Tuesday, September 04, 2007
What will still make the biggest difference for my inland friends, however, is the amount of rain which falls, and how quickly the storm moves out. The worst damage during Mitch was caused, not by the winds, but by the rain and the consequent mudslides.
Well, I wish I was writing after such a long hiatus with good news, but unfortunately this isn't the case. Hurricane Felix made landfall on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua this morning as a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest type of storm. For comparison, Katrina was only a Category 3 when it made landfall near New Orleans. Felix is closely following the trajectory taken by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which was extremely destructive in the area where my friends live.
In good news, the eye of the hurricane is passing to the north of the Matagalpa area, and Felix is travelling a little faster than Mitch was. (Mitch parked over the region for a week, causing enormous floods.) Also, it has now weakened to a Category 3.
In bad news, the storm is slowing down. The National Weather Service has predicted that between 8-12 inches of rain may fall on Nicaragua, but that mountainous regions (like Matagalpa, although it didn't specifically give Matagalpa as an example), may get up to 25 inches of rain.
Back during Hurricane Mitch, the rain was the worst part of the storm in the Matagalpa region. Landslides and flooding carried away most of the crops that had been planted that year, and stripped most of the coffee off the trees. Many of the coffee trees themselves were even uprooted and carried off by mudslides. Some houses were even carried off. And in this normally pretty dry region, water sources--wells and natural springs--were permanently damaged. The roads were blocked for weeks.
I expect that most of my friends are taking shelter in the cement schoolhouse in the community, which is not too near any unstable hillsides. After the experience 9 years ago, I imagine they're taking this storm seriously. But after the storm, an NGO did a survey of unstable hillsides in the area, which might pose a risk for mudslides in another similar storm. They identified houses which are in risky places, and advised the residents of the houses to move. But they had nowhere else to go which would be less risky. If those surveys were accurate, I am worried that a number of my friends may lose their houses in this storm.
Keep your fingers crossed that this storm will pass through quickly. If you pray, please pray. If anything changes, or I get any news, I'll post about it here.
Monday, March 19, 2007
So I’m working on writing a paper which I have to give at a conference at the end of the month, and thought I’d try out my arguments on you for practice. I would LOVE to know what anyone thinks, whether my arguments are clear, whether you have any questions or thoughts, whether you have any criticisms, whether the logic of my argument breaks down, etc. And apologies in advance for a way-longer-than-usual post.
My main arguments are: we need to distinguish between accusations of corruption and actual instances of corruption. And also, an accusation of corruption is not necessarily always or merely describing corruption. It also is a moral evaluation of a world economic system that is unjust, and a way of making meaningful sense out of this injustice. And finally, when these accusations were made to me, it was a way of making a moral claim on those rich countries in the system with the perceived power to help.
When I was in Nicaragua, I was told story after story of corrupt practices among government officials, from national leaders to local community representatives, among church and political party leaders, and among officials of cooperatives, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and other development projects.
I am not in a position to evaluate whether any of these stories are true or not. However, there have been a number of studies done, using questionable research methods, attempting to measure corruption, or at least rank countries according to the degree of corruption that exists within them today and to measure the change in this corruption over time. Transparency International, for example, does a “Corruption Barometer” every year, using survey data commissioned from Gallup to ask about people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of government in combating corruption, which sectors people perceive as being the most corrupt, and asking about the last bribe they paid. They then use this data to publish conclusions about “the public’s” perceptions of corruption. Similarly, the World Bank Institute published a report last year measuring and ranking, among other “governance indicators”, the degree of corruption in each country. These rankings were based on multiple surveys done by other agencies, practically all of which were constructed based on opinion surveys conducted among “business leaders” working in the countries in question. I have not found any agency which is successfully attempting to measure and compare across countries, in quantitative money terms, the amount of money lost to bribery or embezzlement. In other words, we have measures of perceptions of corruption, but not of actual instances of corruption. And these questions about perceptions of corruption do not allow for any cultural variation in understandings of what corruption might be. (However, more specific questioning about personal experiences of specific types of corruption may help with this, as in the Transparency International’s questions about the last bribe that you paid, its amount, etc.)
Despite these methodological issues, I should mention that Nicaragua gets mixed reviews in these surveys, despite some very high-profile corruption cases in recent years. (Nicaragua’s president from 1996-2002, Arnoldo Aleman, is serving a cushy home-detention jail sentence for embezzlement during his presidential term.) Among Central American countries, according to the World Bank study, Nicaragua scores third out of five. But Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America: if Nicaragua is compared with its fellow low-income countries across the globe, it scores better than average.
So my point is that although I was constantly hearing stories about both governmental and non-governmental corruption, Nicaragua does not stand out as a country with an unusual degree of corruption according to what few, questionable, international comparisons are available.
One thing I noticed when hearing the stories told to me in Nicaragua is that they did not always conform to my definition of corruption. My dictionaries, both English and Spanish, are vague on this point, merely saying that corruption is immoral behavior. (Corruption/corrupción is a cognate in English and Spanish and the dictionary definitions are almost identical.) For example, according to one of them, corrupting a woman could mean seducing her (of course, seducing a man, if you’re a woman, wouldn’t be corrupting him, since heterosexual sex is apparently only immoral for women. Grr.) However, I think we can say that in the current context, corruption is generally understood to be a technical term, meaning more than just immoral behavior, but also including something about abuse of power and personal gain. Therefore I was surprised to hear cases of what I would describe as simple incompetence or inefficiency, in which nobody benefited, and least of all those responsible, described as corruption.
For example: Nicaraguan political commentator Oscar-René Vargas, in a book on the topic of corruption in Nicaraguan society, defines corruption as “acts which, taking advantage of the authority of a public or judicial office, are used to gain illicit or improper earnings” (2000: 25 my approximate translation). However, in a different part of this same book, Vargas describes a two-stage project to improve the health system in Nicaragua, for which loans were taken out from the World Bank. This project involved a high degree of training for the employees involved. However, with the entrance of a new government, all the employees were fired. The project was started up again later, but new employees had to be located, and further loans had to be taken out for the trainings to be done all over again (Vargas 2000: 34). I would have interpreted this situation as very bad, yes… as evidence of incompetence and negligence, yes. But corruption? Nobody benefited from this situation. Another example from the same book is that Vargas lists “high salaries, paid in U.S. dollars, of government officials” as one of the aspects of corruption. I would describe the topic of Vargas’ book as “misuse of funds”, a topic which includes what I would call corruption. But he calls all these things corruption.
