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.