Thursday, November 1, 2007

Back to work

Lara and I are back in Calgary for a few months doing some contract work. While I have lots of stuff I'd like to write about, I simply don't have time to do any blogging right now. In the spring we are off to China and then Africa for a year. We'll start writing again then.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Childhood's End

When I was growing up I walked to school every day. I rode my bike down the street, swung on swings, and ran around outside chasing my friends. My favorite toy was Lego. I preferred the bricks over the kits because with the bricks you could make anything, but a wagon wheel part could never be anything else. If I was growing up today, everyone would feel sorry for me because I didn't have any cool toys, and my parents would be frowned at for not guarding me from predators and playground accidents.

The truth is that kids don't need expensive toys to have fun. We saw this over and over while we were travelling. Groups of kids simply make their own fun as long as they have somebody to play with. Kids in Guatemala have just as much fun with a rock, a stick, and a cup, as kids in North America do with a baseball and a leather glove.

The only time the rock and stick aren't fun anymore is when the kid next door has a baseball and a leather glove. That is where the trouble lies in our society, and it is something we are teaching at a younger and younger age.

We've somehow convinced ourselves that we need fancy toys to make us happy. Unfortunately any satisfaction we get from buying a fancy toy is typically short-lived; there is always something a little better. On top of that, the very quest for material things takes us away from the things that really make us happy. We work so much overtime to pay for a big house and flatscreen TV that we are never enjoy them.

Do any of these things really make us happy? If you believe all the advertising you see, the answer is a resounding YES. Just look at how happy the people in the ads look. The purpose of a lot of advertising is to convince us that we don't have enough, and it does the job very effectively.

Kids in Guatemala are lucky in a way. They haven't yet been exposed to relentless advertising to convince them that the kids with the expensive toys are having more fun then they are, so they all have fun together. All they need is friends to play with. And once my needs are taken care of that's also what makes me happiest. I like to play with my friends too. Not with a stick and ball maybe, but a pair of hiking boots and a climbing rope go a long way.

I saw a bumper sticker once that said: "How will you know when you have enough?" I only needed to look in my basement. I'm there man. See you in the mountains!

Friday, August 24, 2007

How to Improve Governance

This will be my last post for a while as we are off to Burning Man and then a few weeks of hiking in Utah. What better way to celebrate than to talk about Governance again.

In a comment on my last post, Mike Gallagher suggested that the tools to improve governance are weak. This certainly matches what we have seen in our travels. According to friends we talked to in Guatemala, a group of legal experts from a major US university came down to Guatemala a few years ago to help improve the legal system. After many months and much money spent they gave up in frustration. They had accomplished nothing.

We also encountered a couple of law students in Coban who were working on the war-crimes trial of Rios Monte. Rios Monte was head of the Guatemalan government during the time when some of the worst atrocities of the civil war took place, and many people feel that bringing him to justice would be a big step towards bringing a rule of law to Guatemala. As usual, things are not that simple. It turns out that in the areas like the Ixil triangle where the worst of the fighting occurred, Rios Monte enjoys tremendous popularity to this day. He generally gets about 90% support from the indigenous population, who view him as a hero that helped stop the violence. To many people a war-crimes trial for Rios Monte would be yet another travesty in a long history of injustice.

Governance is not something that can be imposed on a culture. I’ve seen myself in Guatemala, and the world has seen it in Iraq. Governance is something that comes from within, and I believe that ultimately it happens for mainly selfish reasons.

As cynical as it may sound, government is the tool by which the rich and build and preserve their wealth. As a result, when the rich and powerful are a small, closed group we generally end up with some form of authoritarian system. The best way for a small group to get rich is to plunder a country. As long at the dictator funnels enough money to the powerful things generally run fairly smoothly.

When the rich and powerful form a larger group however we generally end up with something more democratic. It is no accident that the wealthiest countries are all democracies. The reason is that the spoils of an authoritarian system are hard to scale. When there are tens of thousands of rich business owners, all of whom want a slice of the pie, it is hard for any central government to keep them all happy simply by plunder. This is not only because corrupt governments can only split the pie so many ways; it is also because corrupt governments stop the pie from growing. At some point there is more money to be made from economic growth than from corruption and as a result there comes a tipping point where the rich and powerful can protect their interests better in a democratic system of government. One day we wake up and realize that we are the wealthy and powerful.

Of course this raises a big question. How do we break the cycle? Bad governance prevents a big middle class from forming, yet as long as there is no big middle class there is little pressure for a better system of government.

I believe that the answer is to put pressure directly on the ruling elites. If the ruling elites are trying to do things that maximize their wealth then it makes sense for us to make it this difficult. For instance, if a country has very high rates of corruption we should not channel any money directly to its government. Or maybe we should go further and restrict access to foreign banks for members of corrupt governments. And when a country opens up its markets we should enthusiastically trade with them so that we can help grow a bigger middle class.

Our system of government may not be perfect, but it’s pretty good. Women are educated, our police are generally helpful, and we are healthy, wealthy, and free to say what we want. It’s in our own best interest to promote it. We are facing a planetary environmental emergency and it’s going to take huge amounts of money and creativity to solve it. If we help Africans get rich and get better governments, then they will stop dumping toxic chemicals and plastic into the ocean. The whole world needs to band together. There is nothing to be gained any more from dealing with corrupt and evil elites. Let’s take the moral high ground and put some pressure on the bastards!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Importance of Governance

Last week I wrote about the distinction between the goals of development (health, environment, culture, and human rights) and the means for achieving those goals (economy, education, governance). Based on what I've seen in Latin America as well as what I've read, the single most important means is governance.

It is almost impossible to achieve lasting change in a country with a bad government. There are the obvious reasons: bad governments plunder the economy and steal aid. But even worse there are the subtle reasons: bad governments create a climate in which individuals are hampered from taking action that will make their lives better. In a country with a good government however, there is little else that needs to be done. The economy will boom, wealth will increase, and educated people will be rewarded for their knowledge. We need look no further than Asia to see how quickly good government policies can bring people out of poverty.

Governments go bad in two ways. They are can be corrupt, and they can be incompetent.

Corrupt governments are mainly interested in enriching themselves and they are all too common in the developing world. In the worst cases, like the Sudan, the rulers simply take aid away from the intended recipients. In Zimbabwe for example, aid agencies are forced to buy local currency at outrageously inflated exchange rates from the central bank. As a result most of the money spent on aid in Zimbabwe ends up directly in the hands of that unspeakable monster Robert Mugabe.

I think we've seen enough of human nature over the last few centuries to safely say that most governments, including those in the western democracies, will be corrupt if given the chance. In Canada the ruling Liberal Party spent years enriching their cronies with advertising contracts. In the United States the Iraq war has created incredible wealth for those with the right connections. In China, the head of the food and medicine department was recently executed for bribery. In Mexico a typical road building contract involves a large kickback to the government.

The difference between countries that are seen as very corrupt and those that are not, is the degree to which those in power are held accountable. In Canada the Liberals were investigated by the RCMP and punished in the polls. In the United States numerous senators and government officials are currently under investigation for bribery and corruption. In Guatemala, there is silence. In Africa those that fight corruption sometimes have to flee the country. Fighting corruption requires three things: a free press that can shine a light on dirty activities, a strong democracy that allows people to replace governments that get too greedy, and a court system that can investigate the worst offenders.

The second problem facing a lot of countries is government incompetence. Most people, including many of those in government, have only the slightest understanding of how economies work and wealth is created. This means that well meaning governments can often create laws that have exactly the opposite effect of what they intend. Nowhere is this more apparent than with labor laws.

Labor laws are intended to protect people from exploitation, but laws that make it difficult to fire somebody also make it risky to hire somebody. Imagine that you owned a small business and you just got a big order and want to hire an assistant. In some countries you could hire that person and keep them as long as their was work. It would be a no-brainer because if there were no more big orders you could fire them and not go bankrupt. In other countries, when you hire that person you would not be able to get rid of them without an extremely lengthy and expensive severance process. In these countries it is often easier simply not hire somebody. The ease with which you can hire and fire people is called labor-market flexibility, and it has a tremendous impact on how easily jobs are created.

The best way to create wealth is to set up an environment where people can be rewarded for hard work and cleverness. This is what got the United States so rich and this is what is lifting a billion Asians out of poverty. It may not be glamorous work, but the work of creating legal systems and training judges is even more important than building hospitals and schools. Good governments will free people to solve their own problems and will open up a world of opportunities to provide effective aid.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Evaluating Charitable Organizations: Means and Goals

Hans Rosling gave a very interesting TED talk this year about poverty. The entire talk is excellent and well worth checking out. One of his most interesting points is that to help people out of poverty it is important to separate the goals from the means. The means are the things that will actually help get people out of poverty. The goals are the reasons why they want to get out of poverty. From what I’ve seen so far, this is something many charity organizations get wrong.

