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!