want to weigh in?

Anyways, so I've been thinking about why it might be that cooperatives
and similar groups tend to be unstable, forming and then dissolving
quickly. I'm sure there are many complex reasons, but one hypothesis
I've been working on goes something like this:

Many people that I've been talking to here in Nicaragua have an image
of the political/economic world which comes in three broad layers
(although of course there are many more subtle sub-layers). On the
bottom are poor Nicaraguans, who need and deserve aid. Picture them
as ordinary people, standing on the ground. In the middle is the
system of Nicaraguan governmental and non-governmental means of
distributing aid. Picture this as an atmospheric layer of smog. On
the top is the sunshine-drenched world above the clouds where we find
benevolent, well-meaning and rich people from countries like the U.S.,
Europe, Japan, and also China and Venezuela. (I'm not sure exactly
how an economist would classify the economies of countries like China
and Venezuela, but they're definitely in the "rich donor" category
relative to Nicaragua, probably largely for political reasons). These
benevolent people want to give the aid that poor people deserve and
need. And they do, indeed, give massive amounts of money. But this
money gets filtered as it descends through the corrupt layers of
distribution, so that only a small percentage arrives to the
recipients. (I mentioned this, describing it slightly differently, in
my last entry.)

Given this image, it is easy to see why people would be interested in
finding the most direct linkages possible to donors. In my last entry
I wrote about how people therefore bypassed government, which is
especially connected with corruption in people's minds. But
corruption is not perceived as a government monopoly. To a greater or
lesser extent, it is associated with ALL structures that intervene
between people and aid. (I've been wondering, actually, whether
corruption could actually be understood in this context as anything
that (illegitimately?) subtracts from the aid on its way to the
recipients. Because I've heard instances of incompetence, or even
just decisions which were understandable but unfortunate in
retrospect, as being described as corruption.)

This creates a bit of a paradox. In order to access aid, you need to
be part of an organization, like a cooperative, because
(international) aid almost never comes to individuals. But
organizations are perceived as potentially/probably corrupt. (And
indeed, if they're subtracting operating costs, and I'm right about
the definition of corruption, they all are.) So people tend to
abandon established organizations in response to a new chance to
access aid more directly, and they establish new organizations, which
then get perceived as corrupt in their turn and abandoned when the
next chance comes along.

Incidentally, many people say that Nicaragua would be rich and
prosperous if it weren't for all the layers which prevent aid from
arriving to people. This sounds naïve and mistaken to people used to
the most stylish economic model among policy makers today (neoliberal
economics), according to which aid distorts The Market, and therefore
society, by changing the balance of reward and punishment. But there
are alternate economic theories, too, which tend to actually support
this statement. It has been shown that inequality is a big cause of
both poverty and poor economic prospects—so you can have two countries
with the same gross national product, but in country A the richest 20%
of the people have 95% of the money, and in country B the richest 20%
of the people have only, say, 30% of the money. Not only will you see
a lot more poverty in country A, but you can expect country B to have
a much bigger GNP than country A in ten years time. And, obviously,
assuming B has kept its egalitarian economic structure intact, the
proceeds from that GNP will be enjoyed by many more of B's
inhabitants. So… a better distribution of wealth would, in fact,
probably help Nicaragua to be richer and more prosperous. That is, if
this distribution of wealth could ever be accomplished without certain
large powerful countries to the north waging campaigns of economic

I'd love to hear any thoughts from anyone reading this, and especially
from people who might have Nicaraguan knowledge or comparative
perspectives. Does this sound familiar to you? Do you know of
similar perspectives being held by people in other places? Am I
completely mistaken? (Feel free to email me rather than posting a
reply here. My email is carolynffisher AT gmail DOT com).


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

globalization and sovereignty

Dear readers,

Well this time I'm writing from Managua, for a change, where I've come
to consult some professors at one of the universities and to meet with
some people at an NGO which finances cooperatives in Matagalpa. Down
this close to the equator, the major factor that determines the
climate is altitude. Matagalpa, where I am normally located, is
something like 900 meters above sea level, and the climate is really
pretty idyllic, except for the rain (we're in the rainy season right
now). It only gets really hot, but never humid, around mid-day. At
night, it's probably in the sixties usually, but never any colder—I
don't even have any blanket for my bed. But Managua is much lower,
and is really, really hot. I'm constantly covered in a sheen of
sweat, which just makes the dust stick to me. But I'm spoiling myself
tonight, and my hotel room actually has air conditioning!