Hans Rosling lists seven dimensions of development:

  • Human Rights

  • Environment

  • Governance

  • Economic Growth

  • Education

  • Health

  • Culture

Generally speaking, governance, economic growth, and education are the means by which people get out of poverty. As people get richer they will spend their own money on culture, health, and the environment, and they will find that human rights become more important to them personally.

The flipside of this is that if you don’t provide people with the means to get out of poverty, no amount of effort in the goals area is going to have much lasting impact. This is the part many organizations get wrong. For instance there are lots of organizations doing health work in the developing world, and they do some wonderful things. But in the long run many of them have very little lasting impact. At the end of the day a poor farmer who is cured of an illness is still a poor farmer. But a poor farmer who is taught to read and write might become a shopkeeper who can afford to pay for a visit to the doctor himself. If he is taught how to treat his water, he might avoid getting sick in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with supporting organizations that work on the goals end of development. Health, human rights, culture, and the environment are the things we care most about. They make life worth living, and it is in these areas that we can show our compassion and ease suffering. But I personally feel that it is important to look at goals-based organizations with a critical eye. It is easy to get so excited by easing suffering that you stop trying to prevent it.

Take environmental organizations for example. The environmental organizations that will have the biggest impact are first and foremost poverty reduction organizations, or organizations that try to improve governance. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a great example. According to their website they “provide assistance to local communities through education, health, training and economic development initiatives.” Education and economic development are the means by which they hope to get local populations wealthy enough so that they don’t need to eat Gorillas.

There are a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place. But over the years a lot of time and money has been spent of feel-good initiatives that have had little impact. We need to spend our money wisely, and make sure that the organizations we are supporting are going to have a lasting impact.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

All Hail the Mighty Cell Phone

One interesting thing about travelling in the developing world is that it makes it much clearer which products are worth paying for and which ones are expensive luxuries. There is nothing like an income of $5.00 per day to make you into a shrewd consumer. Of all the technologies that could improve the life of the poor which ones do they spend their money on first? We’ve travelled three months in Guatemala and we have the answer. Cell phones.

It seems absurd at first, but upon closer examination it makes a lot of sense. Most of us live in cities and have never known life without a telephone. It is hard for us to imagine just how different life would be if we lived in a remote mountain village in a developing country. There are no doctors, no pharmacies, and no places to buy basic supplies like farming tools or seeds. Getting something from a store involves spending an entire day on a bus travelling to the nearest town and back.

Coordinating activities also becomes much harder when there are no phones. Imagine you want to get your brother to help you fix the roof on your farm. You pretty much have to go to his house to find him. If he lives in the next village and travels a lot, this may be a time-consuming exercise in luck. Is he going to be around, or will you have to come back? People in the developing world spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for stuff. We sometimes romanticize this as a slower pace of life, but in reality it simply wasted time.

Cell phones change all that. You can call ahead to find out if the people you need to talk to are available. In an emergency you can phone your family in the city and ask them to put something onto the bus for you. If you own a car you can call people when you go into town to see if they need anything. Everything becomes a little bit easier.

In Guatemala we saw cell phones in the unlikeliest places. We saw farmers in traditional clothing standing in their fields with their wooden planting sticks talking on cell phones. We saw ladies in the markets selling weavings and talking on their phones. Our friends even had a bus who simultaneously driving, filling out paperwork, and talking a cell phone. He was driving with his knees. Almost everyone had a cell phone.

In some parts of the world cell phones have created entirely new industries. For example, in many villages there are people who rent out their phones by the minute. This is a great business simply because it increases communications. Improbably, it also improves banking. If I live in CityVille and want to send money to my friend in Farmville, cell phones allow me to do it. I simply buy a $5.00 phone card. Then I can call the person who runs the public phone in Farmville and tell her I want to give money to my friend. I then read out the phone card number. The Farmville phone operator can now put $5.00 worth of minutes on her telephone, and pay my friend the cash (minus a healthy commission). With clever uses like this it is no wonder that cell phones are one of the first things financed by many micro-credit lenders. Cell phone actually decrease poverty in dramatic ways!

Of course, if the big western companies provided cell phone services nobody would be able to afford them. In the developing world the pricing structures for cell phones are completely different than we are used to. Poor people can’t afford to pay the same ludicrous prices and surcharges that the phone company adds to my phone bill every month.

In the developing world phones themselves are extremely cheap. It costs about $15.00 to buy a phone in Guatemala, and it comes with $10.00 worth of minutes. The handsets are basic, but they work well. They have voice mail, caller ID, and call history. They come pre-activated with a phone number written on the back so you don’t need to do anything to start using one. No one year contracts and signup fees.

In another concession to poor owners, the phones are pay as you go. In Guatemala it costs around 15 cents a minute to call anywhere in the country or North America. Phone cards are available in amounts as low as 50 cents so everyone but the poorest person can afford to buy a few minutes. Lots of people buy minutes only when they need to make a phone call. Twice I borrowed a cell phone to make a call, and both times I had to buy a 50-cent phone card because the owners had no minutes.

To grow market share rapidly incoming calls are always free. This means that even if your phone is out of minutes you can still receive calls. This is very important because a telephone becomes much more useful when more people have one. If you had the only phone in the country it wouldn’t do you any good. By making incoming calls free the phone company increases the base of subscribers enormously. For instance, if you live in the city you can buy a handset for your parents in the countryside and call them at your expense.

In the developed world many people feel their cell phones as highly personal fashion statements (iPhones). Others see their cell phones as the best way of staying connected to their friends. More than once I’ve sat in a movie watching teenagers ahead of me texting their friends every 5 minutes. In the developing world, cell phones are much more significant then that. They are one of the best tools for fighting poverty. The cell phone has improved the lives of billions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Elusive Environmental Villain

There is a common idea that the developed nations are the world's environmental villains. This is a myth. True, we create most of the carbon dioxide, consume most of the energy, and use most of the raw materials. Yet when we scratch beneath the obvious, things are not that simple. Despite appearances, life in the developing world is no more sustainable than life in the first world. Where we consume fossil fuels and raw materials, the developing world consumes wilderness. Where we create CO2 and plastic water bottles, the developing world creates poverty and disease. There are no good guys and bad guys. Both paths are unsustainable, and it is only us, with our wealth and technology, that can lead the way to a better balance.

Few would argue that the western way of life can continue indefinitely. We are changing the very climate of our planet with our CO2 emissions and we are using up our resources at a tremendous rate. Clearly we must do better. But by many measures, the developed world has the right idea. Our populations are stable, we have decent environmental standards, and people live long and healthy lives. We have bought these things by using up the earth's tremendous natural wealth, and unfortunately the bank is now getting empty. The earth does not have limitless resources. The atmosphere cannot suck up endless carbon.

As a result of our excesses, many argue that we should go back to a simpler way of life. The average citizen of India produces 5% of the CO2 of the average American. Wouldn't it be great if we could all live a little bit more simply and watch our problems go away? Unfortunately, this simple way of life is another myth we have constructed. Nobody, not even a subsistence farmer, wants to be subsistence farmer. That's why so many poor people leave the countryside every year to live in horrendous conditions in urban slums: the countryside is worse. People want health, freedom, a comfortable house, and an education. And why not? The fact that many of us who have these things choose to waste our tremendous good fortune on television and inane celebrity gossip does nothing to make the life of the poor any more noble. Our culture may be shallow and depraved, but it beats being a child prostitute in Bangkok or a corn farmer in Guatemala. Poverty is horrible. We must not forget that.

We must also be careful not to equate simplicity with sustainability. The rapidly increasing population in poor countries puts tremendous pressure on natural areas. When nearly everyone is a farmer, doubling the population involves cutting down a lot of forest. And when most of the farming is slash-and-burn agriculture which destroys the land after only a few years, the problem is compounded. Poor farmers may not emit much CO2, but the land they burn is the lungs of our planet and the source of much of our biodiversity.

Subsistence agriculture is only sustainable with a stable population. But poverty itself drives population growth, so subsistence cultures almost by definition have rapidly growing populations. I argued recently that access to free birth control should be a basic right. But while better birth control will clearly have an impact on population, most poor people will still choose to have large families. When you have nothing but a plot of land (no old-age security, no decent medical care, no education) then children become your most obvious asset. The more children you have the better your chances of being fed and cared for in your old age. It's the world's oldest pyramid scheme, and like all pyramid schemes it must collapse. The collapse comes when there is no land for the children. After 10,000 years, that time has arrived.

Contrary to popular belief, it is we, in the rich world, who are closest to living sustainably. Our populations are generally stable. We live in large urban centers that allow us tremendous economies of scale on transportation and infrastructure. We treat our sewage, keep our garbage out of rivers, and try to protect our environment. Billions of dollars are being spent researching clean technologies and better ways of doing things. There is a tremendous public awareness of environmental issues and a will to pay for them. My annual water bill is greater than the yearly income of 2 billion people. It is wealth that enables me to treat my sewage.

