What is development? As a Peace Corps Volunteer, am I actually involved in my community’s development? These are some of the questions that have haunted me since I arrived in my community.
For the longest time, I had no access to Internet. The only time I checked my email was when I left site, usually to go to Asunción (located only a short 6 hours away by bus!). Friends are often amazed by the quantity of unread emails in my inbox: “You have 200 unread emails?!” My response is “I had 25 and then I came to Paraguay.” Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine my excitement when Internet finally arrived in my community. As of a month now, two locals have obtained Internet connections, a cyber café and the municipality.
People don’t even know how to use computers, let alone what the Internet is. Everyone has been asking me, “Do you have Joe Shmoe’s (the previous volunteer) código?” Code? What does that mean? Oh, email address. People in town want to communicate via the Internet, but they have no idea how to. At least the cyber café offers affordable computer classes. Now high school students no longer have to leave site to attend computer classes, and even younger kids have the opportunity to go. The municipality (muni) allows me to use Internet for free in return for teaching the Secretaries how to use the computer.
Two weeks ago, I was busy surfing the web when in walked the muni’s accountant. As a large part of my work with the two cooperatives in town consists of developing easy-to-use accounting systems, we got to talking about different accounting systems utilized in Paraguay (or the lack thereof). All of a sudden she exclaimed “Para mi, te caiste del cielo” (“For me, you have fallen from heaven”). “Why?” I asked. She responded that by instructing the muni’s employees in the use of a computer, they could eventually learn to perform data entry. With that simple, but lengthy task out of the way, the accountant could use her weekly visit to focus on the actual balancing of the books. What’s more, the employees could use their newfound understanding of spreadsheets to help them comprehend the municipality’s financial situation.
Speaking of accounting, the Treasurer of one of the cooperatives – whom I have been capacitating in electronic financial applications for the past year – and I completed an income statement. We drew our numbers from the several spreadsheets that he and I have assiduously kept updated during the past twelve months. It took us all day, but we finally had a spreadsheet reflecting the cooperative’s income and expenditures, its cash flow. For the first time, the Treasurer was, at one glance, able to grasp the central question that drives every business: “Where’s the money going?” The answer was not exactly the most encouraging one, as our net income was negative.
I spent weeks pounding my head against a wall trying to figure out how we could continue running on a negative balance (after all, I have never studied accounting before). As I sat in Asunción discussing my work with two friends, I discovered that they were both professional accountants. Being the dork that I am, I whipped out my external drive and presented to them our many different spreadsheets. Taking one look at them, my friend explained “Your cooperative functions like the American economy. It’s running up huge debts to obtain cash to pay its members for their sales of products, sales the coop receives on credit. The coop is selling in a market where it has extremely high overhead costs, leaving it with negative profits. It’s using money it doesn’t have.” Realizing the gravity of the situation, I lamented “We’re jodido (f***ed) aren’t we?”
Now, here is the part that blows my mind. My coop doesn’t differ greatly from other Paraguay coops, especially those located in the countryside. As 90% of Paraguay is rural, I’d venture to say that most of the coops in Paraguay are rural. That means that they probably suffer from the same problems we do: illiterate members and leaders, low credit repayment, non-payment of membership fees, little knowledge of computers and modern technology, and ignorance of good business/management practices. They pay exorbitant fees to accountants who visit them monthly from cities an hour or two away and whose sole task is to calculate taxes for the government, not to complete a financial work-up of the cooperative. There’s no coordinated effort to improve cooperatives’ administrations and organizations, no universal accounting system used throughout Paraguay; just scattered attempts by beneficent second-level coops that provide first-level coops with the occasional educational or technical workshop. We Peace Corps Volunteers come for only two years. By the time we have figured out the problems plaguing our organizations, it’s time for us to leave. No wonder this country is still underdeveloped after 40 years of U.S. aid!
On a positive note, maybe the situation is finally turning around, for the better this time. Peace Corps volunteers have a history of reinventing the wheel. Then again, my bosses have referred other volunteers to me who have accounting questions and have requested a packet of accounting spreadsheets that volunteers can apply in their communities. As for the Paraguayan side of the equation, our cooperatives’ accountant told me a second-level coop has developed a complete and automatic electronic accounting system that they have made available for sale. The only barrier is its cost. In one of the most corrupt countries in the world, accounting takes on new significance. My coop may have a negative income statement, but at least the members have begun to use receipts and document their transactions. That’s a large leap in encouraging financial transparency. Even my friend in Asunción has trouble getting his colleagues to utilize receipts. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but at least we’ve taken the first step. I like to think of it as “One small step for me, one large step for my community.”
