Saturday, May 22, 2010

Giving is good...?

So I've recently come to the realization that the first thing people see when they Google my name is this blog. Which makes me embarrassed that I have not written an eloquent blog since December 2008. So...I apologize to friends and family...and hope that this is a step in the right direction.

The other day I was in the community of Santa Ana and saw a little girl on the stoop of a pulperia (corner store) with a bright orange shirt that read in English, "Kiss me! ...before my boyfriend sees…” I chuckled a bit, thinking about how cute that was, and remembering a shirt my mom once put on me as a little girl that read "I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys" in the chalkboard handwriting of an 8 year old. But then I realized, this little girls' shirt is in English...and she probably has NO clue what it says.

Humorous, sure, but doesn't it raise the question: where did this girls' shirt come from? Yesterday, my driver/assistant asked me what his shirt said. I translated "United Church of Christ Summer Peace Intern 1993" to Spanish for him. He nodded approvingly, and told me he liked the color.

It makes me wonder, you know. Where do these shirts come from? Why do so many of us think it such a good cause to donate our used clothes? Would you want to wear used clothes that belonged to someone from some other country? Would you want a shirt that you didn't even understand what it read?

So I got to thinking about donations, the phenomenon that it really is. People with excess donate, not knowing where exactly their donations will be going or the effects it may have on a person or a population. They feel good; they did a good deed…but what good is it really doing?

Faith-based organizations are probably the most responsible for perpetuating the phenomenon of donations. Faith-based groups will probably never stop donating clothes or other things because the act of giving is perceived as God’s call; a good act for God is nothing shameful, nothing that could cause a sense of racial, cultural, or economic inferiority. After all, GIVING is good.

But what’s the real context, destination, or circumstances of the receiving partner? What kind of paternalism or cycle of dependency could donations be creating?

Asking these questions reminds me of two things, first of which was my experience at the Dominican-Haitian border in 2007. Every Wednesday, the border of these countries opens up for trade and it is one of the most chaotic experiences I’ve ever encountered. Loaded with cargos of rice, eggs, beans, vegetables, mules, you name it, people raced back and forth across the bridge that crossed over “Massacre River,” where, ironically, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed about 80 years ago. Well, some things never change. The “flow” shall we say of trade was very directional. Every Haitian stand was filled donated items—t-shirts, cowboy boots, NYC caps, shoes—while every Dominican stand was overflowing with rice, beans, platano, spices, herbs, and vegetables. The difference in tradable goods is really stark. Haitians have little cultivatable land, little ability to grow or buy the daily needs to feed their families. But they sure do have a lot of t-shirts.

Haitians didn’t need second-hand clothes, they needed food. So what kind of markets have these donations created? They had turned the donation system into a market they could use to be able to purchase the daily basics to survive, which is creative and entrepreneurial, really. I did some research on this and came across a video I remembered seeing as a freshman in college: T-Shirt Travels. The documentary discusses this very issue, looking how donations as a phenomenon have created what is really a black market, with people from the receiving country purchasing barrels of donated clothes to be able to sell in the local marketplaces…sometimes even fighting to get the “good” clothes to be able to sell them at a higher price and make money to feed or educate their families. It’s really fascinating…if you wanna take a deeper look, here’s a link to PBS T-Shirt Travels. In sum, what happens in the simple act of giving or donating can be much more complex than assumed. What if it has created a sense of dependency or of inferiority or even a black market that perhaps even further marginalizes people? What good, then, is giving?

Now it’s time to play a little devil’s advocate. Through all this discussion, the simple fact does remain…if a little girl needs the shirt off my back, why not give her the shirt off my back? Isn’t that humanity? If there wasn’t North-to-South (developed-to-developing) country relations, what would international development organizations exist for? Though everyone likes to think development is heading towards East-to-West dynamics, acting more in side-by-side partnership rather than in hierarchies, the fact remains that “developed countries” fund “developing countries.” And financial relations are often not an equal flow. The need for program evaluation has been borne out of a desire for accountability to show results or get grants for projects funded by “Northern” partners. And the same “flow” goes for donations, inevitably…so why fight it?