And this perspective is rather common, not only among the people I was talking to—both middle-class people in the city and poor people in the countryside—but also in, for example, newspapers.
As an anthropologist, my job is not to decide that people are wrong, that they misunderstand the meaning of a word, or to shrug off an inconsistency. Rather, I actively look for “slippages” of meaning like this. I listen to the context in which people speak. I ask is the inconsistency wide-spread? (yes it is) Is the inconsistency I’m perceiving due to a prejudice I have? (my understanding of the word is the same as Vargas’ explicit definition). So having decided that it’s not just one person, and it’s not just me, I ask about the meaning of situations like this.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve described Matagalpa—both the city and the department (province) of the same name—as a place which is surprisingly full of development projects and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), all with the stated goal of reducing poverty or things stemming from poverty, like infant mortality, women’s disadvantage, and environmental degradation, and generally serve the underserved. I am not the only one to make this observation, either. In the words of one small-scale farmer I talked to, “Nicaragua has been very very rich in organizations”.
Despite the vast number of these organizations, however, and despite their best stated intentions, most people remain poor. Now, I don’t want to say that NGOs do nothing positive. I heard stories of particular projects and particular relief which helped quite a lot. Some organizations built wells for communal use, filling a crucial need in a fairly dry zone, or dug latrines, or donated sheets of zinc for roofs, or food to families with very young children. There are places which provide prenatal care for free, and a place for pregnant women to stay when they are close to term, so that they can give birth in safe conditions (though this doesn’t help if the baby is born prematurely—see blog entry for Oct 22). After the devastating damage wrought in the area by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, there was food relief brought in which helped some families survive until the next harvest could be sown and harvested. I was especially touched by one particular story: a woman was raped, and with the help and encouragement of a women’s advocacy NGO, the women of the community banded together and denounced the rapist, driving him out of the area.
On the other hand… as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I conducted an economic life history survey with members of fifty randomly-chosen households out of the approximately 200 households in the rural community where I spent the most time. And although I haven’t yet run the numbers, a number of people I talked to have actually become poorer through interactions with NGOs—this mostly happened through being forced to sell land to pay off micro-loans made at exorbitant interest rates.
How can we understand the simultaneous existence of many programs with the objective of eliminating poverty, and persisting poverty? Anthropologist Lesley Gill writes about a city in Bolivia which was similarly inundated with NGOs, and which similarly wasn’t rising out of poverty (Gill 2000). She takes the perspective that the NGOs, although they have stated intentions of poverty reduction, are actually only functioning to keep the population under control and extract value from them (unpaid labor, interest from micro-loans, etc). These groups, in her view, are merely helping out with the neo-liberal project. (If anyone’s interested, I’ll talk about neo-liberalism here another day. Leave me a comment. The people who are going to be hearing me read this paper will know what I’m talking about.) And Gill clearly sees the people involved in the neo-liberal project as The Bad Guys. In addition, for her, the neo-liberals are clearly an alliance between middle- and upper-class Bolivians and foreign interests, especially the U.S. government. Therefore, Gill’s answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph is that poverty persists despite these programs because the NGOs were reinforcing poverty by supporting neoliberalism. And that the people ultimately responsible for this situation were not Bolivian—the center of the neoliberal project is in the U.S..
I came to Nicaragua with ideas like these pretty firmly in my head. I understood the ways that global projects like neoliberalism function, and I expected that many people in Nicaragua would lay the blame for Nicaragua’s continuing poverty at the door of the United States. (After all, just 20 years ago it was no secret that the U.S. was sponsoring an armed insurgency attempting to bring down the Nicaraguan government.)
However, to my surprise, not only do my friends not blame the U.S. or neoliberal projects for ongoing poverty today, they also do not place ultimate blame on the U.S. for the Contra war. The war is seen as a civil war in which both sides got foreign sponsorship (Cuba and the USSR sponsored the Sandinistas), but for which Nicaraguans were ultimately responsible. Also, current ongoing poverty is not blamed on foreign intervention, fluctuating commodity markets, the declining relative value of agricultural products, or even the constraints placed on government programs by international lending bodies (like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc). Rather, according to most people I talked to—both middle class and poor—the principle reason for Nicaragua’s ongoing poverty is corruption among Nicaraguans themselves. The same man I quoted before as saying Nicaragua was very very rich in NGOs continued on, in the same conversation, to tell me “If these NGOs worked well, Nicaragua would not be as undeveloped as it is today. We Nicaraguans are very grateful for the aid we receive (from abroad), but all the aid goes to the friends of the functionaries. No aid comes for poor people” (my approximate translation). I heard this point of view many times—the aid and programs that come are good, people in donor countries are benevolent, but the embezzlement or misuse of the funds by government or NGO employees causes the failure of the objective of the programs. Blame is placed not on any foreign government or other entity, but on Nicaraguans themselves.
Placing the blame on Nicaraguans, rather than on foreign powers or the way the world economy is set up, is a way of making meaningful sense out of injustice. Concluding that poverty (or other bad things, for example, illness) (Farmer 1993) is the fault of a person with bad intentions who is acting malevolently is more meaningful for many people than blaming “The System” or vast impersonal mechanisms like the world economy. It also points the way to a resolution of the situation—if only these malevolent people could be caught and punished, there might be a solution to these desperate situations, whereas a solution to The System is much more remote—maybe this is especially the case in a place like Nicaragua where popular revolution has already been unsuccessfully attempted.
Now I am not trying to say that this is the point of view of all Nicaraguans. First of all, people who are very involved members of the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, the political party of Daniel Ortega) will generally talk freely about U.S. imperialism and “capitalismo salvaje”. However, these people were a small minority in the rural community where I worked, and also among the people I worked with in the city of Matagalpa. Second, in all cases, people were talking to me, a gringa from the United States, a country that donates a significant proportion of the foreign aid that comes to Nicaragua, and that this shaped what they said and what they didn’t say, despite the fact that I attempted to distance myself from the policies of the U.S. government at every appropriate opportunity. I fully expect that there were currents of anti-U.S. sentiment which I never became aware of.