Yesterday, President Lugo came to my site for the inauguration of one of the coop’s new banana packing center. I knew we had a meeting, but I had no idea that it would be so widely or famously attended. There were the usual coop directors, as well as a huge crowd of community members, directors of higher-level coops that helped us with the project, press members, and security guards. The President has already stood me up twice, promising on two previous occasions that he would show up but failing to. Hence, I was astounded when he actually did.
The speeches given on this celebratory occasion were imbued with significance for the coop and the community. The coop’s president spoke about the organization’s history and growth since its foundation five years ago. President Lugo promised to honor requests for government funding and support. While I reacted to his remarks with cynicism and the usual distrust I maintain for any political promises, I was delighted that he had made an appearance. Having the media there to record both his promises and our pleas has great significance for our community, allowing it to be recognized as a new municipality all over Paraguay and shedding light on our people’s as-of-yet unfulfilled needs.
My favorite speech was that given our mayor. He spoke of how the community has been fighting for 30 years and how finally it became a municipality a year ago. With our 22,000 people, we are one of the more sizeable munis in the country, yet we are unheard of. The water and our distance from the former muni (located 2.5 hours away), allowed us to remain fairly undeveloped. The mayor spoke of how in the past year our community has grown by leaps and bounds, with a community census concluded, plans for an expansion of our local health post (we still don’t have doctors in town), and a government-funded project to empedrado (cobblestone) 8-12 km of road. Our name means “there is work to be done,” and there always will be, but look at how far we’ve come. That is development and I’m excited to be a part of it.
“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.” – Barry Lopez, Artic Dreams
“What kind of person does it take to facilitate development?” This is a question I asked myself recently, when I left my site to run an errand and took advantage of the opportunity to treat myself to Chinese food and groceries from the Lebanese market. After only a few weeks in site, I felt to need to leave, to see other Americans, and to eat another cuisine. That got me thinking, “Are there who can truly adjust to life in a developing country; people who can leave their homelands and be happy living a place with fewer amenities, culinary options, and intellectuals?”
Maybe that’s why the majority of development workers are posted in capital cities, to keep ourselves from going campo-crazy. If we need to remain in the capital however – far-removed from the poor in the interior –, then can we ever really be effective in combating rural poverty? My friend pointed out homesickness, loneliness, cultural isolation, and losing our grips on “civilization” are exactly the reasons why we need natives implementing development in poor countries. If that’s the case, then the development efforts led by wealthier nations would by necessity be limited to training trainers.
Training trainers sounds like a great idea. We have all heard more than once the idiom “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Despite the fact that development organizations and governments strongly advocate education as a solution to poverty, it has been proved ineffective over and over again. Look at Peace Corp’s development record for example. We are supposed to work ourselves out of a job, yet, 40 years later not only are we still in Paraguay, but we are expanding our program. We are here to explain how to employ the most-advanced technology and most-expensive technology available to do the simplest of tasks because in the U.S. even a child knows how to use it and access it, despite the limited availability of it in Paraguay. We are here to teach the Paraguayans how to plant species of trees plants native to their own country. We are here to share the lessons learned from our sophisticated societies’ climbs from rags to riches. “Teaching the uneducated masses” has rightly been criticized as a derivate of the condescending attitude implicit in the way rich countries conduct development. Investments in education do not necessarily result in increases in income or advances in freedoms.
People respond to incentives. Giving government officials loans to pay for new school buildings and teachers’ salaries is useless unless incentives exist to better educational systems that outweigh the temptation to pocket the money. Decreeing mandatory primary schooling will not result in a better-educated populace without guarantees that more years of education will result in higher-paying jobs. Microfinance works because the emphasis isn’t on training the clients; it’s on training the bankers. The poorest of the poor don’t have any compelling rationale to study banking, but they are in need of credit. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank had tremendous success because they focused on creating a workforce that knew how to manage an illiterate clientele and provide them with the money needed to profit from work that used the complicated skills their clients had already acquired (from embroidering traditional dresses to selling homemade foods). In fact, after taking out several loans, clients, of their accord, sought out financial management classes. Yunus didn’t need to ram that information down the throat of unwilling “savages,” saying all the while that he knew what was best for them.
If we want poor people around the world to have greater access to economic opportunities, we can’t be content to give our money to organizations that show TV ads featuring children with flies on their faces and squander their funds on their huge overhead costs just because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We can’t continue to engage in negligent consumption, insisting on buying the cheapest possible goods while closing our eyes to sweatshops, pollution, and poisonous pesticides. We can’t keep on allowing workers to suffer the burdens of [social, economic, and health] costs in order to save a few cents. We can’t remain ignorant. We need a paradigm shift away from educating people in poor countries and towards educating ourselves.