We in the rich world already live more sustainably than we did 50 years ago, and we have the tools to do better still. Take crops for example. The green revolution has allowed us to improve crop yields tremendously. Since the 1940s corn production in the United States has quadrupled while the land used for corn farming has fallen. By using first-world farming techniques we can easily feed most of the world's population while substantially reducing the amount of cultivated land. Or look at energy; while our CO2 emissions are clearly much too high, we have all the technologies that we need to reduce them. Solar panels are getting better and cheaper every day, wind farms are popping up everywhere, and people are figuring out clever new ways to hide carbon in the ground.

We must not forget however, the damage we did on our path to wealth. We also cut our forests, mined our mountains, and polluted our water supplies. We cannot afford to repeat these errors on a global scale. We also cannot afford to leave billions in unsustainable poverty. Our road to wealth was long and dirty but now there are shortcuts. We must help poor countries leapfrog directly to cleaner, more sustainable technologies. We all share this planet, and when the last tree falls in Borneo we will all be poorer for it.

The idea of a simple, environmentally sustainable way of life that so many people cling to is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. It never did. Only we, in the rich world, have the solutions to our planet's problems and the wealth to pay for those solutions. The question is, do we have the will? Do we have the will to tax carbon to the point where we will get a 90% reduction in emissions, even if it means energy prices triple? Do we have the will to enforce such tough recycling laws even if it means that we pay much more for all our disposable stuff? Do we have the will to help poor countries get richer even if it means opening up our markets to their products? Will we give them the technologies and assistance that they need to jump directly to cleaner technologies? Are we willing to feed some of the world's poorest people so that they don't have to cut a plot of land out of the jungle? These are the choices our generation will be remembered for. They are ours to make.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Elephant in the Room

When I was walking down the street in Guatemala city I was hit by a flash of insight. It came in the form of Juan, a street vendor who was trying to sell me some tourist trinkets. I wasn't interested in buying anything, but since there were no other likely buyers around and I spoke Spanish he stopped to chat with me. One of the first questions that I was asked was how many children I had.

I had none. Juan had six.

I have had this conversation many times in my travels and inevitably I would be asked why I didn't have any children. After all, I am married and in my late 30s. In most of the developing world I should be at about half a dozen kids by now. Yet this time, the conversation took a different turn.

"How is it that you stop from having children?" asked Juan.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You are married. How do you prevent children? Do you use condoms?"

I'm sure Juan wasn't the most educated person around. But he certainly wasn't the least. He spoke good Spanish and ran a small business selling souveniers to tourists. He was a typical Guatemalan. And he had no idea how to stop having children. So little of an idea that he was able to overcome huge societal taboos to talk to a total stranger about sex.

I proceeded to teach Juan about birth control. I told him that condoms work OK, but that the pill is much better. I told him that the most effective method would be to get a vasectomy. "It hurts a bit for two days and then you'll never have to worry about children again. You have a completely normal sex life afterwards. I've had it done and I'm very glad."

And then it struck me. None of these methods would work for Juan. He couldn't afford birth control pills or condoms. He certainly couldn't afford vasectomy surgery. And his church was probably telling him that birth control was a sin. In reality, there was nothing that somebody like Juan could do to stop having children.

There are 6.6 billion people on the planet. We all know it's too many. If there were only 500 million all of our environmental problems would vanish. The earth could sustain us by regrowing forests faster than we cut them down, and absorbing carbon faster than we release it. We could farm only the most fertile lands and people would have lots of land to live on. There would be tons of space for wilderness. Parents with smaller families would have more money to invest in the education and feeding of each child.

Yet nearly fifty years after the invention of the pill, the UN reports that 201 million women have no access to any form of birth control. In Mali 58% of women of child bearing age can't name even a single method of birth control. In Sub-Saharan Africa only 14% of married women use a modern method of birth control. (details here) The planet is dying from overpopulation and nobody is talking about population control. How could this be?

The biggest reason for this deplorable state of affairs is religion. I make no bones about being no fan of religion in general, but in few ways has religion done more harm than with it's bronze age attitudes towards family planning. The Catholic church is against birth control completely. In many developing countries it wields enough influence to keep sex education out of public education, and birth control out of public health. The Catholic church also puts strong pressure on followers to have as many children as possible. Each child is a gift from God after all. Part of His grand plan. Too bad that God isn't much interested in feeding, or clothing, or educating all these little gifts. How many young mothers have died in childbirth because the Pope doesn't want them to stop have children? How many children starve because their families can't feed an extra mouth?

Of course it isn't just the Catholics that are at fault. Many religions get completely hung up on the idea of sex before marriage. There is this absurd idea among the faithful that teaching birth control will encourage unwed couples to have more sex. If we don't teach people about sex, goes the logic, they won't have sex. It's idiotic nonsense which flies in the face of thousands of years of human history and numerous studies. It is also the official policy of the US government. The Bush administration has created a global gag order on sex education. Charities that teach anything other than abstinence-only, even if it is only a small part of their program, and even if it is from entirely seperate funding sources, risk having their entire US government funding cut. Congress insists that one third of global AIDS education focus on abstinence-only programs which discourage use of condoms. Yet for all its faults the US is an incredibly generous donor. Most organizations would rather shut down their family planning work than do without such a large source of funds.

Of course we can't just blame religion. A second problem is our obsession with growth. Economic growth is good. We all know that. We live in a society where a business that has profitably employed ten people for twenty years is considered a failure because it hasn't grown. Everything is expected to get bigger.

The easiest economic growth comes from having an increasingly large supply of consumers. If every year there are more people, then every year we need to build more houses, and produce more cars, and build more roads. Unfortunately we also have to cut down more forests and pump more carbon into the atmosphere. Until there are no more forests. Then they will starve.

Most governments are terrified of falling populations. The governments of many developed countries have programs in place specifically to encourage parents to have more children. In Russia and Signapore there are financial incentives. And I have been called selfish for chosing not to add to the problem. I should be the one getting financial incentives. Nobody is going to have to cut down an acre of Brazilian rainforest to grow beef for my little ones. Nobody is going to have to breath the carbon that my children produce. Nobody will swim in their excrement. China, with its one child policy, has probably done more to save the planet than any other single government.

Luckily for us, when people have the choice they generally choose to have smaller families. Despite the mindless policies of the Pope the overwhelming majority of Catholics defy his orders and use contraceptives. Without immigration, populations would already be falling in most of the industrialized world. Financial incentives to have children don't work well for educated populations.

It costs about $500,000 to raise a child in the industrialized world. Think of what that money could do for children in the developing world. It could buy 10,000 Nepalese girls out bonded servitude. How many vacinations could it buy? How many meals?

The world doesn't need more children. We need universal, free, access to contraceptives. There should be visiting vasectomy clinics in rural villages right next to the visiting dentists and doctors. We need to leave behind our inhibitions about sex and teach young children everywhere where babies come from and how to plan them. Our planet is full, and we don't have another one.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Enlace Quiche: Hope Through Education

It's still dark at 4 AM when 16-year-old Oswaldo gets up to do his chores. He and his brothers and sisters all help their parents to run their small landholding.

In the 'developed' world, it may be a challenge training a child to make their bed in the morning: in 'undeveloped' countries, it's more than chores; children need to work so that the family can continue to have food shelter and clothing. Children born in poverty grow up working in the fields, or sometimes they live in cities and spend the day trying to sell stickers or newspapers to make a few extra pennies for their families. In rural Guatemala the average boy spends less than 6 years in school. The average girl spends less than two. They will be farmers or labourers all their lives.

Oswaldo's life will be different because of the work of one remarkable organization. Every day at 7AM Oswaldo gets on a bus and goes into the nearby town of Santa Cruz del Quiche to take classes in a computer lab at Enlace Quiche.

"If this school didn't exist, I would probably be working in agriculture," says Oswaldo in Spanish. "Most of the people that I grew up with are working now. I'm pretty much the only one who is still going to school."

Enlace Quiche was started by Andy Lieberman, who moved to Guatemala in the early 1990s to get a break from the high tech industry in San Francisco. He fell in love, married a Guatemalan social worker, and had a couple of children. In 2000 he was approached to coordinate the Enlace Quiche Project using USAID/AED funding. Through 2003 , Enlace worked with local partners and the Ministry of Education to create the first Technology Centers with computers and multimedia equipment to support the training of bilingual teachers and the production of lecture and textbook material in the K'iche' and Ixil Mayan languages. After direct funding from USAID ended Enlace Quiche continued forward as an NGO. Their website says that their mission is "to teach with computers and not about computers, contributing to the development of Quiche, of Guatemala, and of indigenous peoples in the whole world."

