Thursday, July 19, 2007
I’ve noticed that what has been interesting me most in the documents I’ve been working with here at UNICEF is what the development field likes to call “behavior change communication:” the idea that if you somehow say the right thing in the right way, a person will actually start to act differently. The question of behavior change comes up a lot in work with HIV/AIDS, because seemingly the vast majority of interventions focus on educating people. If people don’t know that they can get HIV from oral sex or from a person who appears healthy, clearly they can’t protect themselves well. From the opposite perspective therefore, it is presumed or assumed that if a person does know that even if you do it say, in the ocean, sexual intercourse can still transmit HIV, that they will stop having unsafe sex. Though this seems perfectly logical, it really isn’t true. In some parts of the world, and this region, people are still painfully and dangerously ignorant of HIV, AIDS and methods of transmission and prevention. And reproductive health education is imperative to halting the spread of the disease. But in many places in this region where the epidemic is spreading and becoming generalized, young people have a pretty decent grasp of how they can catch HIV/AIDS. And even if they don’t know all the nitty gritty details, they do know that the best way not to get infected is to use a condom. Yet many still don’t.
So we come to the question that fascinates me: why not? It seems like in order to answer it, those working in the field of behavior change and AIDS education programs need to take a step closer, outside of the academic and institutional perspective we know and love. Pretty much my favorite document I’ve read from any of the country offices so far was a study in Barbados trying to answer this question of ‘why?’ They conducted focus groups and interviews with ‘at risk’ teenage girls in several public schools, talking with them about their relationships, their general social environment, their understanding of safe sex, their knowledge of HIV/AIDS, and their actual actions in terms of protection during sexual activities. The report includes many quotes from the girls, and through their words this ‘gap’ between education and action starts to make much more sense. Because though prevention programs and public health strategies take a purely epidemiologically perspective of all STDs and HIV in particular, as I read somewhere recently, the old, very un-PC, label of “social diseases” instead of “Sexually Transmitted Infections” does say something important because it addresses the social context. This is important because the means of contracting HIV are rooted in relationships with other people. Of course this is difficult to change, and much more complicated than informing people that if they always use condoms they will be protected.
Sex is involved in all sorts of negotiations of power, status, appearances, peer pressure, machismo, and curiosity even before you consider any of the complications often added into the mix by material exchanges. And social decisions are rarely made in a straightforward, perfectly logical fashion. After all we are talking about love, passion, happiness, beauty and popularity, not something practical or definable. But what I think it’s easy to forget when you talk about changing people’s behavior is that people always do what they think is best for themselves. As my friend Jesus said last weekend when I continued blabbering about this topic far away from the office, everything people do is a cost benefit analysis. And as they tell me in economics class, each person is the best judge for themselves as to what will benefit them and what will hurt them. This is, supposedly, also the problem with communism. But I think I’m a little off topic. What I’m trying to say is that we seem to forget that we, the readers and writers of endless analyses and diagnostics are not particularly different from the people who are reported on. They, like us, are human beings. We often do things that are vaguely stupid and against our ‘better interest.’ But if you ask us to explain why we do them, we have reasons.
During the Global Orientation for Junior Professional Officers in the beginning of my time here, my boss gave the standard Children and HIV/AIDS in Latin America power point presentation, explaining the situation in our region, the differences from the epidemic in Africa, the unique problems, etc. All very interesting but completely predictable until she pulled out male and female condoms and a dildo in order to give us a sex-ed class. She told us you can’t talk about AIDS if you’re going to be a prude about it. Not only were we all very shy to go up and demonstrate proper usage of a condom, it seemed that many people in the room had never heard of a female condom. And certainly no one had any idea how to use one. None of us were going to leave that room after that ten minute lesson and start using one either. Yet we are constantly expecting that people will do just that.
You have to change more than just a person’s knowledge. You need to try to change the environment in which they are making their decisions, to change which way will seem to offer the most costs and which the most benefits. However, this insight of mine, even if it is right, is less than a magic bullet. Changing the whole environment quickly becomes a completely impossible task (‘development’) which has to be broken down into more manageable chunks. Like improving sex education perhaps. When it comes down to it, a person who doesn’t know how to protect themselves from HIV just can’t, even if some who do know how to avoid infection still insist on “at risk” behaviors.