The heart of humanity comes down to those moments when you, personally, sit down and have a conversation with a child from one of our rural communities, and you see that they’ve worn the same shirt for over a week and it’s dirty. It’s those moments when I think two things: 1) Why not give that child another shirt if we have it to offer? And 2) Let’s go talk to his mom about washing their clothes and bathing her kids regularly. Being poor does not mean you have to be dirty. That’s one of the profound lessons I’ve learned from an awesome Honduran teacher who many times has brought his students back home to bathe before returning to class. “Old clothes are one thing,” he says, “but dirty clothes are another.”

That sense of humanity in giving is also enhanced during one particular circumstance: emergency relief—but it’s a difficult situation post-aftermath. For example, after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras received so many donations and it was during this time when “brigades” really began--service trip to help with relief aid. Initially, it worked…get the aid necessary to the places who need it. But over time, Hondurans became accustomed to receiving relief donations, which has now changed Honduran-international dynamics entirely. Communities now EXPECT to receive goods, projects, seed capital for nothing in return, sometimes not even their effort. We like to call that, lack of sweat equity…and it’s a dangerous territory. How can an organization work on a project without the buy-in and collaboration of the community? If communities expect to just receive for free or without any time or sweat on their part, will the project will be valued, understood, and used appropriately in the future? Does giving create a cycle of dependency, or is one appreciative recipient worth whatever other secondary consequences that may arise? That’s a tough question.

I don’t have an answer. I think it’s a fascinating issue and one lots of international NGOs and governments have to face. At the end of the day, though I don’t have an answer, I have an opinion. And that opinion is that donations are inevitable because we as humans have a desire to give and receive. But they should be done personally and strategically, after getting to know the person or the organization to who you would be donating, really understanding where those items are going to and how they will be used, and having confidence that the people or the organization that receive or filter those donations will make the best decision as to how to use and distribute them appropriately.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Global Partnerships

Here's the link to the blog post I recently made regarding for the Global Brigades e- newsletter. Topic: Global Partnerships. Feel free to comment on the blog website or here :)

Also another link to an article I wrote a long time ago when I first started at GB regarding starting the Research and Evaluation unit:

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Job and a Lesson on Being Present

So to give just a little background information about what exactly I'm doing in Honduras this time around: I'm working with an organization called Global Brigades as the Director of Community Research and Evaluation. I work in all 5 of our disciplines in Honduras (Medical, Dental, Public Health, Water, and Microfinance) in building evaluation frameworks, strategic planning and implementation of needs assessments for the 120 different communities we work with, developing system for community selection, and then planning and executing baseline demographic health surveys in these communities. That way, we can have baseline health data to evaluate from after implementing all 5 programs holistically in a selected community.

That's my job, in a nutshell...and it changes with different needs along the way...

But another side-task I've been involved with recently has been giving classes at a school for young female domestic workers. We have started a new partnership with this project and have formed a new high-school technical course in Health Promotion. I've been asked to teach a few week-long courses in this program on international health/development NGOs including Global Brigades' work, as well as an "in-the-field" course on Research and Evaluation in Health-Based NGOs, specifically Global Brigades. It's been a cool experience getting to know these girls, their (somewhat difficult) backgrounds, but also their excitement for working in health in their country. Who knows, some of these girls might go on to be nurses, or doctors, or dentists...?

One thing that I have come to face with trying to juggle my own job along with teaching these classes in Health Promotion is that I find myself often jaded with these kinds of experiences. At first, teaching these classes was kind of thrown on me, as an obligation almost, which stressed me out and made me a bit resentful, which I'm sure a lot of people in the field experience. Why do I have to do this on top of everything else? I'm already burnt out! Needless to say my first class didn't go so well. As I came home, plopped down on my bed however, I thought, you have the chance to shape these girls lives. And you didn't do it.