What I want to write about today is the idea of governments and
globalization. Globalization is a phenomenon which is widely talked
about, but there is no widely agreed-upon definition. Some people say
it means that the world is "getting smaller" via improved
communication and transportation, but this is not the case in many
important aspects for the world's poor. (There may be an internet
café in the nearest town, but if you never learned to read in the
first place, let alone use a computer, that's not going to do you much
good.) On the other hand, the world's poor are perhaps more mobile
and more dependent on resources far away from where they live. For
example, among the members of the cooperative I work with, a very
large percentage of adult males, and a smaller percentage of females,
have gone for a several month period to work in Costa Rica, where
wages are higher. This is often done to send money back to their
families, or to buy land or build a house. It is just one of many
strategies that farmers use, in addition to farming, to try to make
ends come a little closer together, even if they're not able to make
them meet.

BUT, what some people have said is that due to globalization, the
importance of national-level governments in poorer countries is
diminishing, and the importance of other bodies—like multinational
corporations, international governing bodies like the World Bank and
the United Nations, and international non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) providing development aid, charity projects, and forums for
political action.

I've been thinking a lot about this hypothesis. At first, I thought
that in Nicaragua, at least, I was seeing exactly the reverse. I
noticed that the government is seen as responsible for solving most
group problems, even when in my opinion, the government couldn't
really do much about it. For example, last year there was an
encampment set up in Managua, the capital, of people who had been
injured or poisoned by pesticides applied on banana plantations owned
by a U.S. based corporation. The pesticides applied are illegal in
the United States, I don't remember right now whether they are illegal
or not in Nicaragua. Through the protest, the people were petitioning
the government of Nicaragua to get the company to do something to
recompense them for their injuries. At the time, the company had left
Nicaragua. I'm a little vague on these details and may have got some
of them wrong. But both then and now, I was really unclear what the
government of Nicaragua could do to pressure a foreign company. (I
think it was eventually resolved, after the people had been protesting
for over a year, by the government giving them money.)

Another example: this last May, a group of eye surgeons came from the
U.S. and provided a bunch of people in Nicaragua with cataract
surgeries. But something went wrong—either they didn't follow
sterilization procedures, or were using expired medicine—and a number
of the patients got infections and were blinded. The commentary in
the newspaper was not saying that the NGO should make amends, but
rather that the government should provide the people with pensions and
make stricter regulations for foreign medical brigades in the future.

All this sounded at first to me like the government's sovereignty may
be weakened by these foreign actors, but that it has not lost its
legitimacy in the eyes of the public. But now I'm beginning to
wonder. People are very aware that the government of Nicaragua does
not have unlimited funds, and many are aware that it has strict limits
placed on its actions by its international creditors. But an
important role of a good government, as many people have told me, is
to cultivate international donors and get them to bring development
projects to the people. That is, although the government itself
doesn't have the cash, it is seen as doing a good job when it channels
cash from a presumably vast supply outside of the country.

But people talk a lot about government corruption as a huge problem.
I don't know myself how wide-spread corruption is in the government,
and it probably would be impossible to quantify with any accuracy.
But people here have the perception that it's very wide-spread, and
that a lot of the aid which comes to the country does not get properly
channeled through the government to the people, but rather stays in
the pockets of government officials.

Given this, people logically begin to think that it would be better to
go directly to the source, and not have the aid filter through the
government. (Which is why my presence is so symbolically charged: I
am a Unitedstatesean and am seen as a representative of the place
where a lot of the aid comes from. I am seen as a direct link to the
source.) And this therefore undermines the legitimacy of the
government. But it doesn't look like the government is being
undermined by outside forces—rather, it looks like the characteristics
of the specific government itself are causing the problem, and if it
would only shape up, it might become legitimate again even in the
current international climate.


P.S. I am not going to take credit for coining the word
Unitedstatesean, but I do really want to get it incorporated into
common usage in English. After all, Nicaraguans are just as much
Americans as any gringo! Ten points and a cookie for the person who
writes the best set of lyrics for a patriotic song using it. ("I'm
proud to be a Unitedstatesean" …my meter is a little bit off.) And if
you then get rich from the royalties, all I'll ask for is a footnote
on the album liner. And 1%.