But I still think this idea of understanding a person’s whole life in order to understand seemingly impossibly frustrating outcomes is important. And it comes up constantly when you are trying to get other people to do what you think is best for them. People who don’t take their medicine are probably not merely noncompliant because they are lazy, they would probably have to starve in order to pay for it. HIV positive mothers who breastfeed are probably not just careless with their child’s health, but are probably trying to protect them from the AIDS stigma that would come from using any sort of replacement feeding. Sometimes other things are just more important than what is best for us.
Certainly there are plenty of people at Brown, for example, who engage in at risk behaviors and they definitely understand the transmission of HIV. They just happen to be less likely to run into the consequences of their actions than some people are. And that ‘its not about me’ attitude is exactly one of the issues that comes up when you examine why people are not listening to the lessons they are being taught.
Women are the ones who are being infected at the fastest rate in Latin America. If prevention efforts aren’t dramatically more effective, the epidemic is on the brink of changing from a concentrated (in vulnerable populations such as gay men, intravenous drug users, and sex workers) to generalized epidemic. Yet everyone here still thinks of AIDS as something that happens to other people. Bad people, immoral people, people that look sick, people who are homosexuals, NOT people they might sleep with. The worst part is that it is just this invincible attitude that helps spread the disease and make everyone more at risk. So why don’t they believe it could happen to them? And why am I using the third person? It all comes from the same desire to assume that we know better, that the people we choose to associate with are clean and healthy and good. In terms of behavior change, for women who have never been with anyone besides their husbands, telling them that they should always use a condom is akin to telling them that their husbands are cheating on them, or cannot be trusted. And if they do suggest it, their husbands often accuse them of being the cheaters, because if they were being faithful they wouldn’t need to use protection.
An anecdote that I read in a report on a study on my “why” question among poor black women in New York City seemed particularly striking, important, enlightening, depressing. Take your pick of adjective. It was about a (white, middle class) volunteer giving a reproductive health workshop to a group of women who were patients at a free health clinic. While counseling women that they should always use a condom, she was explaining that it was important to get tested for HIV and other STDS so that you could know for sure that both partners are clean and healthy. She mentioned how she and her husband had just gotten tested and she was looking forward to getting the results back so that they would have to use condoms anymore. This, at the same time as telling these women that they should always insist on condom use, even with their husbands or boyfriends. What does this say about these women in comparison with herself? That their men are likely to be infected but hers is not. That their men are likely to be unfaithful, but hers is not. Not in my backyard…
Of course, you may note, that she is probably just unconsciously enforcing an unfortunate truth. That these women are more vulnerable to infection. But the point is, she is saying that she won’t use a condom because she has faith in her husband. And that is what the women she is ‘teaching’ would probably say too. Maybe if they don’t have faith that the husband isn’t cheating, they have faith that the husband uses a condom with the other women. So do we really expect to convince people in trusting, monogamous relationships to begin using condoms all the time? That seems like a tall order if you think about it as applied to the average population of the U.S. (who have a significantly higher level of education and health education than the average population in a developing country).
So is it hopeless? Can you never change people’s behavior? I still think you can. Anecdotally, I have to say that most of my friends and peers at Brown do seem to have been pretty well convinced about the need for condom usage at least outside of monogamous relationships. Be it fear of pregnancy or fear of AIDS, something seems to have clicked for our generation, at least those of us who have benefited from something besides abstinence only sex education. So somehow, it is possible to make that connection, and to force that shift away from condoms as a hypothetical to condoms as a given.
When you put it the wrong way, adolescents who don’t use condoms just seem careless, reckless, and in danger. But if you think of a girl who is in her first sexual relationship with a boy she loves, it makes a lot more sense that she would say that she doesn’t need to use one because she trusts him. Just because, as an outsider, one might be able to see that he could easily be infected with HIV doesn’t mean that in her situation we might not be swayed the same way. Understanding something like that doesn’t provide a magical solution as to how to convince her. But I do think without it you don’t have a chance.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
sin bandas, drogas, y Colombianos
I’ve noticed that taxi drivers are even more talkative here than in New York, and since the public transportation system is, as mentioned before, somewhat lacking, I find myself having many long conversations with them. Usually about the United States. A recent favorite was with a man named Miguel, whose first question was whether or not I was American. He said it usually cost five dollars to get to the UNICEF office (false), but because he really likes the United States, he would only charge me four. If I were Colombian, for example, he would charge me ten dollars.
