by Francesco Bailo
Roofs here talk to you. And they say things could be better. Much better. A forest of reinforcing bars covers the town. They are rooted in schools, houses, shops, police stations, restaurants, public buildings. Everywhere. Some point to the sky, the older ones tend to bend towards the ground.
If we are where we are it is because somebody, and probably ourselves, tend to consider poverty as a temporary state. A first floor just waiting for the second one to be built. But according to Wikipedia the concept of ‘international development’ can be traced back to the forties. So, either ‘temporary’ is a very long period or something is not working.
Depending on the day, I am inclined to consider the former or the latter as the right answer. The black column of smoke rising from my neighbour’s garbage, just next to my bedroom and my half-dried clothes, moves me in one direction. But watching the children walk five kilometres to reach school points me in the other.
Indeed, the missing floor is a pretty easy answer. Something is missing, everybody can see it. The right direction to walk is to build it. But most of the time there is no easy answer in order to get out of poverty. Actually some answers can be so complicated that the people who need it mostly, the poor, have not the right instruments (like education, culture, language) to understand it. And if we are where we are, after 65 years of missed development, it is probably because most of the time the answer has been wrong.
My role here in San Marcos, Guatemala is precisely to help in generating income. Higher income for communities and families that are struggling to get enough money to feed their children. In Guatemala more than 45.6% of the children suffer from malnutrition but here in the Altiplano the numbers are much bigger: 62.5% of Maya children do not eat enough. I am working with six peasant associations. They produce jam, textiles, organic fertilizer. They grow plants. The idea is to make money.
If I used to see poverty now I see the poor. Poverty as a concept is quite clean and aseptic. You know more or less that you have just to raise productivity, and poverty is gone. You know that more than 50% of the population working in agriculture is too much, and that is an obstacle for development. So you know that about 45% of the population should kindly move to cities and industries and services. And then you meet the poor. And you no longer accept to see them walk from their lands. Especially if meanwhile, for a strange ‘never enough’ complex you are reading The Grapes of Wrath.
It is easy to say that I have never done a job like this. So I could barely find how and where to start. I started from possibly the easiest way. Internet. Through the www.onlinevolunteering.org I got new stickers, a website (www.adicta.co.cc – still working on it), a banner and some translations for an association that is trying to increase sales. I searched for groups of women working and selling textile, fair trade shops trading with Guatemalan handcrafts. Massive emailing. I got some replies. And some could eventually become good contacts. So far we are trying to organize a trip for the women to visit a workshop that is successfully exporting textiles.
The hard part is to look in the long term. In theory the almost subsistence and labour -intensive economy should became a proper capitalist (or investment) economy. That means you push to get a clean balance sheet so everybody knows if an activity is producing something or if it is just losing money year after year. Because producing money means accumulation and accumulation means end of poverty. Most of the time, like in the nursery plant I am working with, the most precise cost analysis you can get shows you that the enterprise is badly losing money. They sell for 7.5 what they have produced at a cost of 10, while other nurseries sell the same plant for 15.
The market is not working, price information is not flowing. So people here sell to intermediaries at the price established by the intermediary itself. Like going to a supermarket and deciding how much you want to pay for a bottle of milk. Moreover work does not count as a cost. That means that a peasant usually knows quite precisely the level of expenses he or she has over a certain period of time, but he or she is not considering his/her own work as a factor, therefore a cost, of the process of production. So basically they work for free.
Feeling inadequate for the job is an everyday feeling. But I am happy to be here. I am learning 24/7. Especially communication. Every problem is mainly a communication problem. In the indigenous communities to understand and to make myself understandable it is just like walking on ice. Slippery and fragile. Anyway, strangely enough, I get the idea that the fact that Spanish is not my mother tongue makes them more confident.
And I am happy because I know what I am doing. I have no reinforcing bars to point at the right direction, but I can feel the sense of what I am doing. Working in the office of a bank would not be the same. There you are lost somewhere in the mechanism and you just see pieces of reality pass in front of you are eyes. Here reality is all around.