Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Radical Women, Embracing Tradition

Kavita Ramdas: Radical women, embracing tradition | Video on

Technology is Beautiful?

Around the world, people are praising the Internet as a great force for social change. They say that it decentralizes power, taking it away from its traditional enforcers (governments, corporations, international organizations, etc.) by empowering people with information. Internet links people from all corners of the globe through e-mail and social networks, including our favorite network Facebook, and allows them to campaign for social justice, equality, political freedoms, and the abomination of the Facebook newsfeed (because doesn’t it just suck?). Internet puts information at the tip of your fingertips. The open source movement is an excellent example. Open source software that can be modified and improved by any user defies the power of technology monopolies, such as Microsoft and Apple. These companies force users to pay high prices for newer versions of software that offer limited improvements, are loaded with bugs, and are incompatible with previous versions. People cite the all-powerful Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that provides millions of articles in hundreds of languages, each of which can be edited by readers, as an example of levelling the information playing-field. They also mention blogs and online news sources. Internet, the Great Equalizer.

What we too often gloss over is giant disparities in Internet usage. 26.6% of the world’s people have access to Internet. (“Internet Usage Statistics”) That means that 73.4%, or three-fourths of the world’s population, does not. Even within the U.S., they are wide gaps between the upper/middle classes and lower classes. 78% of schools in affluent communities have access to Internet as contrasted to 50% of schools low-income areas. (Kennard, William E., “Equality in the Information Age”) As many as three-fourths of Black high school and college students do not have computers. (Kennard) Those privileged few of us who use the Internet on a daily basis forget that the most impoverished people in the world, those most in need in Internet, do not have access to Internet.

The sad thing is that despite limited access across the world, high-skilled, well-paid jobs everywhere demand knowledge of computers and telecommunications. Take Paraguay for example. Many of my town’s youth travel an hour away, spending large quantities of money on transportation out of town, to take computer classes. It it rains, they’re stuck and they miss their weekly class. The classes themselves are over-priced and poorly taught. After a year of paying expensive monthly tuitions, most of the students still have no clue how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel, let alone more complicated electronic applications. At the same time, they insist on attending classes because they can ask for salary raises or find higher-paid employment.

One thing that drives me up the wall is the school teachers’ obsession with Internet. A teacher once proposed her “brilliant” idea to me: all students should pay a 5 mil additional monthly fee so that the teachers could pay for Internet. What??? Why did she want Internet I asked. “With Internet we can do research and better teach the students,” she responded. I had several problems with this. One, she was not proposing building a center equipped with Internet-enabled computers where all the students could work; she wanted Internet for one computer only, the teachers’ computer. Two, in a country where parents already complain about the school fees (which are abysmally low by American standards by the way, but education not being value, that’s another story), she wanted to increase them. Three, if the teachers didn’t know how to use the computers, how did they plan to do “research?” If they didn’t know what e-mail or a search engine is, how could they utilize the billions of resources available on the Internet. I was not about to spend my time assisting a project that would guarantee the teachers a constant source of porn downloads (which is what the majority of Paraguayans, like Americans, use the Internet for). Four, the amount of information available on different subjects depends on the number of users that are interested in those topics. In a country where only 1.7% of the 6 million people have access to Internet, there is a dearth of articles about Paraguay. (“Telecommunications in Paraguay”) Finally, if the students didn’t know how to use computers, how could they complete Internet-based research projects? Despite the numerous warnings I gave them, the teachers are assigning more and more homework that necessitates the Internet, leaving the students in a giant rut.

My initial project was working with a community radio, the members of whom were convinced by the previous volunteer that Internet would solve my town’s problems of limited access to news. By accessing alternative online media via the Internet, they could broadcast social justice news stories to the whole town. The intentions were noble and I respected them, yet the practice would have been flawed. For one thing, no one knew how to use a computer or the Internet. As the volunteer in town, I could have helped capacitate the members. The second problem, however, was that the radio was in serious debt. To that debt they wanted to add sky-high monthly fees for Internet services. And no matter how many times I said “let us look over your finances and do a feasibility study,” they did not have the least inclination to do so, let alone raise the money necessary to sustain the project over the next couple of years. Not to mention the fact that in my town, we have no landlines. My cellphone signal is practically nonexistent (a huge problem whenever Mom tries calling me).