P.P.S. I've recently become aware that a fellow doctoral student
researcher named Noah Enelow also has a blog about coffee and fair
trade. He's starting his research soon down in Peru, and his blog is
at: It sounds like for
now, at least, he's much more directly focused on fair trade than I
have been, lately. Good luck, Noah!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dignified Earning or Paternalistic Manipulation?

Hi Everybody,

So I've been thinking about the ways that a single development aid
program can be interpreted in very different ways among recipients and
donors. This is connected with earlier entries I've made here about
charity and morality, although I'm going off in a different direction

Like I've said before, in the U.S., the recipients of charity are
highly stigmatized. It's pretty common to hear people talking with
the assumption that if you're accepting charity, there must be
something wrong with you—you're lazy, you're disabled, you're mentally
ill, you're otherwise somehow less than a fully functioning adult. It
is assumed that self-respecting people want to get off charity as soon
as possible. You can reference the welfare reform debates in the late
90s if you want more on this.

Because of this, there has been a change in the fashion of how to
design a charity or aid program. This change has occurred probably
over the course of the last 15 to 20 years. So many charity and
development aid programs today are designed with the idea that giving
lots of money with few conditions will do more harm than good in the
long run, fostering dependency and a "culture of poverty". Programs
are set up so that recipients will not sit back and be given things,
but will rather have the opportunity to earn aid. For example, here
in Nicaragua it is common for an NGO to donate building materials, say
for a school, leaving the actual construction work to be done by
members of the recipient community.

This all sounds great, given the assumption that self-respecting
adults do not want to accept charity. However, in Nicaragua, like
I've written before, I've found that there is less stigma attached to
the idea of accepting charity. Need—like hunger, or poverty—is
accepted as a legitimate reason for giving and accepting money, food,
or development aid.

People here recognize that aid programs are changing. People have
been saying things like "Before, the programs came and helped us more
freely. They gave us tools and seed to plant and food so we had the
strength to work. But today, the programs come and have all these
strings attached. When they give us things, we have to pay them back
with interest, even if the crops fail. They make us go to lots of
meetings and talk about things that aren't important. We have work to
do!" (This is not a direct quote, but all these statements have been
made to me, sometimes by different people at different times.)

Further, these programs come with agendas. For example, a single
organization that works in one of the communities where I've been
working has groups (and therefore meetings) about making gender
relations more equitable, about environmental conservation, about
agricultural diversification (growing more types of crops), and about
improving the productivity of small farms. The program about
environmental conservation, for example, provides credit to construct
coffee processing systems in which the waste water will not run into
the rivers. It also occasionally donates tools or provides credit to
buy organic fertilizer. It also holds trainings and meetings on the
importance of environmental conservation, talking about things like
watersheds, species diversity, and long-term health effects of
pesticides. In order to get access to the credit and donated
materials, people must attend the workshops and meetings.

I personally feel that environmental conservation and more equitable
gender relations are very important. But these issues seem very
abstract to many of the small farmers I've been talking to, who are
more concerned with making enough money with their next year's crop to
feed their families throughout the year. Species diversity is a
pretty idea, until it means that the rising populations of large
mammals keep stealing the chickens. Producing organically is great,
until the crop yields go down dramatically and the promised increased
prices don't materialize.

This type of program, therefore, instead of seeming like a dignified
opportunity to earn a living, instead seems like manipulation. It
seems like a quid pro quo, in which farmers are forced to parrot the
party line in order to get access to needed aid programs which used to
be given without these conditions. It seems like paternalism—the very
attitude that the programs were designed to combat.

In this context, things like organic certification and fair trade
certification look pretty similar to other forms of aid. The
certifying agencies seem to be saying, we promise to give you this
seal, which will give you more leverage as you're searching for buyers
who will pay a better price for your coffee, if you in turn agree to
be organized in a cooperative, to avoid using this list of fertilizers
and pesticides, to rigorously document all your farm's activities
(this among farmers who are far too often illiterate or barely
literate) etc.

A colleague has asked me whether I see any resistance to these aid
programs and this type of manipulation. I'm not sure whether low
levels of participation in meetings, frequent defaulting on loans, and
widespread very cynical attitudes count as resistance. But I've been
wondering whether fairly frequent embezzlement from the programs might
count as resistance, even if it's not constructive resistance. I've
also been wondering whether even more frequent accusations of
corruption might count as resistance.