"One thing that is really different about our organization is that it is almost entirely run by Guatemalans," says Andy. "In many other organizations the entire executive is made up of foreigners. In Enlace Quiche I am the only person on the board of directors that isn't a native Guatemalan. This allows us to be more responsive to the local culture and needs; it also means that the organization can keep going without me."

Enlace Quiche has courses in typing, small business management, computer use , K'iche' and English. The courses are all aimed at the needs of the local indigenous people. M ost of the course materials have been developed in-house to make them more applicable to native Quiche speakers. Enlace Quiche is even creating Quiche web pages, and there is a new effort to provide a comprehensive online directory of local businesses and community organizations. The award winning course material is available for free download from the Enlace Quiche website at

Enlace staff working on course materials.

All the students we talked to value their traditional culture and language. The boys, who are all dressed in modern clothes, all agree that traditional dress is important for the women. The women aren't as sure about that, but they do all agree that they want to maintain their language. Spanish is important: it is the language of business. But speaking K'iche' allows them to maintain a connection with their Mayan roots.

Like most modern NGOs, Enlace Quiche requires that users pay a portion of costs. The fee structure addresses some of the effects of Guatemala's rapidly growing yet poorly funded education system. Due to the dramatic quality variance in primary school teachers, students often have not developed the discipline of good learning skills. It isn't uncommon for them to miss classes, show up late, or talk on their cell phones in class. "It is important to charge a fee so that the students will value what they are getting", explains Andy. When Lara and I walked into a class, the students were all intently focused on their assignments and teacher. If we had been really quiet, I'm sure they wouldn't have noticed us until class was over.

The classes cost around $20.00 a month, though scholarships reduce the cost for many students by up to 75%. It might not seem like much, but in an area where people earn a few dollars a day and have ten children, $5.00 is a lot to spend on one child. Most of the students also have to pay bus fare every day to get to classes. As a result, many students do extra work to pay for their education. Oswaldo, for example, goes to the town square every evening after classes and sells belts to earn tuition money.

Selling belts to earn tuition money.

The students we talked to clearly value what they are getting. We asked three girls from one of the classes to describe their experiences. They are 16,18, and 19, but could be five years younger. "Many of our friends are married already," they explain. "If we didn't have this school to go to we probably would be too." Indigenous women often marry at 13 or 14 and start having children shortly after. The girls are astonished to hear that in the developed world most people marry in their mid twenties and many in their thirties.

To spread their idea further, Enlace Quiche has just started a youth club. Students who join the club can bring friends into the computer lab and library. Oswaldo says he would really like his brothers and sisters to come, and he plans to bring them through the club. Maybe they'll be the next generation of students.

Oliver Wendel Holmes said "The mind once expanded by a new idea never returns to its original size."

Just as Enlace Quiche is expanding minds it touches, it is also expanding its vision for social impact. Enlace Quiche says on their website, "We have great dreams!" Andy L ie berman is now focusing a large part of his energy on turning the original center in Santa Cruz del Quiche into a blueprint for self-supporting technology centers in other communities. As an example of 'social entrepreneurship,' this type of proposed sustainable model uses "the enormous synergies and benefits that arise when business principles are unified with social ventures". As a social entrepreneur, Andy hopes to change the world. His plan will not only help people: it will support itself, attract investors, and eventually it will take on a life of its own.

All of the kids we talked to have bigger plans for their lives now. Salvador hopes to be a teacher. Maria wants to work in an office. Most will be the first generation of their families to have jobs outside of subsistence agriculture. They will be teachers, office workers, and computer operators. They will marry later in life, have fewer children, and earn enough money to see that their children get educated as well. For them the cycle of poverty has been broken.

You can donate to Enlace Quiche through GlobalGiving by clicking here.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Crossing into the United States

We crossed back into the United States last week after four months in Guatemala and Mexico. Unlike most people the cross the border, we had all the necessary passports and paperwork. Everywhere we travelled on our trip we had run into people that had crossed into the US illegally, sometimes as many as 15 times. For some it was a weeklong treck through the desert. Other people said it was a 30 minute hike to a shuttle bus. I guess it depends on your contacts.

With proper paperwork the experience was a horrible. Many travellers that I have talked to agree that the United States is the most unpleasant and unwelcoming border that they have ever been too. Lara has a British passport, which means she needs to get fingerprinted and retina scanned. This involved walking over to a crowded office and waiting for about 90 minutes until a grumpy man gave her a form to fill out. In filling out the form she accidentally wrote her birth date on the wrong line, so she crossed it out and wrote in the correct place. When she got back to the man he circled the correction with a big red pen and said "You made an error. I need you to fill out this form again, correctly!".

"In my country the customs officials are clever enough to figure out corrections", was my reply. Fortunately it was my inside voice speaking.

As Lara was filling out her form a second time a group of Japanese tourists who had come in realized that they hadn't taken a number. The customs agent decided to help them out of order rather then make them wait like everybody else. Unfortunately, they lacked a common language and for the next half hour we waited with our completed forms for the agent to finish abusing the Japanese tourists.

After a little more then two hours Lara finally got fingerprinted and retina scanned and allowed into the United States.

Now we know why so many people swim across the Rio Grande!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Profits In, Garbage Out

Egan Ehlers left this comment on my last post about garbage in Central America.

"I used to live in Central America and there is indeed a garbage problem there. But in the U.S. and Europe, the benefits from better ideas about garbage disposal are ruined by the fact that packaging is so wasteful. Open anything -- from cereal to computer software -- and you find inside is mostly air. Many American-owned companies are generating third world waste. Their political influence is one reason packaging laws are not changed, not just in Central America, but in the U.S. and Europe."

He has a good point.

Imagine that every single time Coca Cola sold a drink they dumped a piece of plastic into a nearby river. Imagine that McDonalds collected all of the packaging generated by their restaurants and dumped it directly into the ocean. People would be outraged. Yet, in effect, this is exactly what these giant corporations are doing in the developing world with their careless and irresponsible packaging.

When a country lacks the basic infrastructure to collect and dispose of its garbage there is something profoundly disturbing about packaging so many products in disposable plastic containers. The beverage companies are the worst. Central America is literally covered with plastic bottles. A small deposit on the bottles would solve the garbage problem in an instant. Only a few years ago most drinks in Central America were distributed in glass bottles with a deposit so the infrastructure was already in place when the switch to plastic happened. Drink garbage was almost unheard of. Now nearly everything is in indestructible plastic bottles and the rivers and oceans are filling with garbage.

If the beverage companies cared the least bit about the ecological disaster they were causing they would institute a recycling program and a small deposit. In countries where many people earn dollars a day, it wouldn’t take much of a deposit to make plastic bottles worth recycling. And it’s not like Coca Cola and Pepsi haven’t had plenty of experience with recycling programs in first world countries.

But of course, Coca Cola and Pepsi don’t care. Every plastic Coca Cola bottle floating in the ocean represents profit. Disposable packaging is cheap precisely because it is disposable. The oceans and rivers and caves of the world pay the disposal fees.

This is precisely where governments should step in. Free markets only work well when companies can’t pass the costs of their irresponsible actions onto others. Polluting a river with plastic garbage isn’t free, so it only makes sense that the people who create the garbage should pay for the cleanup costs. They profit from cheap packaging and we all pay the price in a garbage coated planet. Maybe it is time to leave poor Nike alone for a while and focus on the reckless and irresponsible corporations who are helping cover our planet in trash. Anyone feel like showing up at the Coca Cola general meeting with a dumpster full of plastic bottles?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Plastic Coated Planet

Mike Shawcross, relates a funny story. When the mayor of a particularly dirty town he was working with was asked why people didn't get rid of their trash, he replied, in all seriousness: "Our problem is that we don't have a river."

We see that attitude all around us in the endless mountains of trash.Every street is littered with plastic. Every field is full of bottles and wrappers. The rivers are lined with garbage. The parks are filthy. If a place is clean it is only because tourists visit it and the local government pays somebody to clean up the garbage every day.

Thirty years ago most of the garbage that we created would eventually degrade. That is no longer true. Except for the tiny amount of plastic that has been burned, every scrap of plastic we have ever made still exists. It is choking the earth.

There is an island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas.

Some of the rivers in Asia have so much garbage in them that boats have trouble moving through them.

What amazes me the most about the garbage situation is that people literally do not see the garbage around them. In Central America people throw garbage out of the windows of their houses and allow it to pile up in their yards. We have seen schools that were so littered you could barely see the ground. If you ask people about the trash, most of them look at you like you've grown an extra arm.

Managing trash is a pain when you don't have regular garbage disposal. But it isn't that hard. A few of the Agros villages we've seen gather and burn their trash every month (though the other four weeks they just throw it on the ground). We even heard of one town that built a big pit for all their plastic-they burn and compost the rest.

It is sad to see people defacing their own environments. But it's even sadder when we have to share a planet with them. A river in Guatemala becomes a stream of plastic and sewage as soon as it hits its first village. When it hits the ocean, it becomes a problem for all of us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Terrible Ironies: The Case for Trade

One of the terrible ironies of our time is that well meaning people often fight against the very things that could help make life better for the millions who live in poverty. There is probably no better example of this then the case of trade.

There are two main reasons that people object to trade. The grim reality is that there are huge differences in working conditions and wages between the rich world and the poor. Many people feel that there is something fundamentally unfair when people who make $40,000 dollars a year buy goods made by people who earn $1000.00 a year. Other people fear that they won't be able to compete with people who earn so much less. Both arguments are wrong.

Assume that in Fruitville, for every year of labor a farmer can create 2 tons of corn, or 10 tons of fruit. Assume that in Cornville, a farmer can produce 20 tons of corn or 4 tons of fruit every year.

Fruitville: 2 tons of corn per farmer, 10 tons of fruit per farmer
Cornville: 20 tons of corn per farmer, 4 tons of fruit per farmer

Imagine that the towns require 100 tons each of corn and fruit. Here is how many farmers are needed.

Fruitville: 50 corn farmers, 10 fruit farmers = 100 tons
Cornville: 5 corn farmers, 25 fruit farmers = 100 tons

Clearly Cornville is a little richer then Fruitville since it has only half as many people working in agriculture. But look at what happens when we open up trade between the two.

Fruitville 20 fruit farmers = 200 fruit
Cornville 10 corn farmers = 200 corn

There is still enough food to go around, but there are much fewer people needed to create it.

But what about the case of Poorville vs Richville? Poorville is a bunch of substance farmers. They grow 1 ton of corn and 2 tons of fruit per year. Richville is a big industrialized area, and grows 50 tons of corn and 25 tons of fruit per year. If Poorville is worse at everything, won't it be bad for them to trade with Richville?

Poorville 1 ton of corn per farmer, 2 tons of fruit per farmer
Richville 50 tons of corn per farmer, 25 tons of fruit per farmer

Poorville 100 corn farmers, 50 fruit farmers
Richville 2 corn farmers, 4 fruit farmers

Again, lets see what happens when we open up trade.

Poorville 0 corn farmers, 100 fruit farmers = 200 fruit
Richville 4 corn farmers, 0 fruit farmers =200 corn

Once more we can produce the same amount of food with much less labor. As an added benefit we also protect the environment since the likely reason that Poorville produces so little corn is that they are growing it on marginal lands that are destroyed quickly by agriculture.

But what about all the unemployed farmers? It's a good point and one of the biggest reasons why people fear trade. The corn farmers in Fruitville and the fruit farmers in Cornville can see what is going to happen to them, and social activists can see what is going to happen to the corn farmers in Poorville. The reality is that the adjustment will be hard for many people. But that doesn't change the fact that for society as a whole the adjustment is a good thing.

The reason is that farming isn't the only job that exists. The number of possible jobs is limited only by our imaginations. When we find a more efficient way of doing something it frees up people to work in new areas. Sewing machines, cars, computers, and email all cost people their jobs. But by allowing us to do more for less these technologies created new jobs that could never have been imagined. How many web designers were there in 1990?

In a healthy economy there will always be some unemployement as people move from old inefficient industries to newer, more efficient ones. Nowhere is this more visible then in agriculture. Yet this movement is what makes the economy bigger and makes us richer.

If everyone is working in agriculture there is no hope of progress because everyone is tied to the land. In many countries children can't complete school because they are needed on the fields to help feed their families. Trade give countries the opportunity to free resources to do other things. People migrate from the farms into jobs in teaching, road building, truck driving, and eventually information technology.

We lament the jobs lost to trade and new technologies because it is so hard to see the gains in other areas. We see the farmer who is now unemployed and too old to learn new skills, but we don't see his kids who left the farm to get a teaching diploma. The reality of it is that trade is the fastest way to create growth, because it allows everyone to do what they are best at. There will be jobs lost to trade, and it will be hard on some people, but the alternative is a continuation of the status quo. If we are really worried about the people who will be effected, we should offer them support and training instead of trying to hold back entire economies to protect dead-end jobs.

For thousands of years trade has created wealth. If we really care about the poor, we should make it as easy as possible for them to sell their goods to us. It is immoral to do otherwise. It is so terribly sad that the people who protest trade agreements do not know the harm they cause.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Our Monument

Last week we toured the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. It is a place of magic where monkeys still live wild and a pristine wilderness stretches for miles in every direction. Many of the ruins have been excavated and restored to some of their former glory, but the majority still lie burried beneath the jungle. Every hill in Tikal was once a temple for some long forgotten God, or the palace of a king whose name we no longer remember. 1200 years afer the collapse of the Mayan civilization, all that remains are some mounds in the jungle. There is almost no trace of their vast cities.

People say that when we cut down a forest it is gone forever. We hear that once the topsoil vanishes the land is ruined for thousands of years. Yet these ruins show us that this isn't true. 1200 years ago much of Central America was deforested by the Mayans. The wonderful country of Belize was home to ten times its current population. Tikal was a city of stone and concrete, yet 1200 years later you can barely find it. Nature can recover if we let it. The roots of trees can tear apart the strongest buildings. Lichens can make soil out of the hardest stones.

I know that our earth could be a paradise. I know that there exists a future where a population of some half billion humans lives on a beautiful garden planet, in harmony with the environment. The oceans will be full of fish. The jungles will be full of monkeys. We will treasure and protect our fragile home. We will take care of our fellow man so that the imbalances of the 21st century will never be repeated.

That is not our future. But it could be.

There are few things we can do that make lasting impact on history. The monuments we create will crumble under the relentless assault of time. The empires we build will eventually collapse. Everything we create will eventually be forgotten.

But if we destroy our planet we will not be forgotten. When we killed the last Dodo Bird it was forever. We can rebuild the temples of Tikal, but there will never be another Dodo Bird. It is gone. Many biologists feel that we will lose 50% of mammal and bird species before the end of the century. In our lifetimes we will see the last wild Organgatans and the last Black Rhinos. Our children will see the last Polar Bears. Every twenty minutes one more species is lost.


If we allow this to continue our generation will not be forgotten. We will be cursed by all who follow us.

If ever there was a time to act, it is now. Go to and support a worthy charity. Support the Nature Conservancy. Write letters to politicians and to business leaders. Shout from the rooftops. There is still time to give back some of the land we have taken from the wild things. There is still time to avert the worst of the coming catastrophy. The task has fallen to our generation. There will be no more chances.

Thousands of years from now, we could be remembered as the generations that rose above conflict, self-interest, and short-term thinking to build an unconquerable legacy.

I know that our earth could be a paradise.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crossing Borders

When travelling in the third world it is hard not be be struck by how mindboggling inefficient some things are. Take for example the border crossing from Belize into Guatemala.

All Latin American countries have large import duties on vehicles. For this reason they require that tourists get a temporary vehicle importation permit before they can enter the country. The purpose of this permit is to prevent us from leaving the country without our vehicle. Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize all require this.

Entering Belize with a vehicle is simple. The first desk is immigration. They give us permission to enter the country. The second desk is customs. They record our information in a ledger and fill out a form showing that the vehicle has been legally imported into Belize. They then make a note in the driver's passport showing that they came in with a vehicle. About 100m past the border is an insurance office where we can buy insurance by the day, week, or month. It is all very straightforward and efficient (though it is amazing that in 2007 this process is still done on paper).

Guatemala is an other story altogether. "I need a photocopy of your license, registration, passport entry stamp, and front page of the passport," explains the border guard.

The problem is that the border post doesn't have a photocopier. As a matter of fact, the only working photocopier is about 3km down the road in town. Oh, and the main road into town is closed because there is a fair today so we will have to drive the long way around. Except we can't drive because our vehicle isn't legally in the country yet.

So before we can get the vehicle into the country we have to take a 10 minute taxi ride into town to get a photocopy of our paperwork. And there is no way we could have gotten this photocopy ahead of time because it has to include the entry stamp. Luckily taxi rides are cheap, but the whole process sucks up a lot of time and would be pretty hard for a non-spanish speaker to follow.

Once we provide all the photocopies the guard fills out a form for us and we have to pay a small fee for the paperwork. Since there have been so many problems with corruption at the border we have to go to a bank to pay this fee. This is actually a great idea because it makes it hard for guards to accidentally inflate the prices. (It used to be standard practice to tell tourists that there had been a price increase but they only had outdated forms that showed the old price). Luckily the bank office is in the same building and the line is short.

Fortunately we already had car insurance from our last trip to Guatemala. If we didn't we would have had to find an office that sells car insurance to foreigners. These are few and far between. When we went into Guatemala last month we had to drive almost 3 hours to Huehuetenango to find an insurance office.