I was surprised and flattered, at first, that people were willing to tell stories of corruption to me. I thought that if people were thinking of me as just “the gringa”, a representative of the U.S., people would have tried to cover up corruption as much as possible. After all, if people were trying to convince the U.S., via me, to help the poor, they would not want to portray Nicaragua as full of corruption. So I interpreted these stories as evidence of trust, and of people thinking of me as an individual, not as “the gringa”. But this interpretation was in error. I later came to understand that people were telling me stories of corruption exactly because they thought of me as a representative of a donor country, with a potential to communicate these stories back to people who make decisions about foreign aid. In fact, they were telling me these stories as a way of making a moral claim on me and on the rich country which they saw me as representing.
In the U.S., there is a strong cultural narrative that upward economic mobility is within the reach of everybody, no matter how poor they start off. Poverty is interpreted, therefore, as personal failure, and is highly stigmatized. Even more highly stigmatized is the asking for and receiving of charity, associated as it is with “dependency” (Fraser and Gordon 1994). However, I found that this stigma is not as marked in Nicaragua. Rather, the poor are often described as having a legitimate moral claim on the rich, and the rich have obligations to help the poor. While NGO employees and other members of the middle class often have an understanding that is similar to that common in the U.S.—that the poor are irresponsible and dependent—the poor people who spoke with me do not usually consider their neediness to be evidence of personal failure. For a rich person to enjoy his or her wealth without helping those in need is immoral. Therefore, describing one’s own poverty to someone from a rich country is a way of both making a moral critique of the inequality existing between rich and poor and making a claim on that person, and by extension that country.
People told these stories to me, in the absence of a more direct foreign government representative, because they hoped that the benevolent donor countries who want to do the right thing by helping the poor might be able to exert influence over the corrupt intermediaries. One person actually suggested to me that it would be nice if the U.S. could just send money directly to poor families like his, instead of channeling it through the NGOs.
In conclusion, I have argued that the accusations of corruption I heard in Nicaragua were meaningful ways in which people morally condemned their own poverty and the economic inequalities between Nicaragua and the United States, and staked moral claims on me and the country which I represented to them. I have no way of evaluating whether these accusations were all, or partly, also descriptively accurate. But Nicaragua does not stand out on comparative scales as a country with a particularly high scale of corruption for its income level, although apparently anxiety about corruption is higher than average as shown by people’s pessimism for the future. And it is noteworthy that as a part of this moral critique, the category of “corruption” is expanded to include things such as inefficiency or incompetence which do not fit a technical or legal definition of corruption but which are similarly morally condemnable. Therefore, great care should be taken when evaluating accusations of corruption—or the international corruption indices which are based on them.
So that’s it… again, I’d love to hear any commentary. Thanks!
Farmer, P. 1993. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fraser, N., and L. Gordon. 1994. A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State. Signs 19:309-336.
Gill, L. 2000. Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. New York: Columbia University Press.
Vargas, O.-R. 2000. Círculos del Infierno: Corrupción, Dinero y Poder. Managua: Foro Democrático y Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional de Nicaragua (CEREN).
 Actually, despite having to deal with an insurgency and economic strangulation, the Nicaraguan revolutionary government accomplished some meaningful successes, a few of which are still apparent today in some areas: the literacy campaign of 1980 and agrarian reform programs are the ones which are especially remembered in the rural community where I spent the most time.
 This was very hard on me at first, as I felt more and more pressure to respond to these claims. But after a while I found that when beginning a conversation with a new person, if I could find a way to immediately acknowledge the poverty of the community and express my own regrets about it, the person tended to exert less pressure on me personally.
Friday, March 02, 2007
I'm writing this in an airplane somewhere between Managua and Miami,
somewhere between the earth and the sky, somewhere between the third
world and the capital of the world, somewhere between Carolina and
One of the few technical terms in anthropology that I feel has any
value is the word "liminal". (There are quite a few technical terms
in anthropology, but I feel most of them serve mainly to make their
users sound smart or announce the theoretical orientation of the
author.) The word liminal is used a lot when describing coming-of-age
rituals. In many of these ceremonies, boys or girls are ritually
separated from their identities as chidlren, and spend some time in an
intermediate, identity-less state when they sometimes must pass
through certain dangers, before being re-integrated into the community
as newly-formed women or men. The in-between time, when the initiates
are neither children nor adults, when they face uncertainties and
dangers, is called a liminal state.
In this last week I have felt like this. Like someone preparing to
join a particularly strict religious order, I gave away or sold all my
worldly possessions except those which fit in my suitcase (goodbye,
motorcycle!). I finished fulfilling the promises I made over the last
year, as much as possible. I paid good-bye visits, and gave and
received a few small gifts. On Tuesday night there was afarewell
religious celebration in the house of a friend of mine in the
campo--about forty people crowded into the little house and we sang
happy songs and clapped. People also made really nice speeches, and I
tried to, too, but broke up in the middle like I always do. (I'm such
a sap!) This morning I handed the key of my rented house back to the
landlord (goodbye, house!), and I was cut free from my identity as
Carolina, the tall, blond, motorcycle-riding gringa who isn't afraid
to go around all alone and hates young men.
So now I'm winging along, facing the dangers of airplane and the
uncertainties of U.S. customs procedures. Well, at least I don't have
to forage in a wilderness or ingest hallucinogens or undergo genital
mutilation. I am greatly looking forward, however, to receiving
instruction from my elders (the professors on my dissertation
committee) and the camraderie of my fellow students.
And I cannot express how much I'm looking forward to being Home. To
settling down to living, not just visiting, with my husband. To being
in regular contact with family and friends. To wearing clothes that
make me feel pretty, instead of aggressively sending the signal that
I'm uninterested and unavailable (not that this ever apparently
deterred many of the obnoxious looks and comments). To sitting, and
thinking, and reading, and writing, in a real library, with other
people who are doing the same thing. To the subway and the park. To
high-speed internet! Even, a little bit, to the cold. And especially
to not feeling like a visitor and a foreigner.
