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!

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