I'm sure every teacher goes through this experience, and as you see the fruits of your labor in those kids, you feel that motivation to continue on...that becomes your purpose. It brought me back to last year, to a moment in which I remembered feeling like I knew I was making a difference in the lives of my workers with HIV, but deep down inside was worrying about one thing or another-my future, my friendships, my relationships, my career-and I wasn't fully PRESENT with them. I found myself doing that again...worrying about my own things I needed to get done with GB, with my own program development, that I wasn't fully PRESENT with these girls. I think that's extremely important and something that not only I, but a lot of people in the field do. We are so focused on getting a task done, or so entrenched in the work we are doing, that we don't take the moment to be PRESENT where we are. To have coffee with a community member, to smell the corn tortilla, to smile or greet your coworker in the morning, to listen to someone's story. I hope I can be more PRESENT to these girls as I continue to teach and build relationships with them. I don't know what my future holds after the next 9 months, but after having done this once, I hope to not burn out or worry about the future, but rather BE PRESENT where I am now...

back on track

So I realized recently that I haven't kept up on my blog in the last 6 months. After feeling sentiments of disappointment and discouragement (at failing yet another "journal"-like endeavor), I've decided I'm just going to start again. Anew.

I could try to catch you up on all the crazy experiences I've had in 6 months of my new job and life in Tegucigalpa...there have been many, between speaking at conferences, spending days copying health statistics in paper and pen, and very interesting car conversations with Global Brigades staff, along with personal let-downs in relationships, finding new amazing friends/roommates and enjoying incredible roof parties. However, the past is in the past. My new years resolution oh-so-long ago was to live in the present and do what I WANT to do. May seem selfish, but for a over-the-top was the next initiative I needed in my life. So, living in agreement with that, I'm just going to start from now. Skype me if you want to hear about the past.

I'll try to update every other week and I hope to keep this blog for interesting observations I encounter in the field. Living and breathing international health and development in Latin America. So...once again...enjoy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Have a little faith in me...(lalala)

Written August 30, 2009:

I’m back in Honduras. Yes, it’s true. Not entirely expected, but true. And it’s been quite the internal journey to get here and it’s probably not over…

Honestly, I assimilated back to the States extremely well these last few months and truly enjoyed the time I was able to spend with my family and friends. I’m really grateful for that time and it has helped give me a renewed sense of identity and gain perspective on where I come from and where I’m going. Yet despite feeling that way, I still found it extremely difficult to make the decision to come back to Honduras. I was caught in indecision and insecurity. I was job searching and got a great offer in the States, but for a job that my heart wasn’t really in. Sure, I would be able to make money, live the comfortable cosmopolitan life, and stay “on schedule” for grad school. But deep inside my heart and mind, I knew the chapter of my life living and working in Latin America wasn’t over. Sure, it may never feel “over” after however much time I would spend, but I don’t want to look back on my young adult life and regret not knowing whether I could have or regret not taking the risk—the leap of faith—for an experience that could be so incredible, certainly memorable, and shape me both personally and professionally.

In my process of making this decision, after I had chosen, it seemed like everything I depended on back in Honduras was vanishing before me. Perhaps the political uprising in Honduras set the tone, as everything I found myself depending on started slipping away. The security of working part-time with my previous organization in order to make some extra income was later denied/postponed. Friendships and relationships that were important in my life here were now either no longer here (moved back to the North American world) or were here but on ambiguous terms, and I was distancing myself even more by moving to Tegucigalpa. These things were significant factors in my decision to return and provided me with some security in my decision-making; however they are no longer things I can fully depend on. That said, I’ve come to choose to understand that even if it were these things that were used to form my decision, and even though they may no longer be my securities or my stability…that’s okay. They got me here, and now, I am here. So I’ll be here, living for the present, to pursue my vocation and contribute my abilities to the door that has been opened for me and that I have chosen to walk through.