And you know what? Despite all this, I haven't given up on fair
trade. I haven't developed a hostile attitude towards aid programs.
I haven't been able to identify a Bad Guy. I really see a lot of
well-intentioned and even idealistic people involved in these aid
programs. I see many (if not all) of the intermediaries who directly
administer the programs as genuinely concerned with farmer well-being,
angry about the problems with the system, and distressed at not having
a better way of doing things. And I see farmers who are concerned
about how to best make a living under very difficult conditions, who
are conscious of being both intelligent and deficient in formal
education, and who resent being treated like children.

What is the solution? I've got no idea. A friend of mine here
generously thinks that a little bit of pointed anthropological
analysis might help. I'm trying to share his optimism as my work


Thursday, August 17, 2006


Hi Everybody,

Well, it's election season here in Nicaragua. There will be elections
for a new president on November fifth, and the possibility of a change
of government somehow ends up playing a part in almost every
conversation I've been having lately.

There are three major candidates and three or four minor ones. The
two leaders are pretty much tied in the polls, the last I saw, both
getting around 30 percent of the vote, and the third major candidate,
from the Liberal Party, gets about 15 percent. I'm counting the
Liberal as a major candidate because the last three presidents have
been Liberals, although the current president is widely agreed to be
an ineffectual failure and his predecessor is technically a prisoner
(although he's really under a very mild house arrest) for corruption
and money laundering.

The two frontrunners are Daniel Ortega and Eduardo Montealegre.
Daniel Ortega, as you may or may not know, was the president of
Nicaragua from 1979, when the socialist Sandinistas took power after
an armed struggle to oust the U.S.-supported dictator Somoza. Daniel
and the Sandinistas lost power in the elections of 1990, after a
decade of war and hyper-inflation left the country exhausted. Some
people will emphasize the U.S. economic blockade and (illegal but
well-documented) CIA support for the rebel guerrilla groups of Contras
in explaining this loss in 1990. Others talk about mistaken
Sandinista economic policy, the widely-resented military draft, and
governmental unilateralism. Eduardo Montealegre is the U.S.-supported
candidate (although foreign intervention in the elections is
technically illegal), and represents an alliance between a dissident
branch of the Liberal party and the conservative party.

By the way, the word "Liberal" in Latin America means pretty much the
opposite of what it means in the U.S. In the U.S., a Liberal is on
the left of the political spectrum. It is the Conservatives, or the
right side of the political spectrum, especially Neo-Conservatives,
who are currently in favor of unrestricted free trade, the
privatization of state services, and the reduction of the jurisdiction
of government in favor of the supposed economic benefits of letting
The Market solve all problems. In Latin America, on the other hand,
it is the Liberals who want to do these things. The conservative
party in Nicaragua is not politically viable by itself except on a
local level.

So, one really interesting thing about all this to me is WHY people
seem interested in the possible change of government. They almost
always relate it to the direct benefits they themselves expect to
receive, or not to receive, from a given government. For example,
people say things like: if the Liberals win, the candidate has
promised to fix the road that goes to our community; if the
Sandinistas come to power, they will halve the salaries of all the
government officials and put the proceeds into a development bank
which will give us loans at low interest; if Montealegre wins, the
U.S. will send more development aid projects to us; if the Sandinistas
win, the U.S. may cut off aid, but Venezuela, China, and Cuba will
give us help instead. And in this context, aid doesn't mean loans
made to the government, but rather specific projects that will come to
benefit the exact individuals I'm talking to.

Many people are very cynical about the promises politicians make, just
like in the U.S.. Oh, politicians make beautiful promises, but once
they get into office they forget all about us. However, the
interesting thing is that everybody seems to accept the premise that a
GOOD politician would bring projects and direct benefits to the poor.
I've been asking people, especially the cynical ones, what the country
would be like if the politicians kept their promises, or were honest.
And they say, the politicians would be working hard to bring us
development aid from foreign NGOs. They would execute other projects
themselves. And we wouldn't be so poor. Nicaragua would become

I started out thinking that this sounded very strange and almost
naïve. But lately it's been seeming more and more natural. And I've
been asking myself, what do people in the U.S. want from their
politicians that a proposal for direct improvements to conditions
sounds illegitimate? For example, a politician who promises "job
creation" is absolutely run of the mill. But a politician who
promises the creation of a specific job for a specific someone sounds
corrupt. A politician who is interested in improving infrastructure
sounds responsible and down-to-earth. But a politician who wants to
improve a specific road in his or her specific district is accused of
sordid motives.

