Monday, January 13, 2014

Why is Honduras so poor?

Why, despite all the aid to Honduras, are there still so many people who are poor?

This is the question plaguing so many of us who live here. On Christmas day I was sitting around with two US friends talking about this. Reflecting on what I said, I pulled together this long, unscientific, unorganized, rambling tirade.

Honduras is a country with great resources: water, minerals, fertile land, bananas, coffee cacao, people.

Why so poor?

There are people, even young kids, who work harder - with fewer resources - than people in pother parts of the world world.

Youngsters working on sugar cane production
Why so poor?

Hondurans abroad send a lot of money to their families. In 2012, the remittances totaled $2.761 billion.

Why so poor?

Honduras is a country which has been the recipient of massive international aid for many years.

Why so poor?

Tens of thousands of people, mostly evangelicals, come on mission trips to Honduras.

Why so poor?

It’s complicated. Yet I find that there are many people who want to reduce the causes of poverty to a few.

Corruption is the cause, some say.

Yes, Honduras is, according to Transparency International, the most corrupt country in Central America.

But corruption is not unrelated to any number of issues – including a history of paternalism and of economic imperialism. It was a US banana corporation executive who got the Honduran president to change a law that would adversely affect its profits – in the 1950s.

Radical inequality causes poverty, others say. This year’s Human Development Report shows the top 20 per cent of the Honduran population have average incomes 29.7 times greater than the bottom 20 per cent. The only countries with more inequality, based on that measure, are Angola and Micronesia.  Even the failed states of Africa don’t reach that level.

But radical inequality here is the result of economic, political, and social structures that favor those who have money. Just a few days ago the Honduran National Congress raised the Value-Added-Tax from 12% to 15%. Who pays that? Mostly the poor and the few middle class people.

Poor and inadequate education is the cause of poverty, many say. The way out is to promote education. Yes, the educational system is a mess. Teachers are at times not paid for months and have inadequate supplies. In addition, the education system promotes memorization as the way to learn. How many children will learn the skills of critical thinking? If they did, they’d probably revolt.

The lack of health care is more a symptom of poverty, though the poor health system generally doesn’t help cure people so that they can have the strength and the health needed. The public hospitals sometimes run out of medicine. Operations have been delayed for lack of supplies. One hospital had no money for food in late 2012. Nurses and other workers are sometimes not paid for months.

Violence is a cause, some might say. No, violence is a symptom of something else wrong. People without money want to be able to survive and some resort to crime (or seek to get the benefits of crimes and corruption). People who are not respected and are systematically shamed by the political, social and economic powers-that-be as well as by family members, teachers, or the educated might seek the power and respect that they might get from being a gang member.

I think there are several contributing factors that are seldom discussed.

I find among most people a lack of critical consciousness. An education based on memorizing – from kindergarten to college – promotes the idea that those in authority have the answers. Criticizing orthodoxies (of right or left) is not found as much as I would hope.

In addition there is a lack of solidarity among the poor.

In the face of scarcity of resources some of the poor feel that they must fend for themselves. It’s the survival of the fittest. Thus, solidarity and mutual aid are not encouraged or find little resonance in the lives of some of the poor. This does not mean that the poor are stingy. They are very generous to beggars and are often very kind to strangers, especially in the countryside. But, in the light of the structures, it is often hard to build a long-term commitment to solidarity.
Some still look on partisan politics as the solution. Hondurans have been closely tied in to a two party system for over a hundred years. Often people were either Nationalists or Liberals, depending on the party that their parents belonged to. Even though there was fraud and manipulation, the recent elections changed that a bit, since the Resistance-related LIBRE party and an Anti-Corruption Party had significant support. (LIBRE received more electoral support than the Liberal Party.)

But I think that the partisan solution is inadequate. I would even suggest that the Resistance may have weakened itself by forming LIBRE as a political party. Much effort was put into winning votes. What had impressed me about the Resistance before the formation of a poltiical party was the effort being put into organizing and raising the consciousness of people. That part of the long process of social change is continued by some groups (Caritas and ERIC-SJ, among them). As I see it, partisan politics with its deals and compromises may demand more energy from the Resistance and the process of consciousness-raising and organization might be neglected.

I think this is related to a tendency I’ve seen here of looking to governments or outside organizations to do everything. They look for a "sugar daddy"and get "screwed" as a result. (Sorry, if this language offends; but it's part of the reality.)

I am not a libertarian. I believe government has a role in promoting the common good and the lives of the poorest. Government also has a role in dealing with the social structures that promote poverty and providing a counteragent to the ever-present temptation to a savage capitalism.

But all too often I see people not doing something they could do and waiting until the government provides funding. They lack a sense of their own capabilities.

This looking for handouts is both a result and a cause of corruption. Politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use incentives to have people work with them. Giving out bags of concrete and tin roofing are part of the electoral campaigns. Paying for lunches and travel are common practices of most NGOs.

Corruption flourishes where the poor do not have resources, are unorganized, and lack power. They think they need someone to give them what they need. This person, the “patron,” provides for the person’s needs and then demands loyalty.

Unhealthy help also may not really provide the change needed to overcome poverty.

Probably close to 80,000 internationals come to Honduras on mission trips each year. They come with their medical brigades, building brigades, missionary brigades, educational brigades, and more.

Some groups do good work that really helps the people live better lives, but all too often these groups undercut efforts to have the Honduran people themselves develop alternatives to the broken system they live in. Also, many groups are politically naïve and have little sense of the unjust social structures. Some are also paternalistic, thinking they know more than the people who live here. Others come and give things, without asking for any financial contribution, thereby promoting a "give-me" approach.

