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).