He, and many other Panamanians, seem to have an intense hatred for all people and things Colombian. I guess that sort of animosity can often be found across borders, but since as an outsider I have no idea of the history, it all seems particularly bigoted to me. A favorite, and somewhat disturbing quote from this particular conversation went something like this.
“Things were better here in Panamá under Noriega.”
“Yes. Now, there are all these problems. There are gangs, and drugs, and lots of Colombians. Before, everything was very safe, nobody was selling drugs. And there weren’t any Colombians.”
For those without background knowledge, and I have very little myself, he was Panama’s self appointed dictator during the 80’s, until the US ousted him through the afore mentioned invasion in ’89. He was responsible for blatantly rigging elections and “disappearing” his political opponents. He was involved in the drug trade. It seems he was an all around bad guy (though I personally think that still didn’t make it our business to invade…though there was supposed ‘provocation’). So hearing that things were better back under his rule makes you pause.
I asked another Panamanian friend if things were better now or then, and he didn’t give me the immediate negative answer I was expecting. “Maybe some things were better then,” he said. I guess political freedoms and rights don’t always seem like the most important things. And dictatorship has always been attractive for the vast scale and efficiency of what can be accomplished when no one has a chance to disagree, (under Mussolini, the trains ran on time).
As we drove through the military bases towards Clayton, Miguel pointed out the window at one of the buildings and said that he would like to work there, with the Canal Authority. When I asked what kind of job he would like to do there, he explained he would drive the small electric vehicles that, attached to cables, keep the boats going straight ahead in the canal. He said he has taken 11 courses, even though you only need six, but that he still can’t get a job. His friend works there, and he is hoping that he will be able to help get him hired. The Canal Authority is supposedly an autonomous agency but, he says, the politicians steal all the money. Actually, he said, it was easier when the gringos were running it. Then, if you did all your courses, you applied and they gave you a job. Now, its all about politics, and connections. You have to know people to get hired.
In one of my classes last semester we talked about booty capitalism, what happens when a democratic system functions solely to the benefit of the politicians. In a society like that, the government only works for those who can pay their way with bribes and connections. I don’t think Panama falls particularly egregiously into that category, but I have the unfortunate opportunity to experience a tiny window of the kind of bureaucracy as I approach the one month anniversary of my stay in Panamá. This is because my tourist visa was due to expire last Friday, and I had to try to get it extended.
The visa used to be good for 90 days, but the law was recently changed to restrict stays to thirty days. In some ways, this gives us Americans a taste of our own medicine. As Miguel asked me one day, “How come Americans can go anywhere they want, but for other people to go to the United States, they have to pay a lot of money for visas and its all very complicated?” In other ways, it seems somewhat self defeating for a country that is actively trying to increase its tourist industry, but I suppose it is enacted less against people with internships and more against the perceived threat of Colombians coming in and messing everything up with their gangs, drugs, and prostitutes. But I digress.
Upon entering the office of Migración y Movimientos, on your right, you find many people sitting in chairs, waiting. On your left are windows with signs above them reading “Cash Registers”. In front there is something like a line, but with no clearly defined endpoint, and no clearly defined destination. All the way into the room are seven numbered windows. After asking about four people, my fellow intern, Jessica, and I discovered that what we first needed was a number. In order to get a number, you have to get the attention of one of the women working in windows six or seven, while they are completely occupied by someone else’s paper work. They can then rip the number out of the standard looking, round, red number dispenser, and give it to you after writing the time on the back. When received our numbers we noticed that though I had 33 and she had 34, we were currently on number 87. This made no sense.