Am I right about this? And if so, what makes this distinction
meaningful? Is it that we want our politicians to be impartial, and
not to care about us, specifically? Or do we have so much disdain for
government—the hardy/hearty, independent, self-sufficient frontier
pioneers that we all are—that when we bother to participate in
politics we just pick the guy that we'd most like to have a beer with?
Is this difference connected with my earlier entry about the
differing attitudes towards charity? If in the U.S. there is a lot of
stigma connected with accepting charity, or government hand-outs, do
most people then feel that since they're not planning on accepting
anything from the government, they think it is demeaning or sleazy of
politicians to promise, or even follow through on, specific benefits?

If this is accurate, it strikes me as bordering on delusional. I've
read some fascinating science fiction in which the government is
shrunk to really doing nothing (Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, eg.),
but it is very, very clear that this is fiction. And that it is not a
world that even the most fervent NeoConservative would ever want to
live in. Although it might appeal to some Libertarians (are they
still trying to take over New Hampshire?).

Anyways, here I am, working away, having a good time in general. I'm
getting a lot of interviews done, having some great conversations, and
feeling like I really could probably sit down and write this
dissertation right now, if I weren't so interested to see what happens
next. Of course, that probably means that I'm oversimplifying. Which
is why it's so much fun being an anthropologist.


Friday, August 04, 2006


Hi Everyone,

Blah, I've been feeling a little bit sad the last couple of days.
While I was gone in the U.S. during the month of July, there were a
number of big changes in the cooperative I've been working with. A
couple of the officers were removed in a special election, and others
voted in instead. One of the people who was removed is someone I had
been working with pretty closely, and had stayed in his house in the
campo a number of times, getting to know his family. I had considered
him a friend.

When I heard he had been removed, one of my main ideas was to wonder
how to approach him without embarassing him, and how to approach the
new people who were voted in. But I went to see him this week, and he
greeted me just as normal. We made small talk, and I completely
avoided the topic of the cooperative. Until he brought it up himself.

He started talking about the situation, describing it in great detail,
and all about these other projects he claimed to be doing. The
problem is that I know that he wasn't being entirely truthful with me.
This goes beyond people having different perspectives on things.
Some of it was probably exaggeration, and some of it was him
optimistically describing things as already being the way he plans for
them to be soon. But he came across to me as being totally out of
touch, either with the community or with reality, or a little bit of
both. There is another possibility, which I don't really like to
think about, but it's possible. He may have been deliberately
misrepresenting the situation in order to try to stay interesting to
me. To maintain some influence over me. To reinforce a claim over

I have no illusions that this would be because I'm such a fantastic
person that everybody wants me to be their friends, that I'm the cool
kid in junior high and everyone is wildly jockeying just to be seen
with me. There are a couple of things that I think I represent in
this social context. This man knows perfectly well that I don't have
any connections with any NGOs or any development projects which could
bring material benefits to the community. But as a gringa, my
presence symbolizes access to the world of development aid. If I am
staying in somebody's house, it symbolically associates that family in
the eyes of the community with these powerful sources of assistance.
(And I think that despite effort on my part to deny this, most people
in el campo are still not convinced that I'm not part of a development
project. After all, almost all the other gringos who show up and say
they're doing "studies" are doing them as an evaluation prior to
bringing in development aid.) And second, when I have stayed there
overnight, I have given them a little bit of money. I really hate to
think that the small amount I gave them (about $8.50 per night) has
made a big difference in their economic situation, but I'm afraid that
it might be true.

It terrifies me to think that I may have inadvertently caused people
to depend on me. That they may have been making plans based on the
expectation that I will continue to be a source of income. And I
don't know why I feel so strongly that this is a scary thing. I think
it goes beyond wondering if I have anything personally to be ashamed
of (have I mistakenly misrepresented myself, or said anything which I
should have known was ambiguous??) I think it's about the whole idea
of dependence.

Making commitments is not inherently scary to me. I got married on
the young side, right out of college, and even at the time I wasn't
freaked out thinking about the commitment part of it. I've been lucky
enough to have had in my parents great role models about how to do the
work required to be part of a couple. I feel like it is a beautiful
and natural thing for people to be strongly committed to groups,
whether they are a family or a group of friends.

Maybe what is scary has to do with the fact that I'm only in Nicaragua
for a year. It's not like I'm moving here for the rest of my life.
Any commitments I make will have to be temporary. Or very
long-distance. And this is not a terribly natural state of things.
(Listen to the anthropologist talking about how things are,
"naturally"! I would be laughed out of a graduate seminar.) What I
am scared about is making promises that I won't be able to keep. And
making more than superficial friends, with all the mutual favor-doing
and relying-on-each-other which that involves, feels like making
promises. So am I saying here that I'm scared of making friends?