One anecdote to end this entry recaps a moment I had on the plane ride here to Honduras this last weekend. As we were seated in the plane, and getting ready for take-off, a huge storm came out of nowhere minutes before we started down the runway. I mean lightning, thunder, typhoon-like rain and winds. Incredible, really. As it happened to be, I was seated next to 2 older Honduran men who looked to me and asked, “Are you scared? Are you nervous?” “Well, yes,” I said, “I certainly don’t want to be putting my life at risk.” The older man to my left replied, “No, don’t be afraid, you have to…” “Have faith?” I chimed in. “Yes, exactly, you have to have faith” he said back to me giving the most emphatic fist pump motion I’ve seen in years. I agreed returning the fist pump. Then we both fist pumped together...haha. He continued, reminding me that whatever storms have come or are to come that lead me to doubt or indecision, or that will threaten my ability to take off on the runway, I will be able to navigate through them in faith…for peace and serenity are to come.

Some quotes I’d like to share from my new journal entitled “Serenity”

“There’s a serene and quiet confidence in knowing that all things do not stand or fall according to one’s own achievements or the correctness of every decision one makes.” –Joseph Sittler

“No matter how long we are on this Earth, the more we have to realize that life finds us living every day with the unanswered and the unresolved. Faith helps us to live with the unanswered. Hope helps us to live the unresolved. Trust helps us to accept…and go on with the work of living.” –Mark Connolly

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Limbo Period

Now that I'm back from Honduras, things have been somewhat transitionary...and confusing...

I did really well for the first 2 weeks in terms of culture shock. Got through family vacations, worked my way up to going to the grocery store and malls...I figured I could make the transition okay as long as I worked my way into American culture little by little. And I did well...until that one moment in Talbots when I went with my mom to get a petite button up shirt that would fit me for my birthday...and it just took me by surprise, after all I thought I was doing well! The pricetag showing the equivalent of a third of my worker's monthly salary...the fact that I was buying the perfect petite button up shirt that fit me by height and bust so that I would look impeccably put together mixed with visions of Dona Perse in her "sexy" (yet entirely way too tight and certainly not "tailored to fit") sequence red dress matched with black heels 2 sizes too big. It hit me hard, unexpectedly, and I left the store in tears while my mom paid the birthday bill. I felt terrible for making her feel bad, and for probably making the retail ladies feel really uncomfortable. But, the tears had to come sometime...and they weren't just tears of "culture shock." They were tears of letting go, of recognizing where my next step might or might not be, of cherishing a time of my life in which I encountered faces and voices different from my own, of trying to cope with a bitter understanding of the realities of this world, and of struggling to define and discern the overlap in my own juxtapositional reality.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ok, I'm terrible at even catching you up. So, here's the brief summary that I wanted to share days ago:

April 17-26: Emily and Anna come to visit!!! It was so amazing having them here and it was a time that I really needed to get some perspective on my life. I had just come back from the DR from my host sister's wedding and then the half-Framily came from Wisconsin to enjoy my world here in Honduras. It was a bit of a surreal worlds clashing kind of experience, but I've been in that world before and this time it was so wonderful to share a part of my life that they have never gotten to see in vivo. Thanks for coming Anna and Em--it meant a lot to me! :)