Being in a new place, even if it's also an old place, always takes
some adjustment. But by now I know what to expect--emotional ups and
downs, nostalgia and disorientation, sometimes feeling disconnected
from everything. And these, too, shall pass as I become re-integrated
back into my social role.
I don't know if I will continue to blog or not, now that I'm going
home. Anyone who misses my irregular spurts of wisdom should be in
Best wishes to you all,
P.S. I'm sending this on Friday afternoon. I made it back, but all
my checked luggage is still in a liminal state, somewhere between
Miami and New York. Fortunately, however, all my data is here with me
since I prudently packed it in my carryon bag.
Friday, February 09, 2007
So I don't think I've mentioned this on this blog before, but I've
been going to church in the campo a lot lately. This has given me a
reputation of being very religious. And in this way I am a contrast
to many other outsiders who come to visit in solidarity. There is an
NGO, a women's group, which has alienated both churches, and those
women who hold jobs in either church are not allowed to go to their
meetings. In one conversation, someone told me about some visiting
Cubans who encouraged people not to go to church and said that
religion was bad. Despite your political ideology, however, this is
not reality-based strategy.
People, and especially community leaders, spend a truly astonishing
amount of time in church and on church-related activities. In some
seasons of the year there are "visits", or prayer and song meetings,
in private homes every night of the week. But religion is anything
but the somber, serious, quiet event that my New England background
has led me to expect. Quiet is associated with sadness, not
reverence, and in Nicaragua people worship God by being joyful. Songs
are usually upbeat and often accompanied by clapping. Prayer is done
not by bowing the head solemnly but by looking ahead or up with both
palms to the sky. One hymn, accompanied by clapping, goes "In heaven
they hear what is sung on earth!" and "With lots of lot of happiness
and enjoyment, this is how we worship God". (En el cielo se oye, lo
que en la tierra se canta; Con mucho alegria y gozo, asi se alaba
In the community where I work, there are two religions: Catholic, and
Evangelical (Church of God). I have been alternating Sunday mornings
at each one. This has been a strategic move—I am now well-known among
church goers, so that even when I show up to do an interview in a
house where the people are unknown to me I am often recognized (Here
comes the tall white lady from church!). But listening to the sermons
has also sparked some meditations.
One of these has to do with the idea of original sin. In case you'd
like a refresher, the idea of original sin is that human mortal
existence is inherently sinful. This is traced back to Eve's sin of
eating the apple of knowledge in the garden of Eden, contrary to God's
instructions. Ever since that happened, people have been born into
sin, and in the Catholic version must be cleansed and forgiven by
church sacraments (baptism, confession and communion, marriage, last
rites). However, the condition of alive humans is that of constant
sin, and although sin must be fought against, nobody can avoid it. So
life is in perpetual tension, a constant dialectic, swinging between
sin, repentence, forgiveness, and more sin. In the Catholic church,
as part of the weekly service, people touch their breast bones and
say, "por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa" (because of my
fault, because of my fault, because of my terrible fault).
For many people who have become alienated from a Christian church,
this is a big part of the reason. Why is it my fault? What do I have
to repent for? I haven't done anything wrong. Being born into the
human condition, which I didn't have any choice in, shouldn't force me
to feel guilty.
What I've been thinking about, though, is that this is an
individualistic understanding of sin, and of responsibility. Is the
only unit that can be held accountable for something an individual
human being? This is certainly the way that most Westerners think
today, and it is the basis on which Western legal systems are built.
There is no provision for an act committed by a group of people apart
from the actions of any individual member of that group. You either
wielded the knife or you were an accomplice. Even corporations are
"legal people"— the root of the word "corporation" is in the Latin for
However, this causes plenty of paradoxes and problems, because in
reality people are not just individual agents, they are always members
of groups of various sizes, and those groups act. The whole of a
human group—whether it's a family, a stampeding crowd, the people who
send on an email forward, an ethnic group, or an audience—is more than
the sum of its parts. Let's take the extreme case of genocide. The
Nuremberg trials, where various Nazi officials were tried for the
crime of genocide after World War II, is a good illustration of the
complex problems posed by a purely individual understanding of crime.
Was a Nazi officer guilty of the crime of genocide? No, not as an
individual. He was a part of a human group, and that human group was
guilty of the crime. But the legal system didn't allow for putting a
human group on trial. So instead we had defenses arguing that an
individual officer was "just following orders", making him seem like a
particularly unintelligent robot. And we had prosecutions similarly
unrealistically inflating his freedom of action. Was the radio
broadcaster in Rwanda single-handedly responsible for the decimation
of the Hutus? Of course not. One Rush Limbaugh type cannot cause an
entire nation to rise up and slaughter another. But she was an
important part of the group which was responsible.
You might argue that groups can't be held responsible, because you
can't throw an ethnic group in jail, for example. And there are
always innocent members of the group who would be also punished. But
I would answer that recognition of the problem is the first step.
Finding an appropriate way to hold a group responsible would be
In fact, there have been some steps taken towards effectively holding
groups responsible for their crimes. In South Africa after the end of
apartheid and in Guatemala in the years after the worst of the
genocide was over (and in other places), there were Truth and
Reconciliation commissions. In these, people who had been victims, or
family members of victims, told their stories in a public forum. I
believe there were ways that the truth-tellers' identities were
protected. I see this as a way of holding a group responsible for its
action—a public denunciation and humiliation. It is a punishment
similar to the old method of exposing an individual in the stocks with
a sign on them proclaiming their crime.
The idea of original sin tackles this issue of collective
responsibility. Why are we all born into sin? Because a member of
the group which is humans sinned once. (More misogynistic
interpretations hold women especially responsible, but that's a
distortion of the main point, for me.) God didn't throw just Eve and
Adam out of Eden, but say that Cain and Abel would be allowed back,
since after all they hadn't even been born when the apple was eaten.
We were all held responsible. And I, personally, don't see Eve as an
individual actor, either. Humans are curious, that's how we're put
together. If Eve hadn't eaten the apple, somebody else would have.
The serpent was only acting like the Rwandan radio broadcaster—Eve was
not just a robot following orders, but acting on behalf of all humans.