After randomly cutting in front of what seemed like it might be a line, the UNICEF driver asked a woman about what we should do. She said that if we were working for UNICEF, we must not be tourists, and couldn’t have tourist visas anyway. We insisted to him that this wasn’t true, so we went to talk to someone upstairs, who said that yes, we actually are tourists. Upon returning, the same woman told us that what we needed to do was wait in line number one (which I happened to already be standing in) and that the man there could help us. When we got to the front, he asked if I was “registered.” I had no idea what this meant, but evidently I had not been, because he didn’t find anything he was looking for while flipping through my passport. He informed us that to get registered, we need to wait until our number was called, and then go to window three or four. Then we would be able to come back to window one.
By this point, they were up to number 4. Registration seemed to consist of a rubber stamp on one of the pages in your passport. After waiting 45 minutes, they were up to number 5. While we sat there I noticed a man rush in, and start talking to a woman in a suit who had been explaining the necessary procedures for getting a working visa to a foreign businesswoman sitting in front of me. Between the two of them, they started searching through their pockets to find any of the special papers with numbers written on them. Upon seeing this flagrant example of cheating the system (the foreign businesswoman was definitely paying them to do all of this for her) I got so frustrated that we left. We decided to return on Monday bright and early.
The office doesn’t open till eight, but even though we got there at 7:30, it still took us four hours and another whole trip before we became the proud owners of an easily forgeable, laminated piece of paper giving me a 60 day extension not valid for employment.
This past week, I went out to dinner with a Panamanian and an Italian friend. Somehow in the course of the meal, the topic of plastic surgery came up, perhaps prompted by a rerun of Dr. 90210 that was on T.V. earlier. This, of course, led to a discussion of Colombian prostitutes. There was an exposé on T.V. earlier this week on tourists and prostitution, and evidently a lot of the prostitutes were saying that they loved it when an American was interested in their services, because they always pay almost three times as much. The Panamanian woman was describing the women in the exposé, how they were stick skinny with large, obviously fake breasts, and exaggeratedly enlarged lips. It reminded her, she said, of this Colombian novella that was broadcast in Panamá last year, called something to the order of “Not Worth Living Without Breasts,” about a poor, flat-chested Colombian girl who wanted breast implants more than anything in the world. She prostituted herself to get them, and even though the surgery went wrong three times, she didn’t care about her health, just about when she could get the implants for good.
The part about this conversation that flabbergasted me (aside from the fact that this novella had actually existed, which I guess isn’t that surprising considering the content of telenovellas in general), was the way that the two friends generalized from this example to all of Colombian culture. The Italian friend said that the girls can’t help it if that is what is valued, of course they are all going to want surgery if that is the way the society is.
In their defense, there does seem to be a consensus that the vast majority of Colombian women in this country do actually come as prostitutes because there is more money to be had here than in Bogata or Cartagena. But what these two very intelligent women didn’t seem to want to see was that they are only looking at the girls who come here out of desperation or desire to make money, and that all of the people of Colombia are not likely to prostitutes or the equivalent. They fell into the trap of saying, “I have a friend who is Colombian, she’s one of my best friends and she is muy buena gente (very good people) but the people there, they are just concerned with these superficial things." It always surprises me that people are so much more willing to generalize a negative than a positive. If the only Colombian woman that you know personally is a great person, why not assume that all Colombians are great people. Instead, because everyone says there are a lot of Colombians who are prostitutes, you assume that your friend is the exception, not the rule.
I guess the American version would be something along the lines of “I’m not racist, one of my best friends is black.”
Friday, June 29, 2007
I was talking to a friend from Honduras who is also working in the UNICEF office with me about buses in Panama and Mexico compared to those in the United States. Nobody who works in UNICEF takes the bus except my fellow intern who braves the heat and the crowds and the traffic every morning for an hour and a half even though it should only take about 15 minutes to get from the center of modern Panama City to the former canal zone suburb of Clayton. Buses here are American school buses painted all sorts of crazy colors with lights rigged up inside and with all sorts of signs and talismans hanging in the front. My friend was saying that it seemed crazy to her that the other intern rides the bus, because it is so dangerous. (They’re not actually so bad). I told her how last summer when I was interning in a tiny health clinic in a squatter neighborhood in Mexico, I took the bus to work every day, and it was fine, just hard to figure out, because there are no bus lines. There is a big name at the top of the bus, which is the final destination. Then lots of little places names are listed below it, to let you know what route it will take to get there. I figured it out after a few tries (and some helpful hints) but coming from New York it was a bit jarring that there were no numbers, that you couldn’t just wait at the stop for the M104 and know ahead of time where it would go. That instead you have to stand in the street straining to read the signs in time to hail the bus so it will stop for you.
And she said, “I can’t imagine, it must seem so ridiculous to you, coming from New York. I mean, I feel like I would come to one of these countries once and then say, okay, I’ve seen it, now I don’t need to come back ever again.”
I had never thought of it that way. I had told the story as a funny anecdote of my incompetence, not to insult the way things run in another country. Sure things are more efficient in New York, but that’s not really what gives a place its character. But developing countries certainly are different. I’ve been thinking in general about what it is that attracts us out of our air conditioned, relatively well-governed, technologically savvy “developed countries” equipped with museums, libraries, good concerts and modern plumbing, to places that lack some or all of the above. I say us, because I am certainly not alone in this. The fact that I can be concentrating in something called Development Studies, the abundance of friends and acquaintances currently spending their summers in Rwanda, China, or Mexico, and the sheer number of expats I meet here in Panama shows that there is some sort of draw.
Everyone has their own reasons, and I don’t even really think I can fully explain my own let alone everyone else’s, but I feel like there is an element of time travel involved. Though ‘developing country’ is short hand for a host of complex issues, histories, and explanations, in some was it does feel like it is a look into our own past. Watching a movie shot in 1970’s New York last week, I certainly noticed some things that you’d be more likely to see in Panama right now than in the United States. And some things are literally not developed yet.
Like the highway system, for example. We sort of take for granted the fact that roads are mainly smoothly paved with potholes being the exceptions that mar otherwise tranquil drives. Whereas here, sometimes it is more holes and less road. And this is a middle income country. For example, the TransAmerican Highway is in relatively good condition, built to handle American military traffic back during the Canal days. However it is full of potholes and traffic, and there isn’t any other decent road to get across other parts of the country. In driving from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast (quick Panamanian geography lesson: Panama City, which is on the south side of the isthmus, is on the Pacific Ocean, while the other end of the canal is on the Atlantic/Carribean side. This is a little confusing for those of us who expect our oceans to differ from East to West) we had to turn off the highway to head towards the beach, and there was basically just no more road. We drove the rest of the way at about 10 miles an hour, stopping to avoid each hueco (hole). The friend of a friend who was driving cringed in pain every time the bottom of his somewhat new VW Beetle scraped along a particularly unpleasant stretch of road. Of course, from the speakers of this relatively fancy car he was blasting a combination of reggaeton and the Backstreet Boys at full volume as we drove through tiny towns with dirt roads, cows and horses.
Maybe this desire to travel back in time is why seeing Blockbusters, Dominos, McDonald’s, and Office Depots everywhere you go is so frustrating for the tourist. And why a huge number of the UNICEF international staff live in Casco Viejo, where the cobblestone streets lend themselves nicely to nostalgia. It's also certainly not true that a developing country is simply further behind on the same trajectory that any other country followed to achieve development.
People from the countries themselves seem to have little time for this desire to return to some sort of good old days. My friend from Honduras said she would probably like to go back to live in the United States (she’s already lived there for a total of almost six years) even over Europe, where she has also lived, because the standard of living is just better.
But as someone who has grown up taking standards of living pretty much for granted there seems to be more of an adventure to be had over here. Which somewhat worries me, about myself. I was at a Cuban-ish bar in Casco Viejo last weekend listening to a salsa band, and I looked around at a lot of middle aged, wealthy Panamanian couples dancing and drinking and I found myself thinking, don’t you know that the people next door can’t afford this? Yet when I am at home, I don’t enter a bar or restaurant and expect to see a full spectrum of socioeconomic levels represented there. Obviously, as a student at a private university I mostly come in contact with only the very privileged. And I certainly don’t expect all of us to spend all our time thinking of the poverty that certainly exists in Providence, or in New York. You don’t need to go to another continent to find things that need fixing, or even another country. We still come looking.