This is not just the case in Paraguay, here’s a parallel example from Africa:

Many reports you read will sing the praises of the mobile networks and how the leapfrogging of landlines has helped Africa. That’s true, and I’m one of those people. However, it comes with a catch, and that catch is that the lack of landlines in Africa means that it’s a lot harder to get fixed-line broadband penetration, whether ADSL or otherwise. This keeps prices high and primarily availability is only in urban areas. (“Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World”)

In South Africa in fact, an IT company did an experiment to test the connection speed. It was a 60-mile data transmission race between a carrying pigeon with a 4GB USB drive attached to its leg and the ADSL service from the country’s biggest web firm. Winston, the pigeon, took two hours to carry the data 60 miles, during which the ADSL had managed to send 4% of the data. (“In South Africa, carrier pigeon faster than broadband”)

The Peace Corps derives its philosophy of action from the book Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher, in which the author proposes the application of “intermediate technologies” in developing countries. International banks and the U.S. government promote large-scale development projects that depend on the latest technology. As developing countries don’t have the technical expertise to construct these facilities, they have to contract U.S. companies. If parts break in the future, as they inevitably will, they will not know how to fix them. Therefore, after construction, they have to keep these companies around for maintenance. Schumacher instead advocates the adoption of an intermediate technology more suitable – and therefore more likely to be effectively utilized – in developing countries. In my town, where hardly anyone knows how to use a computer, do they need the most advanced, most expensive model on the market? They could save tons of money by acquiring a donated, “outdated” model from the U.S. (where even if it functions, if it’s more than a few years old it’s got to go). In fact, the most successful projects I have undertaken have involved outdated, no-name computers without Internet connections and the most basic computer programs.

For more information about Internet usage in Paraguay, check out “Internet Access? What About Just a Telephone?”

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Development in a Word

If you had to sum up development in one-word, what would it be? Self-transformation.
We development people like to think we’re better than those foreign policy and defense types. We are worse than the U.S. military that spawned the Taliban in Afghanistan and then returned to kill its monstrous creation, claiming that it was liberating the Afghanis.

To us, it’s glaringly obvious that U.S. behavior – its military interventions and economic disruptions abroad – lays the grounds for terrorism. Why then can we not see the equally obvious truth that how we live as Americans – how we dress, how we eat, how we work, how we play – creates poverty? We focus on poverty-alleviation while ignoring all the while poverty-creation. That t-shirt I bought from the Gap, the car I drove to work, the bananas I ate for breakfast – all have economic, political, and social reverberations throughout the developing world.

I’m not going to apologize for having been brought up in a middle-class family one of the wealthiest countries of the world. My parents worked hard for their incomes. Their sweat and sacrifices allowed me to grow up comfortably without financial concerns. I’m not going to apologize for my standard of living. But I am going to show gratitude to the society that brought me up so well. And in this globalized world that doesn’t just mean the U.S., but rather refers to Indonesia, for sewing my clothes; Honduras, for growing and exporting my breakfast; and Detroit for assembling my car. In order to start paying back my debt, I have to work to help global society.

How can I help global society? One way is obviously to go out and work with the poor, or in development terms, poverty-alleviation. The other is to focus on the root causes of poverty, or poverty-creation. That can only be done by changing my own behavior, for example by reducing my purchases from sweatshops, buying locally grown blueberries instead of bananas, and biking to work. Why do you think the Green and Slow Food Movements have become so popular recently? People around the world are finally realizing that if they don’t change their own behaviors, that if they don’t reduce their carbon emissions or support their local economies, development will never occur. That may not phrase it in terms of development, they may call it “protecting the environment” or “saving the world,” but at the end of the day, isn’t that what development is? True development is salvation for all of us because the only way to ensure that we all survive is by no longer creating poverty.

We live in a faith-based economy…People are asked to place their faith in economic and political systems that have polluted water, air, and sea…As that faith begins to seem more and more misplaced, the way to change the world is change one’s own practices, including one’s home, source of energy, method of agriculture, diet, transport patterns, and communities…Efforts must continue to be directed to bring about institutional change, but such efforts cannot succeed unless people reexamine how they behave and consume in their own lives.
– Paul Hawkens, Blessed Unrest, 174-175

Are We All Complicit?

Is anyone in the U.S. innocent? Although those at the very pinnacle of the economic pyramid gain the most, millions of us depend – either directly or indirectly – on the exploitation of the LDCs for our livelihoods. The resources and cheap labor that feed nearly all our businesses come from places like Indonesia, and very little ever makes its way back. The loans of foreign aid ensure that today’s children and their grandchildren will be held hostage. They will have to allow our corporations to ravage their natural resources and will have to forego education, health, and other social services merely to pay us back. The fact that our own companies already received most of this money to build the power plants, airports, and industrial parks does not factor into this formula. Does the excuse that most Americans are unaware of this constitute innocence? Uninformed and intentionally misinformed, yes – but innocent?
– John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Illiterate, uneducated people in Latin America know that Rupert Murdoch and the Bush family have ties to the media organizations that led the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002. They know that before becoming Vice President, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton. They know about the School of the Americas and the CIA assassinations of democratically-elected, social-reform seeking leaders. Yet, when these facts appear in mainstream American media, they are dismissed as liberal allegations and conspiracy theories. How many of us watched Michael Moore films exposing these truths, all the while believing him to be a loony? Five years ago, former Vice President Al Gore released a movie called “The Inconvenient Truth” about the impending environmental crisis. How many of us reduced our carbon consumption or changed our energy-use habits?

We blame the government, we blame international banks, we blame corporations, but rarely do we blame ourselves. It’s not our fault; it can’t be our faults. We try justifying our behavior in a myriad of ways: “I didn’t vote for Bush,” “I’m not one of those a**holes who drives an SUV,” “I opposed the war in Iraq.” Perkins denounces that type of behavior:

That picture is just too simple. It implies that all we need to do, if we decide to right the wrongs of the system, is to throw these men out. It feeds into the conspiracy theories and thereby provides a convenient excuse to turn on the TV and forget about it all, comfortable in our third-grade view of history, which runs: ‘They will take care of it; the ship of state is seaworthy and will get nudged back on course. We may have to wait for the next election, but all with turn out for the best.
The real story of modern empire…has little to do with what was exposed in the newspapers that morning and has everything to do with us. And that, of course, explains why we have such difficulty listening to the real story…The real story is that we are living a lie…Those cancers are exposed by the X-rays of our statistics, which disclose the terrifying fact that history’s most powerful and wealthiest empire has outrageously high rates of suicide, drug abuse, divorce, child molestation, rape, and murder, and that like a malignant cancer, these afflictions spread their tentacles in an ever-widening radius every year. In our hearts, each of us feels the pain. We cry out for change. Yet, we slam our fists to our mouths, stifling those cries, and so we go unheard.
It would be great if we could just blame it all on a conspiracy, but we cannot. The empire depends on the efficacy of big banks, corporations, and governments – the corporatocracy – but it is not a conspiracy. This corporatocracy is ourselves – we make it happen – which of course, is why most of us find it difficult to stand up and oppose it. We would rather glimpse conspirators lurking in the shadows, because most of us work for one of those banks, corporations, or governments, or in some way are dependent on them for the goods and services they produce and market. We cannot bring ourselves to bite the hand of the master who feeds us.

– John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, 215-217

I shamefacedly place myself amongst that crowd of people who looks for scapegoats for the world’s ills. I love railing against politicians, the IMF and the World Bank, and Exxon. The lack of access to proper healthcare, gentrification, environmental degradation, the staggering income gap, hunger, poverty, etc. they’re too complicated to solve. Besides, the world’s problems are not my fault…or are they?

