Monday, February 22, 2010

Development from the Ground-Up

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.

No comments: