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.
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.