We all want the American dream for ourselves, a life of comfort and few worries. We want huge homes, nice cars for every member of the house, well-paying jobs, iPods, personal laptops, well-stocked pantries courtesy of Costco. We think there is nothing wrong with the daily routine of getting up, going to work, going home, and going to bed. Maybe we’ll attend a happy hour after work (“mmmm, $2 sushi”) or go out with our friends. Maybe we’ll come home, relax with a couple of beers, and zone out in front of the TV. On weekends, we’ll do absolutely nothing other than sleep. We could read books about social justice, the environment, the forgotten children of Sudan, war, peace, love, or the beauty of the human spirit, but we don’t have time. We could cook food for homeless shelters, share our time with the ignored elderly, listen to victims of rape and domestic violence, or tutor underprivileged children, but we don’t have time. We’re too busy supporting ourselves and our families, we’re “getting-by,” what’s wrong with that?

It’s not enough to just get-by if “getting-by” implies living off of the blood and sweat of the less fortunate, those people who construct our houses, sew our clothes, mow our lawns, or cook our food. Let’s not forget the unmentioned environmental costs that come from mass-producing food through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; transporting our food cross-country or across countries; and packaging our consumer goods with plastic and bubble wrap and disposable delivery boxes. What about the raw materials needed to produce our goods and the labor? Our foreign policy is targeted at those countries with vast quantities of natural resources and people, both of which are considered expendable. Look beyond the most obvious example of Iraq at the Congo, where our actions have instigated civil wars, genocides, and rapes for the sake of the minerals necessary to make our cell phones and laptops. Look at Nigeria and Ecuador where oil drilling by Conoco and Chevron has resulted in contaminated soil, toxic waste pits and rivers, air pollution, illegal logging, disease, crime, and prostitution. We may profess antagonism towards these companies, but their products fuel our cars. We in the U.S. may plead innocent but the exploitation of the peoples around the world, the murders, the rapes, the hunger, the destructions of natural habitats, are the result of the pressure we put on international corporations to supply the goods we demand and at ever lower prices. As Paul Hawkens explains, the U.S. “need[s] energy to support an unsustainable way of life (Blessed Unrest, 103).

This is a wake up call. The American way of life is unsustainable. It is unsustainable economically, politically, environmentally, and morally. There is enough space in the world for persons of all religions, ethnicities, and creeds, but not our greed. We must reach beyond our apathy and embrace compassion. Feel the suffering your global neighbor endures on a daily basis to survive, to provide food for his or her starving children, to make T-shirts for you. Stop being complacent! We can no longer continue living the lives we have grown accustomed to. We must change the Who, What, When, Where, Whys, and How of our behavior: who we buy from, what we eat, where we live, when we participate in community service, how we consume energy. Perkins recommends “The next time you are tempted to go shopping, read a book instead, exercise, or meditate. Downsize your home, wardrobe, car, office, and most everything else in your life.” (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, 221-222)

Of course, you could finish reading this article and continue with your daily lives. After all, what difference can one person’s actions make?

we are told there is a convenient path, and a less traveled road of integrity…We face such forks a million times a day, even in the space of a breath…What distinguishes one life from another is intention, the one thing that we can control. Rosa Park’s intentions were deep and unswerving, as were King’s, Thoreau’s, and Gandhi’s…While the events of the world were out of their control, their resolve was not.
– Paul Hawkens, Blessed Unrest, 84

This is a wake up call.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reciprocity is a Five-Letter Word

They say that payback is a b****. Maybe they should say that about reciprocity too. The kind of reciprocity I’m referring to is the fee imposed on Americans traveling to other countries. As a result of the $131 our government charges non-U.S. citizens for the Visa necessary to enter U.S. soil, governments have begun to respond with their own mandatory fees targeted specifically at Americans. I perceive three main problems with this policy, the first of which is that the $131 does not guarantee that “aliens” may enter the United States; it merely grants them the pleasure of being interviewed by a Consular Officer who determines if the applicant will receive a visa. The second problem is the use of the word “alien” – instead of non-U.S. citizen – in our official immigration and tourism policy (xenophobia much?). Immigration and non-U.S. citizens’ access to visas is a contentious topic, to say the least, and one that I’d like to sidestep in this article to focus on the problem with which I have personal experience: the unspoken cost imposed on American travelers abroad.