This entry has gone in a bit of an unexpected direction. I started
off being sad about a friendship which isn't working out, and maybe
wondering if this was part of the nature of doing ethnography far from
home. But I think I've ended up revealing my perfectionist tendencies
a little bit too clearly. If I make friends, we have to be friends
FOREVER! If I have relationships with people, they have to be
PERFECT! And if I can't achieve that, I just won't have any friends
or relationships. Hmph. But this is so silly. Even families under
the best possible circumstances are always changing—people marry in,
other people get born, people die. There are fights and feuds, and
significant others and fictive kin (friends so close that you include
them in the "Dear Family" emails.) So why should I feel like my
friendships should be so pristine? The best we can ever do is just
muddle along, trying to do more good than bad.

Course, all this doesn't necessarily help me figure out what to do
about this man, and especially his family (stop talking to them
altogether? try to be good friends with them still? still stay in
their house? stay in a different house? just never stay overnight in
that community any more?). But it makes me feel a little bit better
about things, anyways.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

charity and perceived alternatives

Hi Everybody,

Well, I've got two questions for anyone who's reading this. It's
multiple choice, and you can respond either to my email address or in
the comment section here. I'd also love to hear thoughts and reasons
why you answered as you did, if you feel like it.

Here are the questions.

1) If you were hungry and had no way of getting food besides the
following choices, would you rather (A) mug somebody with a knife in
an alley to get money; or (B) ask people on the street to give you

2) If you were poor and had no way of getting money besides the
following choices, would you rather (A) break into a big house where
you were sure nobody was home and there was no burglar alarm and steal
things to sell; or (B) apply for welfare?

Have you decided what you're going to answer yet? Okay, now I'll
explain why I'm asking.

I think that here in Nicaragua there are two ideas about charity which
are in conflict. One is very familiar to those of us who live in the
US: accepting charity is a fairly shameful thing. Accepting charity
implies a confession that you have failed in some way—that you are not
able to get or keep a job, one of the ways that United Stateseans tend
to measure personal worth and dignity. (This is why some feminists
have been so anxious to dignify "homemaking" as a legitimate,
challenging job, for example.) Accepting charity also puts you in a
certain moral danger of becoming dependent on that charity, of
stopping to try to work, of becoming lazy. Here in Nicaragua, there
is a popular saying, most frequently repeated by NGO employees, which
means something like, "When somebody gives us something, we take it
and have a party with it" (in contrast to what we earn ourselves,
which we put to constructive use.) It rhymes in Spanish and is much
more catchy. It is this idea about charity which brought us the idea
of the "deserving poor"—some people are poor because they can't help
it (they had an accident and weren't insured, they have a disability,
they were victims of a natural disaster), and therefore they deserve
help in getting out of it. Other people, the undeserving poor, are
poor because it's their own darn fault (they're lazy, they're sexually
promiscuous and so had too many kids, they're wasteful, they're
addicted), and they don't deserve our help.

This is in contrast to a second idea about charity which people
sometimes talk about, which feels very unfamiliar to me. According to
this idea, charity is not as stigmatized, and need does not imply
blame. If somebody is poor, they should be given charity. I have
been startled a couple of times by the respect with which people treat
beggars. In the house in el campo where I've stayed a number of
times, a homeless woman with two small children sometimes stops in to
beg. She is given a seat in the house, her children are allowed to
run around, and she is brought a glass of water, a cup of coffee and
some bread, or sometimes a plate of beans and a tortilla. She may
stay an hour or two. She is possibly mentally ill, and people have a
couple of times indicated this to me with gestures, behind her back,
but nobody ever tries to kick her out. I have seen this happen in the
city, too. Once when I was going to look at a room I was thinking
about renting, I was inside the house chatting with the owner, an
elderly widow. Another woman, a stranger to the owner, knocked at the
door asking for coffee. The owner gave her a seat, a cup of coffee
and some bread, and a couple of coins. I had finished talking about
the room, but all three of us sat together talking in the living room
until a heavy rainstorm passed. One final example, which was very
surprising to me at the time: during an interview, a man was telling
me about some men he knew. They're drunks, all they like to do is
drink. And they support themselves by asking for money on the street.
But they would never steal from anyone, they're very honorable men.