There is also the unhealthy help of some non-governmental organizations.

I know cases where several NGOs compete for people for their programs. The people are often enticed by NGOs that offer better perquisites than others – better lunches, more money for travel to the meetings. There are some areas that are saturated with NGOs that may offer over-lapping or duplicate programs. Some NGOs also come in with their program and their ideological bent – and the people have little say in the programs, projects, and processes.

I think a critical cause of poverty is that the poor are “kept in their place.”

To change that means a change of structures as well as a change in mentality.

That’s much more difficult than another project, another give-away, another brigade coming into the community, another outside expert.

But I think it’s what we need to start working on (or, in some cases, continue working on).

A part of it will be dealing with the sense that many of the poor have of diminishment and worthlessness.

A few years ago the president of the National Congress, who later became the de fact president of the country after the 2009 coup, is reported to have called people “gente del monte” – which literally means “people of the weeds.” For him, they are hay-seeds, hicks, hillbillies.

Classism is strong and the poor often have a poor sense of their own worth and capabilities. Somehow this has to be undermined and replaced.

The poor are capable; the poor have worth; the poor can do things.

They don’t need people to do things for them. They need people to accompany them in the process of social and personal change.

That’s why I’m here - to accompany people in the process of beginning to live as real daughters and sons of God, people with a dignity that all should respect, people with capabilities that need to be encouraged and assisted.

Let us begin.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

A Facebook friend commented:
"The IMF insistance that poor countries who ask for aid conform to the three-legged "Washington Consensus" (austerity with social programs and infrastruture, reduced restrictions on imports, and privatization of public utilities) means that Honduran parents must take low paying "maquilla" jobs to pay school fees for their children. Third world poverty is necessary for maintaining first world wealth."

paul said...

Two other factors come to mind. Many Hondurans have noted that 'ambicion' in all forms is seen as a negative trait. Community leaders, entrepreneurs, achieving students are slow to emerge in that cultural setting. And it creates a tendency to unhealthy deference to authority and the belief that the "experts" know best. And religion has come to be a justification for passivity. I often hear people offer variations on the belief that their future is up to God, negating their own role in taking action to create change.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

A religion that focuses only on salvation from the world IS part of the problem, but in Latin America liberation theology is based on a liberating way of being Christians - taking seriously one's responsibility to God, to others, and to creation.

That's why the pastor I work with and I see the need for a formation process that is participative and that is connected with the real world in which the people live - with poverty, violence, etc.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

A comment made on a Facebook share:

"I really enjoyed reading this piece. I would emphasize that education is really big part of the mud-suck of poverty in Honduras. The Ministry of Education openly and persistently stifles any type of learning that is not traditional to Honduras. As many Peace Corps volunteers who have given extensive teacher's training all over the country, there is still resistance from the to applying the techniques and information. Even lesson planning must be done in a rote fashion that leaves no space for creative and critical thinking. Until this is resolved, the skills involved in more successful entrepreneurship will not be taught."

"I would add that one of the techniques used to divert the Honduran people from the fact that the resources there are owned by a very few people, is the constant mantra that the enemy is from somewhere else. While no one could argue that Honduras has not been exploited immeasurably in the past, and present, the major exploiters have been Hondurans, in partnership with international business. I recall my first day in Honduras. I met with the wife of the Minister of Tourism, In Santa Rosa de Copan. She told me there was no lack of money in Honduras. The problem was, (and is), that it belongs to a few, corrupt people who do not give opportunity to their own."

Evelyn said...

I am an college student and was looking to going on a trip with the GNO Students Helping Honduras. After reading this article I was curious if you could give me some insight on the organization and if it does more harm than good. I want to put my efforts into something that matters not something that does more good for my ego than for the community. Thank you.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Evelyn, I don't know enough about Students Helping Honduras to give you any good feedback. What is important is to ask good questions. Here are a few, off the top of my head:
Who sets the agenda - the organization or the people?
Who determines what is to be done? Is it a joint decision?
Who benefits?
Does the work replace work by the people, depriving them of financial compensation for their work?
Is what is done sustainable by the people or does it need continuing input from people outside the community?
How does the presence of outsiders affect the community?
Is the work of the outsiders being exploited by any persons or group in the community to benefit their power? this would include benefiting political or religious leaders.

There are more questions, but these would be good starters. said...

John, thank you for this insight. I recently returned from a mission trip to Honduras. Myself and 6 other women taught other women (in San Pedro Sula & Santiago) how to sew. The mission group we were with has a 10 year presence there and has established several schools. I see those schools making progress as they are caitering to the most impoverished. We conducted our sewing school in a makeshift building used as a school in one of the settlements. I'm pleased to report that the women had so much interest in sewing and we "thought" we knew what they'd like to make but they quickly let us know their needs and we quickly adjusted our projects to fit those needs. They were interested in making school uniforms for their children, since the cost of the uniform (a mere $20-30) prohibits the children from school attendance. We were also careful not to make clothing for the children (and they begged) but rather show the mothers how to make things. We left them with skills to make purses and children's clothing. We plan to return with patterns for uniforms and other clothing items. I looked closely at the mission group I accompanied and I believe you would approve of their mission. I'm so happy to have read your post and look forward to a return to do help lay more foundational building blocks for these people. Like you said, the most impoverished would give everything they have to another. They are truly modeling what Jesus would do. Blessings to you and prayers for the people of Honduras.