Monday, July 16, 2012

What does Honduras need most?

It's easy to see what's wrong in Honduras. It's hard to figure out what to do about it.
I spent the last two days in a "taller," the Spanish term for workshop, looking at development priorities for Honduras.
There are an endless number of grim stats. 
Want to worry about the environment? Between 1990 and 2008, Honduras lost 33.2 per cent of its forest land. Only six countries in the world, all in Africa, had greater deforestation. 
Poverty? The World Bank says 65 per cent of the population live in poverty, and 18 per cent in extreme poverty. In the nearby centre of Santa Rosa de Copan, 56 per cent of the households report income of less than $50 a month. Even for subsistence farmers, that's poor. 
Inequality? Based on the income gap between the top 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent, Honduras had the third greatest inequality in the world, behind Namibia and Angola.
Honduras ranked 129th of 164 countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index. The teen birth rate is 26 per cent higher than the Latin America/Caribbean average.
And on and on.
The workshop brought together some Cuso staff, volunteers and people from the partner organizations they work with in the country. You can’t do much in a day-and-a-half, but it was a chance to start gathering perspectives on where the need is greatest, Cuso’s role and future directions.
That’s ultimately complex. Cuso International has set five priority themes, and in Honduras is attempting to focus on two of them - secure livelihoods and natural resource management, and citizen participation and governance. But the partner organizations have their priorities. And they get funding from a wide range of international sources, and the funders have their own ideas on the most important areas of work. 
There are obvious tensions. If you’re a Honduran development organization working in rural communities, you’re going to feel a great pressure to look for quick ways to bring small - but important - improvements for families and communities. Help a family begin to grow a couple of crops besides corn and beans and they can get a few dollars more in annual income, which means less hunger.
But a few dollars more might not mean that the children go to school, so the basic problems of people with limited skills, lousy land (or none) and no path to a better life continue for another generation.
And programs to improve incomes in their communities don’t develop people’s knowledge of their rights and potential political and community power, or how to exercise them. The political system doesn’t work for people here; government scarcely works at all. Leaving those issues aside, many communities could do more collectively on their own.
It’s not all a question of hard choices. Some organizations are working on both things at once, offering tiny loans for women to start micro-businesses while helping poor families to get title to the little patch of land they farm. 
In the cities, as soon as the smallest construction project starts, even a house being built by three workers, a woman sets up a food stand on the street to sell them lunch. An aid worker said they surveyed the women to see what would help them. One said she bought the worst fruit at the market each night to make liquados - fruit smoothies popular here - but had to make them one at a time by hand. Customers got tired of waiting so she lost business. A $30 loan to buy a blender would give her and her family a better future.
Ultimately there will be hard choices. (And not just about programs in one country - Honduras or Guatemala? Central America or Africa (or Canadian reserves)?)
I don’t know enough about Honduras or development work or anything to have firm views. In fact, there were moments in the workshop when my Spanish skills left me unsure what the heck we were talking about.
But I’m struck by the vast numbers of little kids in Copan Ruinas, and birth rates are even higher in rural areas. About 30 per cent of the population is under 10. (In B.C., it’s 9.8 per cent.)
Maybe the driving theme should be on changing the future for those children, whether by building more capable families, improving education, boosting family incomes or teaching them about rights, political power and community organizing.

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