There is another popular refrain which means "it's better to ask for
charity so that you don't have to steal," which I associate with this
second idea. The thing that's interesting to me about the refrain is
that there are only two alternatives posed—asking for charity or
stealing. This implies to me a view of the world, probably pretty
realistic around here, that when you're down on your luck, it's not
easy to just go out and find work. There is an astronomical level of
unemployment, and most unskilled labor (agricultural labor, I'm
thinking) earns 20 cordobas a day, or about one dollar and 18 cents at
current exchange rates. And this is only available to most people
during the coffee picking season, mid-November through February.
We're now in the "time of silence", when there is almost no work to be
had if you don't have land and you don't have a permanent job. So…
people don't blame other people for being poor, and there is less
stigma attached to asking for or receiving charity.

One thing I've been asking recently in my research is… what do the
existence of these two different sets of ideas mean for interactions
between charities and rural beneficiaries? Does it cause bad feelings
and misunderstandings on both sides? Does it increase the sense that
work by non-profits, which is seen as charity or aid by its United
States funders and probably by most of its workers as well, is seen by
the beneficiaries as a business which has ulterior motives besides
just helping them?

Maybe in another blog entry I'll write a moderately blistering
indictment of all the ulterior motives which non-profits working in
this area do apparently have. But this one is getting a little bit
long, so I'll sign off now.

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

zero sum game?

I want to respond a little bit about this comment. I certainly don´t
want to argue that technology does not and could not make a difference
about the total amount of goods being divided up among people of the
world. Goodness knows that the agricultural technology that was
introduced in the 1970s, which made possible a doubling and tripling
of the yield of many food crops, would be enough to clinch any
argument about that. But I also don´t think that the changes we´ve
seen over the last couple hundred years are enough to invalidate a
hypothesis of zero-sum.

Picture the world economy as a single system, within which goods and
people circulate. Picture it being subject to entropy: it tends
towards a state of even distribution of wealth. However, due to the
application of energy via more or less coercive economic/political
relationships, most of the wealth flows to just one part of the
system. (There are a number of problems with this metaphor which I
won´t go into now.) Another dynamic of the system is that there is a
constant demand for growth in the rich parts of the system. There are
two ways this can happen: first, more wealth is taken from the poor
parts, leaving them even poorer. Second, the total area encompassed
by the system grows.

This system has only recently reached its current size. Preiously,
say 600 years ago, the "world economy" may have only encompassed the
metropolitan centers of Europe and the Middle East. During this time,
there was less total wealth encompassed by the system, so although the
rich centers were rich compared to the poor ones, they weren´t all
that rich compared to current standards. Over the next centuries,
however, as technology improved (under the favorable conditions of the
concentration of wealth in the rich places) more and more places were
incorporated into the system, partially due to the application of that
technology. Now the wealth is still flowing towards the rich parts,
but there is a lot more of it, so the rich parts are better off. And
technology is advancing even faster.

What´s the difference between now and a few hundred years ago? We´ve
hit limits in two directions. First, there are very very few places
left on this planet which are not incorporated into the world economy.
(Nicaraguan peasants, for example, are very very completely
incorporated. That´s a big reason why they´re so poor.) So since the
system is still demanding growth (read stock market analyses if you
don´t believe me) the only alternative is to get more and more wealth
from already-incorporated places. And there are limits to this sort
of thing. Even if it doesn´t provoke a revolution which directly
opposes the rich countries, people die out... from plague (think HIV),
or from other, easier-to-fight wars (think the Congo), for example.
Second, we´re rapidly approaching an environmental crisis, if we
aren´t already in it. (My husband´s uncle and aunt strongly recommend
a book called The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. I haven´t
read it yet myself, but I very much respect their endorsement.)

Frankly, I think that the one way we could really get out of this
without a total break with the system (which would probably involve a
lot of human death, unless we´re way luckier than we deserve to be),
is space colonies, both to increase the area encompassed by the
economic system and to have an environmental safety valve. So maybe
I, too, am a believer that technology can be a way out.

In any case, now that I´ve made myself sound like a total radical, I
want to say that I´m not a nihilist, I´m not terminally depressed
about the immediate future of the human race, and I don´t rule out a
non-violent solution. I´m not arrogant enough to think that I can
forsee what will happen in the next 100 years. I just firmly believe
that we won´t be able to proceed the way we´ve been going on.
"Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" -Antonio Gramsci