When a simple act like crossing the border takes several hours nobody benefits. This is one of the reasons why poor countries are poor. They lack the basic capital to do things efficiently. How many thousands of hours are wasted every year because border posts can't afford photocopiers? The lack of capital creates a drain on the whole economy. We have been to oil change places that didn't stock oil or filters (we have to go to a parts store and buy those seperately). We've seen lawns mowed by Machette because nobody can afford a lawnmower. Everything takes longer, and is more difficult then it needs to be because people can't afford the tools to do the job right. And that drains the whole economy and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Snows of Guatemala

It is snowing today in Guatemala. Thick flakes of ash fall from the sky. All around us are fires as the jungle burns. It is a vicious cycle. Poor people in search of land cut down the forest to feed their families. But bronze-age farming techniques are hard on the land. Within a few years the thin topsoil washes away and another piece of forest will burn.

The good news is that there is widespread recognition that something must be done. The newspapers in Guatemala are full of stories about the threat to the environment. Many state and local governments now have environmental departments which are trying to protect the remaining forests. There are numerous agencies and conservation groups working to protect the environment.

The bad news is that the demographics are so awful. The population of Guatemala is set to double in the next twenty five years. According to the national newspaper nearly 65% of the country has been deforested already. In a country where 60% of people are subsistence farmers it isn’t hard to figure out what will happen when the population doubles. The forests will be washed away by an ocean of people.

In Guatemala, as in the rest of the world, one of the best ways to protect the environment is to address social problems. When people are educated and healthy they have fewer children. When farmers have access to modern technologies and farming techniques they can be more productive. And when people no longer need to worry about where their next meal comes from they can start to think about what type of world they want to live in.

Nobody would choose to live in a world where there are no Jaguars in the wild. We all want a world where people are healthy and educated and in balance with their environments. But there is little time to act. We are entering an age of consequences, where the actions we are taking can no longer be undone. If we are going to do something, we must do it now. In twenty years, it will be too late.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Cultured Masses

It seems like everyone agrees that culture is a good thing. Culture should be preserved. Traditional cultures should be respected. We enjoy visiting countries that have interesting cultures. But is culture really all that it is made out to be? When we attempt to preserve traditional cultures, are we doing it becaue we really want to help people? Or are we doing it because we like the pretty clothes.

In Guatemala there are many different groups of Mayan indians. Each of them has their own unique language and style of dress. Tourists love it. The indians are very colorful, and the mix of indigenous languages lends an exotic soundtrack to the street markets. Yet the same culture that gives us the clothes and the languages that we enjoy so much, also has a dark side. Women are second class citizens. Traditional slash and burn agriculture destroys the rainforest. The traditional diet of corn and beans is low in nutrients. The traditional languages of Mam and Quiche aren´t very useful in a country where all major activities are carried out in Spanish.

Some elements of traditional culture have no place in a modern world. Women should have equal rights. The environment can no longer afford traditional subsitence farming techniques. People need to learn the dominant languages of their countries if they want to have a voice. Yet each of these things destroys traditional culture.

Given real freedom, most women wouldn´t choose to spend their lives at home sewing and cleaning traditional clothing. Given decent tools and proper training in agriculture, most men wouldn´t choose to spend several months cutting down virgin rainforest with a machette. Given a choice, most parents wouldn´t choose to educate their children in a language that few people speak.

It´s hard not to feel a little sad when we go into traditional areas and see people wearing modern clothes and talking on cell phones. It seems like something precious and beautiful is being lost. Yet when I see a little indian boy wearing jeans and speaking Spanish, I feel hope. What other modern ideas is this boy being exposed to? Maybe this boy will treat his wife with respect. Maybe this boy will have a voice in politics. Maybe this boy will learn how to farm his land better. Maybe this boy won´t have ten children. The traditional clothes may be beautiful, but they come at far too great a cost.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ten Billion Hungry Mouths

Laguna Maxbal (lake Maxbal) lies deep in the jungles of Guatemala. It isn´t in any of the tourist guides yet. It is an unspoiled jewel in a wilderness where howler monkeys still roam free. From the misty shores the only sound we can hear is a cacophony of insects and birds. This is a beautiful place. It is wild.

The people in the nearby village of Maxbal recognize the value of the lake. They know that a beautiful spot like this will attract tourist and money. They know that if they cut down the trees or fill the lake with garbage, people will not come. A warden is responsible for protecting the lake and escorting visitors to make sure they don´t leave any trash. There is even a hostel, waiting the day when the first tourists arrive.
Yet despite all this, Maxbal is under enormous pressure. The population of Guatemala is exploding. People need land to feed their families. They need places to live. Places like Maxbal.

Not 30 minutes up the road from Maxbal is the future. A huge wound gapes in the earth. Burnt trees stick out of the tortured ground. A new village is being hacked out of the jungle. There is land here for the landless. To us it looks like hell, but to a landless peasant this is hope.

People with empty stomachs don´t think about the future. They don´t have the luxury of caring about the valuable hardwoods they are burning to grow corn. They don´t have the luxury of caring about sustainability. They care about feeding their children.

If we want to save places like Maxbal, we need to provide alternatives for the rural poor. We need to rethink how we feed the planet. We need to restructure how land is valued so that we no longer cut down rainforests to produce crops which can be grown hundreds of times more efficiently in other places.
As the earth´s population climbs to 10 billion people the waves of humanity will surge ever deeper into the remaining wilderness. Unless we do something soon, places like Maxbal will be swept away forever, or become islands surrounded by a sea of people.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Way Out of Poor

Agros Mexico was our first visit as GlobalGiving Ambassadors. More pictures can be found here.

"We have no education. We have nothing. Our hope for the future is our children. We want them to go to school and learn."

Lara and I are sitting in a tiny church(1) in San Pedrito, Chiapas, Mexico. Antonio speaks to us in Totsil(2) through a Spanish translator. Like most of the people in his village, he speaks very little Spanish. His clothes are torn and his skin and hands show his many years of hard work in the fields. He belongs to the majority of people on this earth that live on less than $1 per day. He is among the poorest of the poor.

In May 2005, the 18 families in San Pedrito lived in shacks constructed of wood slats and plastic tarps over dirt floors. The food they ate(3) didn’t satisfy basic nutritional needs, especially for the children. Meals were cooked on open fires inside the shacks. The women in the village carried untreated water in 90lb containers(4) from a muddy pool 100m away. The local hillsides were deforested to provide cooking fuel.

This isn’t a “pull out your wallet, tear-jerker” story. This is just real life for a lot of people in Mexico. They don’t have much dignitiy and certainly don’t have any hope or any confidence that they can do anything for themselves. Life is a grinding, day to day struggle. Once you feed yourself – that’s pretty much it. There’s no energy left to think about, let alone try to imagine how you might send your kids to school. If you have any reserves left, you’ll probably save them for when your child falls into the fire and you have to walk 10 km to take them to a doctor.

Today the villagers are telling us a different story. The men sit on one side of the church and the women and children sit on the other. When they speak, there is hope in their voices.

"Agros taught us how to work together," says Jose(5). "For three months all of the men in the village worked together on the water system. Not a single one of us left to work outside the village. Agros paid for the materials. They also paid us half of what we would normally have earned working for other people so that we could afford the time to work on the water project. Now we have running water to all our houses."

The water system was the first project that Agros did in San Pedrito. Today we have accompanied Claudia(6) and Marcos(7) on their bi-weekly visit so we can see what has changed.

After our meeting with the villagers, we are taken on a tour of the village. There are piles of adobe bricks everywhere. Following the success of the water system, the villagers realized that they could work together to build better houses. Agros is providing corrugated metal for the roofs, but the villagers making the adobe bricks and are doing all of the construction themselves. Because everyone is working together, the houses are almost being constructed in an assembly line which means everyone should be moving in pretty soon.

"It´s a lot of work sometimes," says Marcos. "When we first come to a community the people are hoping we will just give them what they need. We don´t do that. It would be much easier, but it wouldn´t work. People value what they work for. We work alongside communities. It's a 7-10 year commitment to help a village out of poverty and build social and economic wealth. We teach them how to work together. Everyone has to get involved, both the men and the women. If they won't work together then we can't work with them."

San Pedrito has a school now. It´s a small wooden shack with a dirt floor. The town is too small for a government teacher, but the Mexican government has an excellent program where students that have graduated from secondary school(8) can spend a year or two teaching in a village like this one to qualify for scholarships in their chosen field of study. Agros helped arrange everything and there are now two young men teaching in the one-room school house. It´s a harsh living for the two teachers. They live in a mud shack and are provided only basic food by the villagers. Donations from a church in Cuernavaca help provide some extra support for the teachers.

"Are those Papayas?" I ask as we complete the tour of the village.

