Thursday, July 05, 2007

And Good Day to you to Sir!

I was going to fill this space with a rant-ish description of my work environment. Needless to say, things are not going particulary well (for me or the project).

But, instead of clog yet another tiny point of cyberspace with some negativity, I want to take a moment to be thankful.

I have a lot of blessings in this life. Every morning on my walk from Transmilenio to the office, I pass by a homeless guy that stations himself outside of a coffee shop/bakery type of store in the hopes of day old bread and stale coffee for his breakfast. More often than not, he gets it too. Interestingly, I have never seen him beg. It´s almost as if his mere presence alone is sufficient to appeal to the humanity of those who encounter him.

Any one of us could be him.

Or, worse, yesterday I saw someone pulling a "cart" filled with boxes. This is common. He was a "recicladora" or a recycler. These people make pennies every day. They are the poorest of the poor. And they work very hard, from the earliest hours in the morning to very late at night. When I saw this man, who clearly hadn´t bathed in recent memory and had a face so dirty I first thought he was black, I wondered if he was part of the family that "lives" in the middle of the street that I pass by every day on Transmilenio. I also wondered what his story was. Where did he come from? Why was this his lot in life? What opportunities did he have, if any, that passed him by? What are his dreams, hopes, aspirations for himself, for his children? These are questions I can only guess at and when I do guess, I realize the stark distance between the haves and the have-nots when imagining their dreams becomes an effort in futility. I can´t possibly understand their life as I haven´t lived it and never will.

Any one of us could be him.

I have seen a great many examples like this here in Bogota. It has made me realize that even with the homelessness and poverty we have in the developed world (and it does exist) it is essentially uncomparable to that here in the developing world. One only has to walk up 7th avenue at 7 in the morning and witness the mounds of garbage astride each and every trash can on the street to realize that there are a great number of people here that are hungry and poor and will do anything just to survive.

When I first had witnessed this occurence, I thought that dogs had gotten into the trash can. Then I realized the garbage was stacked, more or less, neatly. As I continued my walk, I saw that every trash can was the same - empty, with refuse stacked next to it, refuse that even the poorest and hungriest had no use for. I confirmed that someone was going through the trash one day when I saw a man pick a half-full bottle of yogurt out of the trash, sniff it, then guzzle it down greedily.

Any one of us could have been him.

Contrasting these visual experiences against the other extreme of luxury makes one realize just how random life can be. Were it not for great fortunance, I could have been born to a poor farmer in rural Colombia. My dreams could have been to have my own shop ("rebusqueria"*) instead of to positively impact the world and culture that I am from.

I mention these things not to discount the severity of poverty at home. In some ways, seeing these things makes me even more angry that there is poverty at home. The fact that the richest and most powerful nation in the world allows some of its fellow citizens to live in abject poverty is a galling disgrace that flatly contradicts the core ideas that I think make up "humanity". We should be doing more at home to improve the lives of the unfortunate, to help them achieve their dreams, and to provide for their minimal needs if required. (Most homelessness in the US and UK, for example, is due to mental health, drug, and alcohol problems.)

But, when you see it here, you realize that the "american" experience in poverty pales in comparison to the "global" experience. And no matter how many long term agricultural or small business development projects that you fund, you´re not going to solve the immediate problem. You´re not going to get the man at the corner bakery a hot cup of coffee and a clean shirt. You´re not going to get the family who live under a box shelter in the middle of the freeway a roof over their head. And you´re not going to provide a viable future for the poorest of the poor. Our projects, our assistance, does help. But, for the most part, it ignores those who need the help the most.

Why is that? Well, it´s quite simple actually. For one, we don´t like the idea of supplemental income/housing support. Welfare. We don´t like it at home; we surely don´t like it abroad. Instead, we prefer a macroeconomic strategy. Improve growth for the whole country and everyone benefits, we are told. Essentially, right or wrong, we export "Reaganomics".

Moreover, it´s financially more advantageous to engage in business development activities. USAID requires that all materials be bought from the US (well, not simple office supplies), making foreign assistance a huge feedback loop to US economic growth. There is an incentive to continue with the type of projects we currently have because it serves our own economic ends.

But also, it´s just easier and more accountable. Working with businesses, issuing grant funds to support business development, etc, are things we know how to do and do, more or less, well. Working with the extreme poor is not something the US government is particularly equipped to do and has what I think is institutional aversion. Instead, small NGOs, both national and international, both funded and underfunded, conduct the majority of the extreme poverty assistance programs. Their record of success isn´t particularly strong, mostly because their mission is to help the most that they can meaning that benefits are stretched to the limit.

Ultimately, the cumulative effect is that the poor stay poor. Horse or human drawn carts continue to circle the city in search of boxes, bits of metal, or other recyclable materials. Some day, maybe we´ll create creative programs which will satisfy the ideological concerns in Washington while providing true "get out of poverty" assistance to the extreme poor. Sadly, that day is not today.

I am fortunate. I have been blessed with certain skills and talents, with a fine and advanced education, and an upbringing that causes me to observe, note, and reflect upon what I see. These blessings are things that I think sometimes I take for granted or don´t put to full use. My mission, in the short term, is to find ways to make use of these blessings, these gifts. And this, more than any other reason, is why I am on the one hand unsatisfied in my current line of work and on the other hand, desperate for a change.

* - "Rebusque" is a verb that means "relook" and is used in Colombian spanish to signify the continual search for moneymaking ideas. Essentially, the poor find ways to make money and everyone describes that as "rebusque". "Rebusqueria" is a term I made up. "-ria" is a common ending to a store or restaurant. My word is meant to describe one of those shops that sells a bit of everything. It´s the ultimate expression of "rebusque".



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