The only bad part of their trip was getting robbed. To make a very long story short...our hostel room got broken into by a drug dealer in Copan and stole a LOT of expensive items and money. Then pretty much the whole city got involved to find this guy and they did...but it was a very convoluted situation. We had already left Copan when we found out they found him and our stuff, so I when I dropped Anna and Emily off for their flight home, I went back to Copan to retrieve our stuff. After fighting cops who insisted I have my receipts to recollect the items (seriously?? How would I have my receipts from the States 5 years ago on me???). During this argument, they pull me aside to the filing cabinet to identify the items, and I, like an idiot, left my backpack in the chief's office (thinking that I was safe at the police station, of course.) Well, it wasn't. Between getting to the police office and going to lunch after my camera with ALLLL my pictures from the DR and the Media-Framigas visit was not there--aka stolen by the police. And I didn't even get my stuff back. I went back the next, they had to change the report so I could get my stuff back, but they had stolen my camera meanwhile!!! I was so livid!!!!! I went back the next day, sooooo upset and frustrated, and ready to fight to get our stuff back--receipts or not. By the end, I was able to get the things that were stolen back but not the camera...and while I wanted to accuse and fight for my camera they--the police!--had stolen, there were a few things that made me decide not to put up the fight. First, as I'm getting so angry in the chief's office about getting my camera back, I look over to my side and there's a women sitting in a chair with her arm in a sling and a black eye making a domestic violence report. My soul was stabbed. What is a camera, really? Sure, it's justice that I was fighting for, but...there are worse things in the world...things that political justice can't even solve. Secondly, I found out the back history on the robber, and slowly began to put the pieces together. He's involved in the drug ring of Copan and now imprisoned (because of MY police report) with drug dealers trying to bail him out to kill him supposedly....and he's also in cahoots with a few high-up police officers to get paid to steal and give the stuff to the police to sell. I thought about all those powerful and scary drug and delincuence networks...and began to realize that they know where I live and my phone number and my passport number (after all, I had made the police report), I figured maybe my safety was a little more important than a camera. So, I made the decision, gulped down my pride and retracted myself from getting any more involved.

May 5-26: At this point I was looking for jobs both in Honduras and the States. I had some good leads in Tegucigalpa and I think it would be a really great move there. I have a lot of friends there, and some jobs leads that would be really at the National Institute for Women in the Gender and Health department and another with Public Health Brigades. There was also an apartment that opened up in Teguc right across from my friends which was so exciting I could FEEL the move. Now with a little bit more of perspective throughout May, there are opportunities still in the process and there are no for sure answers. I want a new professional adventure, but in a place I'm somewhat familiar with. It would be a great move, to be in a place where I know people, but learning a new job and a new environment. However, I'm still waiting...being patient for God to reveal his plan. Things aren't coming together as quickly as I would have liked or with as much conviction as I would have liked....but I know that it will work out...wherever I end up. And for now, I'm just paying my respects to all I have experienced this year, packing up, and going home to get reconnected with the people I love and who support me the most...mi familia. And maybe once I have a little more perspective States-side and in my home, I'll be able to know with confidence my next step and be prepared to embrace it.

early June: Still a little anxious about future-stuff, but just trying to be patient and let my faith lead me through in a time of unknown and waiting. In the's been good that some little things about Latin culture are really starting to get to me. I don't think I can possible see another person throw a Coke bottle or chip bag out the window of a bus without any concern for the environment. I can't STAND it..and it's really making me be ready to be back in a culture that is significantly better at trying to be aware of environmental concerns. I might just flip out on the next person I see litter...I've already gotten into heated discussions with people on busses and it's now at its peak. It's just such a disrespect for someone's country. It's like saying, I don't care what my town or country looks like, if there's trash everywhere, if animals start dying off in the lake, or the lake because so contaminated because of my disinterest and lack of respect for it's wellbeing and beauty. Also, cars passing people on the street so fast that if one movement happened to be wrong they would instantly kill the person. I've had a coworker and myself get hit by a car this happens. And the fact that people drive with no consciousness of pedestrians or respect of other people or vehicles near them, they just drive fast and out of control....ahhhhh its really getting to me. Another demonstration of disrespect, I feel. But, they are cultural differences that I've had to deal with and have tried to create consciousness among Honduras I know in order to attempt a little behavior change. It is good though, to help make me realize the things I appreciate about my country and look forward to returning. :) Oh so soon!!