But you certainly don’t have weekends like this trip to the beach when you stay in the U.S. You don’t start your trip with lunch in a casino—evidently casinos are a key hang out spot here, not for the gambling but for the food, and there certainly are a lot of them—drive across the whole country through thousands of potholes, arrive in the dark to the house of the mother of a friend of a friend of a friend where a bunch of barefoot kids tell you that you have to get the key from the woman who sometimes cuts people’s hair, discover that though there are seven beds in the house two are soggy and only three have sheets, that there is no running water in the bathroom, that the water in the kitchen sink is so dirty you wouldn’t even want to cook pasta with it, continue blasting music from your car until rain forces you inside, wake up to find a horse waiting out the front door in case you want to ride it, or ride down the dirt streets of a tiny town barefoot and run into an old American man wearing a leather cowboy hat and carrying a three toed sloth on his chest like a baby.
Which isn’t exactly a reason, per say. And doesn’t begin to delve beneath the surface of the question of what is a developing country. But I guess I’m not the only one who can’t answer that.
Monday, June 18, 2007
They really do sell Panama hats here, just so you know...
This is exactly the right end of the first full week, I think. After a week of being lost in a new country, of the solitude of living alone for the first time, of trying to translate for people from dozens of countries in a language I’m not sure of myself, of immersion in the corporate culture of the UN, of struggling to make sense of a thousand acronyms, we ended with a few brief moments of actual human interaction with a bunch of little boys who would really like to play soccer. It all suddenly makes slightly more sense.
This week was a very strange first full week of work, because instead of doing any of the work I am supposed to be here to do, or finding my way around the regional UNICEF office, meeting the people who work here and getting used to the city, I’ve been sitting in on the global training and orientation for young professionals sponsored by their governments to work at UNICEF all over the world. Last night at dinner I sat next to two French girls describing in lavish detail (in French) the trip they would like to take around the whole of France tasting food from all the different regions, while on the other side of me a guy from India talked about he wouldn’t want his family to know that he runs out of the UN to grab a hotdog for lunch every day, and how is wife’s cooking is “on the learning curve.” At the other end of the table people from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands were discussing midwife and childbirth practices all over the world, while an Irish woman, a Columbian woman and an Iranian woman talked about the difficulties of maintaining a love life when you work for the UN. I think I’m waxing a little too poetic about the beauties of international communication and friendships across nationalities, it’s not like a bunch of well educated and privileged people having a dinner most of the country could never afford means a great step forward for humanity, but still, it was an impressive and exciting assortment.
I’m still not sure whether UNICEF as a whole is really contributing to changing the world or if it is just swimming in its own bureaucracy. Listening to some of the presentations, it was as if they were almost speaking another language. There are so many acronyms and so many pieces of paper to be produced for every action taken, I wonder how anyone manages to remember it all. I haven’t had a chance yet to make my own judgments based on actual experience working in the office. Also, I think my experience working in the regional office will obviously have to be different from the work that people are doing in country field offices. The role of a regional office is more administrative by nature.
Anyway, I guess I am getting a little ahead of myself.
I am in Panama as an intern this summer for The Americas and the Caribbean Regional Office of UNICEF, working in the HIV/AIDS department. The work I’ll be doing is mostly compiling and assessing documents produced by the offices of the different countries that comprise the region. The past ten days have been more about getting used to Panama and being thrown into the whirlwind world of a global training orientation than about my actual internship, but now it’s going to be down to business. Of course, I’m still not completely sure what exactly that means.
Whatever it means, my bosses tell me (and I obviously agree) that the experience of being here is actually much more important that anything I will do, see, or learn inside the office.
So I walk around my neighborhood and learn about how these beautiful colonial-style streets where the buildings alternate between luxury $900 a month apartments and complete abandonment and dilapidation was the site of the US 1989 invasion of Panamá. Buildings that must have been beautiful, and buildings that housed whole families were completely bombed out. I knew the invasion happened, but I didn’t know it happened in such a residential neighborhood. Of course the attack was fiercest in the slum area a few blocks away. But still, the building across the street from my house, facing directly onto the Pacific Ocean, even in 2007 still has no roof and the walls are a mere shell. Teenage boys skateboard in the open air on what would have been the second floor.