"Yes," says Jose, and he calls over one of his children. He lifts his child into the tree and together they pick a couple of Papayas for us. The sole Papaya tree in the village is now surrounded by a new grove of fruit trees. This is another product of Agros, and fitting symbol for San Pedrito. The little fruit trees have a lot of growing to do yet, but the seed has been planted and with a bit of support the future finally looks brighter(9).


After San Pedrito, Espinal Buenavista looks like paradise. Shady branches overhang well-tended yards. The houses have electricity and there is a one room clinic building for the travelling nurse to use. The basketball court is paved, and the school room is much better equipped. But Agros is doing good work here as well.

"The school only goes to grade 6," says Marcos. "Only of children in the village go to secondary school. The nearest secondary school is about 50km away. We have to pay to board them. We are just farmers. We can't afford it."

Lara and I reflect a moment on the commitment it takes to board a 12 year old child in a school 50km away when you grow beans and corn for a living. We take our education for granted, yet here anything past grade 6 requires a minor miracle.

In Espinal, Agros is looking at providing microcredit for the farmers. "We have a variety of crops and livestock. The cows don´t produce much milk and many of our plants don´t do well in this weather. We want to borrow money from Agros so that we can buy better seeds and livestock." The microcredit loan will likely be made to a group of farmers, not individuals. This is not just a financial opportunity. As the farmers work with each other and benefit from the technical advice and coaching from Agros, they will build their community and gain knowledge that will provide a stronger foundation for their future.


San Miguel, the last village are visiting, is a place of where cultural tradition is contributing to poor diet. It’s complex. You can’t just tell people to do things differently. Trust and understanding are required before any meaningful communication can take place. Different cultural backgrounds make finding a common ground very challenging.

I am reminded of our initial meeting with the Agros staff. "We are going to go around the table," explained Sergio, Agros Director - Mexico, "and each person will introduce himself and tell the group what plant or animal he or she identifies with.” At first, I’m not sure of the purpose of this exercise, but Sergio explains an application I hadn’t imagined. “Many of the villagers are very timid,” explains Sergio. “If we just walk up to them and ask for their names then they will look away. But they know plants and animals. It´s how we connect with them. Normally the women are very quiet but when I did this activity I had a woman get very excited and tell us all sorts of interesting stuff about a plant I had never even heard of. It was fantastic."

When people have grown corn and beans for hundreds of years it is hard to get them to consider new crops. As a result San Miguel had such a high rate of malnutrition that the government opened a women’s center to improve nutrition and provide health education. But this is just a stop-gap. "If we closed this center the people would just go back to doing what they did before," the nutritionist tells us. "It's hard to make a sustainable change."

Agros is trying a different approach. They have provided loans of a few hundred dollars to a group of local farmers along with extensive technical support. Agros visits San Miguel regularly to make sure things are going well and to provide additional training and support.

Mariano takes us on a tour of his plot of land. "We are very lucky to have a good water source here." He says. "But most people don´t do much with their land in the dry season."

This certainly isn´t true of Mariano and the other Agros farmers. His small plot has beans, corn, lettuce, radishes, squash, coffee, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, peaches, and other fruit and vegetables we´ve never heard of. "We used to
grow only beans and corn and would occasionally buy some other foods. Now we grow all this and have enough left over to sell."

Of course it isn’t always easy. Agros also helped several families with a Tilapia fish-farming project. Because the families had never famed fish before, Agros provided all the supplies necessary for one Tilapia harvest. There were quite a few families involved and the project was successful – some fish were eaten and the rest were sold. But now, if they want to continue, they have to take out a loan. Not all of the families feel comfortable with the kind of investment risks associated with the 2nd stage of the project. Mariano and three other families would like to continue, but that´s not enough for a successful project. Sergio later tells us, “They have a different rationality. We need to learn from their world and life view.”

The problem of poverty isn´t going to be solved easily. The billions of dollars we've wasted in the last 50 years show that we can't just pay people's way out of poverty. Leaving poverty behind means leaving behind old ways of thinking. It means educating children, building infrastructure, changing diets, and learning how to work together. It also requires extraordinary sensitivity to local cultures. It won´t be easy, but organizations like Agros are stepping up to the challenge.


  1. Faith plays a large part in the lives of Mexicans, particularly in the small villages. Agros promotes spirituality but does not distinguish between religious denominations or believers and non-believers. When we asked the San Pedrito villagers what they needed, one of the things they requested was for their Presbyterian brothers in other countries to pray for them.

  2. Totsil: a local indigenous language

  3. The traditional diet of indigenous peoples consisted mainly of maize (my-`eez: white corn) and frijoles (free-`hoe-less: beans). The quality of the soil in most places can support a wide variety of fruits and vegetables but people aren’t used to eating them as a result of hundreds of years of tradition. Agros spends a lot of time educating and training men and women about the importance of a diverse diet as well as how to cultivate and rotate crops.

  4. The indigenous women in mexico are of short stature (4 – 4 1/2 feet tall). In Mexico, hauling water is considered “women’s work” so these tiny women began to have knee problems from hauling heaving containers of water. One of the the Agros principles is to stress gender equality. The villagers also have a hard time understanding the need to boil water. Traditionally, they don’t boil water because it tastes differently (it is deoxygenated). Again, time is required to educate the villagers about this – either by discussing why children get sick, or showing the villagers a side-by-side comparison of filtered and unfiltered waters so they can see the difference.

  5. Each village in Mexico has a mayor or community leader. Jose is the community leader in San Pedrito.

  6. Claudia is currently completing her Masters in Education in a university in Chiapas. She has been working on the Agros team for two years. Her biligualism in Totsil and Spanish is extremely important because the villagers speak mainly Totsil. As a woman, she provides an alternate role model for women in the village. One of Claudia’s projects is helping to organize a clothing cooperative in the village. Currently, there are 7 women and 1 man that embroider clothing for sale outside the village. The man is the best embroiderer.

  7. Prior to starting with Agros 2 years ago, Marcos had a background in animal husbandry and agriculture. While providing assistance in many areas, his expertise is in training the villagers in crop cultivation and the proper care of livestock.

  8. Secondary school is the equivalent of Grade 7-9 in Canada and the United States.

  9. There doesn’t seem to be an end to the projects the villagers want to tackle. In 2006, Agros loaned $100US to the farmers in the village to buy seeds for beans. The villagers used the seeds, ate some beans, sold some beans and repaid the loan. Agros has provided new smokeless stoves that require 50% less wood. These stoves will also help prevent respiratory illnesses that kill millions of children each year. Right now, the villagers are buildling a community center that can also function as a better school facility, are starting to re-forest the area where they live, and are negotiating with Agros for a loan to buy some additional land.


Global Giving: Global Giving is an innovative charitable organization that allows donors to connect directly with the projects they choose to support. Check out the donation wizard, and the gift certificates (for those friends hard to buy for) after you check out the Global Giving / Agros Village link:

Agros: Take a minute (or three) and cruise the Agros site – We really appreciate the time we spent and all we learned from the Agros staff in the Mexico office. Often one thinks about charitable projects in terms of who is taking and who is giving.

Each office of Agros (Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras) follows the Agros Development Model but is free to determine the methods in which to implement them. In Mexico, the Agros Director, Sergio Sanchez, is training his paid and volunteer staff in “Participatory Development Methods.” This term refers to a model in which the community-in-need is directly involved in determining the types and methods of assistance required.

Agros is a committed organization that is truly responsive to the needs of local communities and seeks to work incooperation with existing govenmental programs and complementary agencies. Agros plans to expand their operations to help other indigenous peoples in Mexico and will proceed with the same respect for traditions and cultures.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lines of Life, Lines of Destruction

Five years ago Barrias, Guatemala, was the end of the road. It was a lawless, dangerous place where cowboys on horses came to haul goods into the highlands and maybe have a drink or ten. The vehicles in front of the police station all had broken windows from when the townspeople had tried to burn the station down. It was not a place that we were looking forward to returning to.

Today, however, it is unrecognizable. People are friendly, the air of menace has vanished, and we are staying in a shiny new hotel with hot showers and off street parking. The change has been brought about by one of the most powerful forces of change in the world. The road.

There are new roads connecting Barrias to most of the local communities. The hiking trails and horsemen have all but vanished. Instead, a steady stream of Toyota trucks bounce through the jungle, carrying goods and people back and forth.

Roads are a tremendous force for good. They provide people with the freedom to choose where they want to live. They allow families in remote villages access to distant medical care. They connect people to global markets so that they can buy tools ( and Coca Cola). They give people a broader view of the world.

But the corn fields we pass are also a testament to the destructive potential of roads. Five years ago Barrias was surrounded by a dense jungle. Now the roads spread out through the forest like poisonous tentacles. When a road goes into an area, the people follow. Logging companies remove the biggest trees. The rest are simply burned. Tens of thousands of dollars of beautiful forest slashed down and set of fire so that somebody can make a dollar a day growing corn.