For a humanist like me, the idea of original sin can be meaningful in
the way it tackles collective responsibility. I am a white
Unitedstatesean born in the late 20th century, and the group of which
I am a member has a hell of a lot to answer for. Is this my
individual fault? Of course not. I did not invent the atomic bomb,
or drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did not send Japanese and
Germans to detainment camps. I have never owned an SUV. I did not
use Agent Orange in Vietnam, or napalm in Korea. I did not come up
with the idea of the fast-food half-pound hamburger with super-sized
soda and french fries. I did not ignore global warming, although I
contribute to it every day (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out). I did not
squelch the hopes of the Guatemalan people in 1955. I have never
slashed-and-burned a rainforest, or directly given other people
incentives to do so. I did not fund the Contras, although my parents'
tax dollars did. I have never lynched a black person, or a gay
person, and it wasn't me who segregated schools or the inner cities.
I did not invade Haiti any of the times. I did not run the Exxon
Valdez aground. I did not support Pinochet, or Trujillo, or the
Somozas, or Duvalier, or Saddam Hussein. I didn't even vote for
George W. Bush, either time.
But the group of which I am a member is responsible. Por mi culpa,
por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa.
What are the possible reactions of a person of conscience? She could
renounce citizenship, immerse herself in a totally different culture
and never come back, denying who she is and breaking ties with family
and friends (and thus making herself a part of the wrongs committed by
another group). She could retreat into individualism, telling
herself, "it's not MY fault" and trying to forget about it in order to
achieve peace of mind. Or she could buy in conditionally, agreeing to
be a member while working to promote change and improvement, or to at
least ameliorate things a little bit. In other words, she could
accept that she was born into sin, and that sin is inevitable, but
that she will nevertheless struggle against it and ask for
Life is lived in creative tension and dialectic, both for deists and
for humanists. The idea of original sin, of collective responsibility
and individual reaction to it, can help us to constructively work
through these struggles. What humanists don't have is a regular
ritual of absolution like the Catholic confession. Maybe we should
Monday, February 05, 2007
I have been going back and forth in my mind about whether to tell the
story I am about to tell. There are a couple of reasons why I am
ambivalent. First, I don't want to give you a bad impression of the
people I work with or of Nicaraguans in general. And second, I don't
want anybody to be worried about my personal safety. But I would like
to emphasize ahead of time that I am not, nor was I at the time, in
danger. The matter seemed to have been caused by a long-term and
personal grudge, it was not random. Also, people have this sort of
problem everywhere, not just in Nicaragua. I am especially aware of
this having lived in New York City for five years. The big difference
that I see is the way people react, and the resources that are
available to them to deal with the problems. And that is why I've
decided to tell the story. That plus it's funny.
Have I got your interest yet? Well, first I want to describe the work
I've been doing lately. I took a list which the mayor's office gave
me of all the households in the community… there are about 200. I
picked 50 of these households and am currently engaged in trying to
make contact with every one of the 50 households to do rather lengthy
(sometimes 2 plus hours) ethnographic interviews. Of course,
household is a slightly complicated term. In rural Matagalpa, as soon
as a couple officially starts living together, or as soon as a woman
has a baby, the ideal is that they will live in their own house away
from either one's parents. However, poverty being what it is, this
ideal is seldom immediately realized. Sometimes a couple or a
mother-and-child will build a small house in the yard of their
parents' houses. Sometimes a couple will travel around working in
temporary jobs. And sometimes they will all crowd into one house, the
separation between the newly-created families marked only by cooking
arrangements. For example, they might use the kitchen fire in shifts,
cooking their own food, gathering their own firewood, and bringing
their own water from the well. So under these circumstances, it is
complicated for a researcher to try to pick a unit of analysis which
is "a household" for economic analysis. However, I've been doing my
best, focusing on either couples or women (men almost never live
without a woman—I've seen a couple of instances of single men who live
with their children, but also with their mother until a daughter is
old enough to cook.)
In these interviews I draw time-lines with people of their lives and
the economic changes they have lived. This is pretty complicated and
requires a ton of concentration from me. Just as an example, many
people, especially older people, don't know how old they are and we
have to calculate it based on a number of markers ("I was about
eighteen when my first child was born, and that child was born the
year of the earthquake that destroyed Managua"). This is even more
delicate when people don't really know but insist that they do,
despite some inconsistencies ("I was born in 1972. My first child was
born when I was 15, and was just a little baby during the war" [the
war was in 1979]). My policy is not to confront and embarrass people,
but to do my own calculations in the middle of the conversation while
still trying to listen and respond.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of one of these interviews
when a man rushed into the house and launched himself on top of the
man I was interviewing. He didn't succeed in knocking my participant
to the ground, and they started wrestling. The man who had entered
was yelling about money, and was paying attention to absolutely nobody
but my participant. I just sat with my interview materials in my lap
for several seconds, surprised but not yet alarmed, until the
daughters of my participant beckoned to me to move away into the
kitchen. The attacker was evidently quite drunk and weakened as a
consequence, and my participant had no trouble in defending himself
once over his initial surprise. We watched around the corner as my
participant grappled with the drunk man, working him out of the house
again. He gave him a push and told him to leave. When the drunk man
continued to shout, my participant slashed at him with a horse whip,
and he ran stumbling away up the path to the road.
The house we were in is near the road, but down a steep slope from it,
so the tin roof is pretty much on a level with the road surface.
After this exciting interlude, we resumed the interview (at my
participant's suggestion—I was ready to call it a day). But at
intervals throughout the rest of my time there, the drunk man would
hurl a rock onto the roof. I would be in the middle of a question
("so can you tell me if you have any debt with any microcredit
organization…") when KABOOM a rock would make a sound like a cannon on
the metal over our heads. Not the best conditions for maintaining
The family of my participant was concerned that the rocks would do
damage to the roof, and of course the racket was annoying. My
expectation was that they would try to summon police and have the man
arrested. However, this was not suggested, and thinking about it
later I realized there were a couple of obstacles: first, that there
are no telephones or other ways of getting word out to any
authorities. Someone would have to go into the city, perhaps on a
horse or perhaps by paying someone to drive a pick-up truck. Either
way, it would be several hours at a minimum before the earliest time
in which the police could come in a car. And I have never seen a
police car outside of the city. During the coffee harvest (now), some
larger haciendas hire private security guards, or perhaps off-duty
army or police officers, to patrol, but they are always on foot. (And
I have never seen a car in the community, and I doubt one would make
it over the roads. It's always only pick-up trucks, motorcycles, or
large trucks.) So police assistance was out of the question, and
wasn't brought up.