The UNICEF office is in the former canal zone, in a building that must once have been army barracks. All the buildings here look exactly the zame. Red terra cotta roofs, off-white plaster walls, with palm trees strategically planted nearby. In almost every suburb, you still see these very present vestiges of the American presence. It is hard to imagine that it was only eight years ago that Panamanians couldn’t enter parts of their own country. Maybe that is why so many people here like to go to the Causeway Amador, a long artificial strip of land built from excess dirt dug from the canal. As you drive along, flags of many nations are flying, but not the American flag.
This wasn’t supposed to be at all political in tone, and I certainly didn’t start out to sound so anti-American. I guess it has just been on my mind since I got here. My tour guide who showed me around the Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter, the neighborhood where I live) yesterday told me I should tell people my nationality proudly. He loves the United States, he says. When people ask me where I’m from I should say, “ES-TAD-OS UN-I-DOS!” with precise enunciation and high volume. I tried to explain that I could understand if people are angry with the U.S., that I can empathize, but he told me that they don’t understand how much we have done for this country.
I guess there are two sides to every story, right?
To get back to how I started this long and rambling entry, all the young professionals sponsored by their governments (mostly Europeans) to work in UNICEF ended their weeklong orientation with a field visit to a project that the UNICEF Panamá office is supporting. Sidenote: UNICEF, I learned last week, doesn’t create projects of its own. Instead it supports existing NGOs and governments, so that the work can be sustainable. Sustainability is a huge problem with all well intentioned international NGOs, so I respect the organization’s attempts to provide for longer term structures of change. The only thing I haven’t really figured out yet is what exactly “support” means. What do people do? I’ll keep you updated as I learn more.
But in whatever sense of the word, UNICEF supports this youth center in El Churillo, the slum that backs on my neighborhood, Casco Antiguo. They organize soccer teams, and provide computer and art classes, as well as an open door to all the children living in this violent and poor area. When we got there, about 10 children were all standing in a corner, wearing matching white polo shirts with the logo of the center, waiting to give us a dance performance. All 40 of us trooped in, and the UNICEF staff and the director of the center gave a speech. But of course most people didn’t speak Spanish, so it had to be translated. In their defense, they almost all speak the languages of the places where they are stationed, and those working in Latin America certainly do speak Spanish far better than I do, but still it was almost a caricature of the well intentioned, guilt ridden, well-educated from the developed world, convinced that they can single handedly change the world, though they cannot even speak to the people they wish to help. Can you tell that I felt wildly uncomfortable and embarrassed?
So the children danced to music that talked of the world being better if we can imagine it, and the kids were—of course—very cute. Afterwards we were able to ask questions through an interpreter again, and I found myself wondering how they could possibly work with children. “I want each one to go around and say what they want to be when they grow up,” said one person. When we finally broke up the group meeting and got a chance to talk to the kids, two little boys started playing with my digital camera, taking pictures of themselves and of me. Another participant in the orientation told me to ask them why they came to the center, hoping for a satisfying answer about how they feel safe there, how they learn things, how their parents aren’t there for them. Instead they said it was because they were supposed to. So much for that.
I guess I’m coming across quite cynically, but I just felt like the children were being forced to put on a performance, both a dancing one and one in life, that didn’t correspond to reality. I am so ready to work for all the things UNICEF stands for, the rights of all children everywhere, but the more I learn about the history of development and contemporary development work, the more difficult I find it to believe that we will ever get it right. A recent study said that 50% of all projects run by the World Bank should be classified as not having succeeded at positive change. A personal contribution feels futile, at times. But even as cynical as I was feeling that day, I was turned back into a mushy-bleeding-heart-do-gooder by the kids themselves in the end.
“My friend wants to tell you something,” said one of the little boys. “What?” I asked. “When you go home to your country, he wants you to take him with him.”
I guess that gets straight to the point. The point being that what I want is for him to want to stay, and for there to be something for him to look forward to here.