I feel so torn. These forests are so beautiful. The colorful highland cultures are so unique. In ten years time, they will both be gone forever. Yet the benefits are undeniable. Even knowing all the costs, if I lived in a remote highland village, I would want a road.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Crime in Guatemala

Crime is rampant in Guatemala. Vehicle robberies are so common that we couldn’t even get theft insurance. Murders and assaults are also through the roof. While Guatemala is a wonderful place to visit, we must never forget to pay attention to our security. One of our friends lost a car a few years ago in broad daylight outside a coffee shop that had an armed guard.

I went to a mechanic today to install a shutoff switch for the car. Many people in Guatemala do this to make their cars more theft resistant. In my case I tapped into the line running to the fuel pump. When the switch is off, the fuel pump is disabled, which means the motor will turn over but not catch. The switch is hidden in the cab.

I told the mechanic about some of the work we were doing with GlobalGiving. His reaction was interesting.

“There is a lot of poverty in Guatemala,” he said, “but Guatemala is not a poor country. We have tremendous natural resources. Our problem is bad government. If we do not improve our government then there is nothing we can do to permanently solve our problems.”

It is an interesting point. We have seen time and time again how countries that liberalize their economies and establish a good legal system prosper. South Korea, for example, lifted itself out of poverty in a generation. Is there any reason why Guatemala could not do the same?

Driving in Guatemala

We arrived in Guatemala yesterday. It is everything I remember. The people are wonderful and warm until they get behind the wheel. Then they are absolutely terrifying.

Crossing the border was very exciting. It turns out we hit the border on market day when hundreds of people from surrounding villages swarm into town and set up stalls to sell their goods. The stalls were of course set up right in the middle of the Pan American Highway so we had to drive right through the middle of a crowded street market to get out of town. The crowd was so thick we could only see a few meters ahead of us. Our only option was to keep inching slowly forward as people scrambled to pull tables and goods out of our way.

The highway from La Mesilla to Huehuetenango is in excellent shape but it is narrow and windy so it is very difficult to pass slow moving vehicles. The buses have a solution to this, which is to make the sign of a cross and then go for it whether they can see or not. This means that at any time you could turn a corner and be faced with an oncoming bus passing a double semi in your lane.

“The bus drivers are all escaped mental patients”, warned Lara. Needless to say I was very careful, but sometimes you have no choice but to take a chance. For example, when there is a vehicle parked in your lane, eventually you have to go around it whether you can see or not.

We had no problems, but Herb had a very close call. He came upon a vehicle broken down on the right. As he passed it an oncoming bus veered into his lane. The gap was so narrow that he lost one of his side mirrors. “It happens all the time”, said a mechanic I talked to.

Matt says that being a passenger in the bus is sometimes no better. “We were in the left hand side of the bus a few rows behind the driver” he describes. “Every few minutes we would feel the bus pull left, and then moments later it would pull violently to the right as something came whooshing past the windows at high speed.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Changing Minds and Saving Lives

One of the things I've come to realize over the last few years is that it is very difficult to change somebody's mind. This can be enormously frustrating, especially when you are convinced you are correct and you can't understand why other people can't see your point of view. As we've come to understand more about how the brain works we have learned that very few people actually form their opinions by examining and evaluating evidence. Instead, most people have fairly rigid mental frameworks. Information either fits into the existing framework, or it is discarded.

We visited a couple of Agros villages last week and learned first-hand how mental frameworks can mean the difference between life and death. I had always assumed that most cultures understood the link between clean water and health. It turns out that this is often not the case. It is remarkably hard to convince people that their drinking water may be causing them to get sick. Bacteria are invisible, and contaminated water often looks quite clean. It even tastes better then boiled or filtered water. As long as the water isn't obviously dirty it is very hard to prove that it could be linked to disease.

We can blame superstition and lack of education, but we aren't any better. What would it take to convince your parents to become vegetarians? Have you ever convinced somebody that their political or religious beliefs were wrong? People see the evidence they want to see.

How do you convince people that their water may be harmful? There is unfortunately no easy answer. You could try to educate the youth. You could drag a microscope into the field and show people the bacteria ( but this would be expensive and time consuming). You could hold classes for the adults (but they might simply not believe something they can't see). It's a remarkably difficult problem, and it kills tens of millions of people a year.

You can bring a village clean water, but you can't make them drink it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How to Bribe a Corrupt Mexican Traffic Cop

I got robbed by the Mexican police a few days ago. It´s an unpleasant experience. Mexican traffic police have a horrible reputation that is largely deserved. Unfortunately, foreign plates are like flashing lights on your car that say: "Easy money here".

It happens mostly in big cities. You are driving along in the dense, chaotic traffic and then you pass a police car. As soon as he sees your plates he turns on the siren and pulls you over. You panic. What did I do? Above all remain calm. Most likely you didn´t do anything and are simply going to be hit up for a bribe. We are used to thinking of police encounters as serious trouble. However, for many people in the third world the police have little to do with fighting crime. Their main job is simply to be a nuisance.

The police officer will come over and ask to see all of your documenation. He is probably hoping that you have misplaced some of it. If you haven´t he may find some technical problem with it that doesn´t make any sense. In my case they said I was guilty of tax evasion because I didn´t have a detailed list of all of the items I had brought into the country. According to them under Mexican law all tourists need to declare every item they take into Mexico with them. It´s nonsense, but it´s just plausible enough to be true.

If you are being hit up for a bribe the police will generally not be in much of a hurry to do anything to you. Instead they will probably go to great lengths to explain how much trouble you are in. They told me that my car would be impounded, the goods confiscated, I would be fined $2500 dollars and then deported from the country for one year. Wow. Heavy stuff. Fortunately, I knew that I hadn´t really done anything wrong, and I also knew that they were explaining all of this to me to try and increase the bribe amount.

While Mexico has much corruption there have been various efforts to clean it up and it is bad news for police to be caught harrassing tourists. For this reason the first rule of bribes in Mexico is to ask to get more people involved. A ploy that many of my friends have used quite successfully is to insist to be taken to the police station immediately. Corrupt police won´t want to do this because even if the charge sticks they won´t get their bribe. My friends won´t hand over their keys or cooperate in any way and will simply insist over and over again on going to the police station and dealing the with the problem there. This works almost every time. Of course if you have genuinely done something wrong this is the absolute worst strategy. Make sure you are in the right.

I unfortunately made a mistake at this point. The officers asked me to step out of the car and hand over my keys. At this point one of the two policemen took my keys and drove off in my truck. The other officer said it was going to the impound lot. I had no choice but to get into the police car and follow. Now I was worried that the officer in my car would take my camera and iPod which were loose in the front. I hadn´t had time to secure my valuables and I no longer had control of my car. I should have insisted on going to the police station before handing over my keys. In one moment of innattention I had lost my best bargaining chip. My job now was to minimize my losses. If I was too insistent on not paying anything they might just help themselves to my stuff.

Of course the officers had not yet mentioned a bribe or asked for money. I likewise needed to avoid being to direct. Here is roughly how the conversation went.
Me: "Clearly this was just an accident in my paperwork. Is there anything we can do to avoid all of this trouble?¨"
Officer: "Well. I don´t really know. What do you suggest?"
Me: "Maybe I could simply pay a fine to you right now."
Officer: "That might work, but it´s going to be very expensive. The alternative is a US$2500.00 ticket and confiscation of all the stuff in your vehicle. I think the fine would have to be at least US$2500.00."

At this stage I was much happier. The amount was ridiculous, but I now had confirmation that the whole thing was bogus and they just wanted a bribe. Unfortunately the other officer still had my car which was out of my sight and I was still worried about him looting the vehicle.

Me: "Well, I don´t have that kind of money and I´m sure once I explain it all tomorrow it will all be OK. I´m just trying to save myself a night´s delay. If it´s US$2500.00 then take me to the impound lot."
Officer: "Do you have a video camera. I´d take $1000.00 and a video camera."
Me: "Just take me to the lot. I´ll give you $50.00 to avoid all this trouble but any more then that and I´d rather explain it tomorrow."

We pulled up on a deserted side street. There was no sign of an impound lot or official looking compound and there were few other people. Not a good place to be.
Officer: "This is where we are going to impound your car. I´ll take you to the station and you can call the embassy and get a lawyer."

The officer the grabbed his radio and spoke into it. "Hi. I have an arrest for tax evasion and will be bringing him in shortly." I didn´t hear a reply.

Me: "Listen officer. I´m really sorry that I don´t have the paperwork, but I can´t pay you more then $50.00. I have a low limit on my bank card so that I don´t get robbed at an instant teller (true) and I already spent most of it on gas."
Officer: "Ok. Let´s go."

They drove me to the highway, I paid them $50.00, and they gave me back my keys. As I had hoped nothing was missing from my car. I suppose that by the complex logic of corruption, stealing from my car would have been wrong. I turned around to write down the license plate number so I could report them, but they were gone.