The suggestion that was made was for the brother of the drunk man to
be summoned and asked to tie him up until he calmed down. I was a
little shocked by this, at first. Tied up?? It sounded a little
inhumane. But what else could have been suggested? If a person is
violent, and door don't have locks, how else could they be restrained?
The next week, I was at a religious celebration in the home of the
drunk man's brother. I had heard that the drunk man had sobered up
after having been on a bender for almost a month. But I was still a
little startled to see him show up for the singing and prayer. I
watched him closely to make sure he wasn't going to make any sudden
moves. But everyone else treated him normally. Nobody seemed nervous
or uneasy in his presence (except for me), and he sang along with
I guess there are two morals to this story, and they both have to do
with how a community (or at least THIS community) governs itself when
there aren't functioning law-enforcement structures. First, that in
the absence of formal authority, people appeal to less-formal
hierarchies. People are responsible for their family members. And
second, forgiveness is practiced far more often than in, for example,
cities in the U.S. If you have a little spat with someone, or you
think their behavior has been inappropriate, you don't really have the
option to avoid them. Ostracism, or running someone out of the
community, is a very drastic, permanent step. And so on the surface,
everybody gets along with everybody else, to a degree that almost
looks like passivity and placidity… until you get tapped into the
gossip and ill-will that simmers just below the surface.
As I've written before on this blog, this avoidance of open conflict
vastly complicates the operation of democracy in the town-hall meeting
format that many NGO workers feel so comfortable with. But that is
another story for another day.
P.S. About my personal safety: the man has since fallen off the
wagon again and even was drunk in church this Sunday, making loud
comments and talking back to the preacher during the sermon, much to
the embarassment of his family. However, having observed him drunk in
several contexts, I conclude that he seems to have particular enemies
towards whom he can be violent, and that he also has particular
friends towards whom he is always amiable. My friends agree with my
observation. He seems to like me—he shakes my hand warmly and tells
me he is my friend, without even asking me for money. So although I
am always very alert when he is around, I would like to assure
everyone that I am in no personal danger from him.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
In my spare time lately, I have started the book "Roll of Thunder Hear
my Cry," by Mildred Taylor, whose narrator is a black fourth grade
girl living in post-Civil War Mississippi. It talks about the daily
humiliations inflicted on blacks by racial segregation. It talks
about lynchings, and how lynchers were not brought to justice even
though everybody knew who they were. I've taken away two thoughts
from this that I want to talk about today.
The first has to do with governance and government. A theme I keep
returning to in my research, and which will probably be an important
part of my dissertation, is the importance of a functioning
government. Government in Nicaragua is perceived to be fairly weak,
at least by outsiders. From my current perspective as a foreigner
living in Nicaragua, it seems like an extraordinary privilege to be
able to depend on the rule of law like many people do in the U.S.
today—that contracts must be honored if members don't want the courts
involved, that lynch mobs or illegal timber harvesters will be
prosecuted, that the Supreme Court has a chance to put a successful
check on the expansion of the powers of the Executive branch. From
this perspective, the government in Nicaragua is weak, because it does
none of these things. However, although the people I work with
recognize that the government does not do these things and ought to,
government is still perceived as the legitimate governing power, and
the correct place to go to claim rights.
It was interesting to me to see that during the fair trade inspection
last week, the inspector seemed to think of the cooperative as a
governmental structure. She talked about entire communities as under
the responsibility of the cooperative, for example. However, in
reality a cooperative has no real or legal relationship with
territory. A cooperative consists of its members, and there is no
requirement that the members live anyplace in particular. Government,
on the other hand, takes responsibility for a certain territory, and
the people living within it. The current situation in the community
that I work in is that there are members of several different
cooperatives living in the same area, plus plenty of people who are
not members of any cooperative at all. So a single cooperative could
not, in fact, take responsibility for this community.
In a number of ways the fair trade requirements for cooperatives sound
like guidelines for small governments: there must be democratic
institutions and accountability, with regular elections and
transparency; environmental stewardship; doing economic development
projects, etc. They are even phasing in a requirement for members to
make detailed maps of the communities showing water sources and their
relationship to agricultural production, etc.—mapping is a classic and
important governmental function, and the history of map-making is
closely tied to the historical moment when governments started taking
responsibility for territory, not just people. And it is not just
fair trade. I have seen several ways in which NGOs, not just
cooperatives, seem to be trying to take the place of a number of
governmental functions. Just as one example, there is a women's group
which comes from outside and holds meetings once a month and helps
women confront abusive partners and denounce rapists. However, NGOs
and cooperatives do not do a good job substituting for government.
First, many of them, especially NGOs, are transitory—they come, stay
for a few years, and leave again or move on. Second, they are
membership-based, not territory based, so there are always people left
out. Third, they are voluntary, not compulsory. And fourth, they are
neither recognized as legitimate governing bodies nor held responsible
for fulfilling their functions, so when times get tough—if there is
disagreement in the local community, for example—the NGOs tend to just
pull out. (This last may seem a like fairly theoretical point when we
think that the government of Nicaragua IS recognized as legitimate and
held responsible, but its hands are tied by lack of funds and
restrictions on the use of existing funds by international lending
agencies, but nevertheless.)
The second thought I want to talk about, changing topics kind of
abruptly, is that it is confusing to me to think about injustice
within the United States and injustice outside of the United States at
the same time. From the perspective of Nicaragua, the United States
is a land of plenty and wealth. Even poor people in the United States
have flush toilets and running hot water and a gas stove to cook on
(at least in the cities—I don't know much about rural poverty in the
U.S.). And if they don't, they can get the city to crack down on
their deadbeat landlord. But the United States today (still) also
contains great injustice. If there is any question about this, please
just refer to infant mortality statistics broken down by race, even
adjusting for income. If there is still any question about this,
please read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities: Children in
America's School about school segregation in the U.S. today. (This
was published in 1991, but there are more recent things he's written
on the same theme, too.)