I have been serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay since May 2008. The pay scale of Peace Corps Volunteers depends on the host country’s living standards. In Paraguay, where I serve, volunteers make between 1.300.000 Gs. and 1.700.000 Gs. I make the lowest amount; that’s Paraguayan minimum wage, which translates into US$260-325/month, depending on the value of the U.S. dollar (at its current rate of 4750 Guaranis/US$1, my salary is $275). That means that appreciation of the dollar is not something we hope for over here. Given my current salary, which is my only means of income for the 27 months of my Peace Corps service, you can imagine the difficulties Volunteers have paying back student loans or other bills from back home.

In today’s globalized world, where hundreds of American college students participate in study abroad, travel is on every Volunteer’s mind. The most expensive part of traveling in the Global South is often the plane ride there – the plane to Paraguay, for example, runs around $1500 –, but Peace Corps pays for our transportation to and from Paraguay at the beginning and end of the two years. Accordingly, many Paraguayan Volunteers take advantage of their 24 days of annual vacation to travel around the region. It is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the world’s most picturesque sights, including Macchu Picchu, Ipanema Beach, Lake Titicaca, and Patagonia. Sounds like a great plan, right?

This is where reciprocity comes in. Remember my monthly salary of $275? Imagine that I have deprived myself of chocolate and cereal from the supermarket (an hour-long trip that involves both a bus and boat) and trips to the big city (the capital, Asunci├│n) and managed to save $50 a month, adding up to the grand total of $600 for the year. Let’s now do the math for 24 days of travel in Latin America. If I travel to the neighboring country of Brazil and stay in cheap hostels, eat at local restaurants and food stalls, and limit sightseeing trips and nights on the town, I can get by on $35 a day. That is $875 for 24 days. I better forget sightseeing and going out. I still need to buy my bus ticket, which for a 20 hour-long bus ride to Rio de Janeiro will cost at least $100. I guess I don’t have to eat… If I prepare all my meals in the dilapidated kitchen of a second-rate hostel, I might have enough to pay for the bus ticket. Ok, I’m finally ready for my trip; I have my bus ticket and hostel reservations. I reach the border with Paraguay and they demand $165. “$165? Why?” I ask. “Reciprocity fee,” they answer. There goes my trip to Brazil.

I forgot the biggest expense, countries’ entrance fees. These can either take the form of country-specific visas or fees to be paid at ports of entry. As Peace Corps is a government agency, upon my arrival in country I was issued an “official” government passport, alike to a normal tourist passport but property of the U.S. government and containing my Paraguayan visa. It does not preclude me from having to pay, at a minimum, $131 to enter Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil. My “official” (still blue in color folks) Peace Corps passport gets me nowhere. In contrast, holders of Red and Black U.S. passports are excluded from entrance fees in every country other than Brazil. Who are the holders of these privileged passports? Government employees working overseas, such as Peace Corps and Embassy staff. In-country Peace Corps employees, for example directors of individual country programs, can make up to $160,000 a year, compared to my $3300 yearly salary. As for Embassy staff, isn’t the State Department responsible for our immigration policies? You’re telling me that the same people who impose the $131 U.S. Visa fee and are therefore responsible for reciprocity fees, don’t have to pay them?

We Peace Corps Volunteers do not make a lot of money; we are volunteers after all. Nonetheless, we do work for the U.S. government. We work around the world as the positive face, the good publicity front of the U.S. government. Is it too much to ask that we receive the same passports and visa exemptions as other higher-paid government employees?