I think the reason this is confusing to me is that I have a tendency
to mark something in my mind as Bad, and have it be an absolute, black
hole, unquestionable negative. The worst possible thing on a
one-dimensional pollster-type scale: choice 5, very bad. I thought
about poverty this way before coming to Nicaragua. If you were Poor,
I thought, this was absolute. You were in crisis all the time. You
never had enough to eat.
The reality, of course, is not like that. There are degrees of poor.
Some people, at some times of the year, don't have enough to eat.
More people merely have a protein-poor and vitamin-poor diet: lots of
corn, rice and beans, not many vegetables, the occasional egg or bit
of cheese. Meat when a chicken is killed, maybe once a month. Being
poor doesn't mean there isn't happiness, any more than being rich
doesn't mean there isn't sadness. However, it is very important to
avoid the cliché of "poor but happy"—the image of innocence and peace
away from the stress and materialism of Modern Life. First, I do not
know anybody who feels peace and happiness about being poor. Poor,
for the people I work with, is ignorance, not innocence. People have a
sense of limitless possibilities which will never be available to them
because of lack of money. And second, the life of the small farmers
is just as important a part of how Modern Life is put together as the
life of an intellectual in New York City, for who could imagine that
intellectual's life without her constant companion cup of gourmet
coffee? Without small farmers, the world economy would collapse, or
at least be shaped radically differently than it is now.
What I struggle to come to grips with is the realization that although
it is imperative for me to bring a moral evaluation to some things—the
preventable death of a baby is Bad, racial lynchings are Bad—my
analysis and understanding must not stop there. Calling something bad
is not an explanation, and does not help solve the problem. Too
often, understanding or explaining something, or someone, is seen as
the same thing as pardoning it. But shouldn't there be a way of
speaking or writing which analyzes evil while maintaining a sense of
moral condemnation? Shouldn't we be able to understand that the
serial rapist was sexually abused as a child without forgiving him for
the rape, or making the rape somehow okay? And if I talk about
poverty in Nicaragua, and maintain my sense that it is wrong, it
shouldn't prevent me from recognizing that the situation is bad in a
different way in Iraq, or sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Saying that
in Nicaragua at least we're not afraid of being killed on a daily
basis, or that at least the population is not being decimated by AIDS,
doesn't mean that the poverty is less bad.
As always, I'd be interested in any thoughts. And I'm thrilled to see
that this blog is being read by some folks in the fair trade industry!
Everybody please see the comment on my last entry telling us how to
get fair trade sports balls in the U.S., too. We should all be sure
to support small soccer-ball farmers—I believe they grow on a
perennial woody bush, while rugby balls are a root crop. ;-)
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
This last week the cooperative I work with had a visit from the fair
trade inspector. As part of my research, I followed this inspector
around to nearly everything she did, taking notes on her interactions
and her attitudes, and also on other people's reactions to her. This
is actually the fourth time I have observed an inspection visit—twice
I watched the organic inspector, and twice I watched this same fair
You may wonder "what is a fair trade inspector?" She is an employee
of the international fair trade certifying agency, FLO. This is the
agency that licenses companies to put the familiar little sticker on
your coffee, tea or chocolate (or if you are in europe, your sugar,
bananas, oranges, honey, wine, and even soccer balls.) Her job is to
make sure the cooperative complies with the FLO requirements. The
organic inspector goes around doing the same thing for the organic
These inspection visits are, for me, a really interesting interaction
in the commodity chain connecting consumers (those of us who drink the
coffee) and producers. I read an article before starting this
research which described organic inspectors in Mexico as mediators
between two very different sets of (cultural) expectations (reference
available upon request), and I have found that this is also true here.
On the one hand, there are the certifying agencies—FLO is located in
Germany, and the organic certifying agency, located in Peru, has to
take into consideration the different requirements written into the
laws of the European Union, the United States, and other rich-country
governments. For the curious, the European Union has more strict
requirements about the actual farming done—the coffee can't be organic
if corn is grown on the same farm using chemical fertilizers, for
example. But the United States requires more paperwork documenting
the techniques used. And on the other hand, there are the world-views
and expectations of farmers. Quite often, too, there are the
contrasting worlds of the city-based cooperative employees, which in
many details are different from those of the farmers.
Both certifiers require all farmers to keep a log of the work they do
on the farm. If the farmers are highly literate, this is not
generally a big burden. However, for those who are illiterate or only
semi-literate, this can be a high enough wall to prevent them from
joining a cooperative which is certified. It isn't always, though.
Some swallow their pride and seek help from literate children or
neighbors. And some actually request accomodations from their
cooperatives—these may come in the form of fill-in-the-blank logbooks
with pictograms where the farmer can make an X to indicate the work
done, for example, or it can mean the employees of the cooperative
help to fill out the books. Among the farmers I work with, the books
are usually seen as a significant burden. During an inspection last
year, one farmer complained to the organic inspector about these
expectations, asking "do they want our coffee, or do they just want
Both of these inspectors do not limit themselves to asking questions,
making observations, and filling out their checklists. Instead,
during their inspection visits they often come across as a combination
of cheerleader and social worker. They give compliments. They
encourage people to participate more and to take pride in what they
are doing. They give suggestions and advice—on how to accomplish the
requirements of the certification, on how to strengthen the
organization, on how to find markets now that they have the
certifications. The organic inspector told me that this is the
official policy of his certifying agency, Bio Latina. There are
actually a number of organic certifiers, and he said Bio Latina's
policy of hiring local inspectors and giving advice and suggestions
during the inspection means that they have a more realistic system.
On the other hand, the FLO inspector told me that she has been
reprimanded for all the advice she gives. Her agency tells her she
should limit herself to "taking the snapshot" of the cooperative when
she visits—of filling out her checklist. She never does, though,
although sometimes she has had to specify that she is giving advice
not as the representative of FLO but just as a private person.
Although the FLO inspector, like the organic inspector, is concerned
about ecological practices, she has a couple of other concerns, too.
First, she needs to make sure that the cooperative is "democratically
operated". This means that it needs to show evidence of significant
participation in decision-making by people other than the leaders,
that all the members need to understand the pricing structure, and
that the committees are operating, especially the committee called the
"Vigilance Committee" (is there a better translation for that?). The
Vigilance Committee is essentially an auditing committee, whose job it
is to poke around in the books and ask questions, to prevent both
corruption and authoritarianism. Next, she has to make sure that the
financial accounts are in order and that the labor practices in the
cooperative meet a certain standard.
About labor practices: everybody around here recognizes that children
work. School vacation is during December and January (rather than
July and August, like in the U.S.) in order that the children can help
with the coffee harvest, and this is normal and not frowned-upon.
However, a lack of government services, or laws about school
enrollment, mean that orphans and children of very poor families often
quit school (or never begin school) and may start working by the age
of 7, and this is seen as a sad fact of life. On the other hand, for
people who have a little land, farmers like the members of
cooperatives, who are able to look ahead a little further than the
next meal, education for their children is almost always a big
priority. Education implies a significant cost and difficulty for
parents—finishing elementary school through sixth grade in the
community where I work means the children have to have shoes,
notebooks and pens. But in order to attend secondary school, the
children have to leave the community and either live with a relative
or friend, or rent a room somewhere. Sometimes there is tuition.
Some people get small partial scholarships for this, but not always.
However, if a child makes it through secondary school, it seems there
are more scholarships available to go to the university for those who
get accepted. And one of the first laws passed by the new Sandinista
government has outlawed schools from collecting enrollment fees and
Oh, but I was talking about the FLO inspector. Well, to wrap it up
here, one of the things she was encouraging the cooperative to do was
to very seriously look for foreign coffee buyers, and not to use
intermediaries in Nicaragua, like they have been doing until now.
This is where I can help the cooperative. I made a contact with the
buyer for Green Mountain coffees, and they are sending along a sample
of their coffee. We'll see how that turns out… wish us luck? Anyone
else know any fair trade coffee buyers, especially who are looking to
buy coffee this year? Please let us know!
I also made a website: http://cecosemac.googlepages.com. This is
still a work in progress, but I'm thrilled that some cooperative
members are excited about helping me to put together more details.
I'd love any comments or suggestions, and thank you very much to those
of you who have already helped me with it! Yesterday, I accepted the
invitation of the president of one of the base cooperatives to go to
take pictures of howler monkeys on a cooperative member's farm. (YAY
monkeys!!!) These monkeys disappeared from the area for a while, due
to deforestation. But they have returned as farmers began to take
more responsibility for their environment, planting trees, conserving
the soil, protecting the sources of water. So I'll leave you with a
couple of not-exactly-National-Geographic-quality photos that I took
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Well, I'm back after a long hiatus from this blog. I suppose I could
stress out and feel guilty about that, but I've decided not to—I don't
owe this blog anything. So I'm doing it now again because I feel like
I've spent the last couple months doing a lot of back-and-forthing
between the U.S. and Nicaragua. I went home to visit family for both
Thanksgiving and Christmas, two separate trips. During my first trip,
for Thanksgiving, I really had a hard time. That trip followed a
four-month stay in Nicaragua, and I was experiencing what I think of
as culture shock, (although I don't know if there is some sort of
clinical definition of culture shock. Lisa?) I felt really
emotionally fragile, and swung back and forth between loving and
hating the things that are different between the two places. I also
had a sort of disconnected feeling, as if the things that happened to
me (in either country) weren't really very real, and the books I read
and movies I saw were almost as real as my life. It was great to see
my family over Thanksgiving, and I was fine when I kept busy, but it
was tough when I stopped to think. However, I re-established some
stability when I was in Nica in the beginning of December, and ended
up having an enjoyable visit over Christmas, with no real problems.
I have been wondering whether all this back-and-forthing is a positive
or a negative thing for my research. I certainly think that many
anthropologists would say that it is a negative—that ethnography, as a
sort of intense, semi-mystical process of empathy—should be
uninterrupted (and, of course, should go on for at LEAST a full year).
They would, I think, probably argue that transitioning back and forth
between places is a problem because it interrupts the concentration of
the ethnographer in the process of becoming as much as possible like
the research subject.
However, I disagree with this. Even if I think about my job as
building this mystical empathy, an important part of that is being
able to communicate the results of that empathy at the end. My job is
to create communication between two different mindsets, and I can't do
that if I lose my sense of the contrasts between those mindsets. I
need to remember what they're both like, and immerse myself in the
contrasts. I need to remember that for a Unitedstatesean, a two-hour
period in which hot water is unavailable in the shower is outrageous
(as happens regularly, to the intense disgust of my sister-in-law A.,
in our slum-lord-owned apartment building in Brooklyn). And that for
a Nicaraguan, running water is only available to prosperous city
dwellers, and hot water in the taps is simply never available.
You know, another contrast I face is the complicated class identity
that I have. In Nicaragua, on the one hand, I have U.S. dollars, and
therefore can afford a prosperous life style (a house in the city, a
motorcycle, restaurant meals, etc). On the other hand, I voluntarily
have chosen not to do certain things which I probably could have
afforded (buy a television, acquire much furniture, hire domestic
help, etc). And to further complicate how I am seen here, I am
highly-educated but don't have a house, a job, or a car in the U.S.
Then there is my class identity in the U.S.. A daughter of an
upper-middle-class white family, with many upper-middle-class tastes
and attitudes, almost 30 and married for 6.5 years, but unlike many
friends at similar stages of life we're living in a not-so-great
neighborhood in Brooklyn where we are one of only 2 or 3 white
families in our building with more than 100 apartments. No car,
turning us into dependents whenever we visit family outside the city.
And sort of beyond the age when I might be expected to be backpacking,
but too young for a midlife crisis, and voluntarily separated from my
husband (with whom I nevertheless have a great relationship) and
living in some country that nobody's really quite sure where it is,
but is associated in the minds of many who read newspapers during the
1980s with a nasty war. So what class category does that put me in?
In Nicaragua? In the U.S.? No wonder I'm sometimes a little confused
However, right now I'm feeling relaxed and excited to be embarking on
the last lap of this research—a solid two months of time when I'll be
focusing on systematically doing a more structured interview with
about 50 people in the rural community where I've been spending the
most time lately.
I wish everybody a joyful and peaceful new year!