Signs of a successful gathering? Tasty food, chilled drinks, compelling conversations, and people still talking way past closing.
Global Washington’s Global Social on Wednesday evening scores high marks on all four, as more than 40 members and guests came to mingle, listen and connect. Four panelists shared their observations and concerns about development work in Latin America. While each brought unique stories, all agreed that Latin America is hard to define as one region and that the current focus on the region’s economic progress is overshadowing the issues of increasing economic inequalities and rates of violence, both of which impact how organizations interact with countries in the region.
Following are summaries of the four panelists’ presentations.
Mauricio Vivero, the Executive Director of Seattle International Foundation, began the presentation by noting that in relation to the rest of the world, Latin America is currently being ignored. “It worries us,” he stated, noting that this lack of attention has created a window for China and Brazil, who are exploiting natural resources (China) and political leadership (Brazil) within Central and South America. While this kind of investment leads to economic progress and an overall percentage drop in poverty, inequality is growing. “Inequality in most countries has gone up in the last ten years,” cited Vivero.
Of prime concern is the assumed economic equality because of recent progress. For example, Vivero noted that in 2010, citizens in El Salvador received US$3.8 billion in remittances, mostly from family members and connections in the U.S. He went on to explain that these remittances now dwarf corporate investment and complicate development policies. But they don’t provide a country security. “How do you do development in a rich country?” posed Vivero, also noting that in El Salvador, and throughout Central America, the main issues of the day for people are crime, violence, and insecurity caused by the growing inequalities.
Sam Snyder, Executive Director of the Create Good Foundation, shared how his perception of the region was far removed from the reality of what he saw in Guatemala. He had gone there to meet with coffee co-ops and farmers as part of the Pura Vida coffee business, but was “surprised to see the exact same poverty as I saw in Africa.” (Before joining Create Good/Pura Vida, Sam was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire.) “There was no water, sanitation, they didn’t have enough land.” Snyder’s focus quickly transitioned to asking the farmers what their needs are and focusing on those through the Create Good Foundation. They started to partner with Ecofiltro, a Guatemalan-owned water filtration business, to handle their distribution to many communities from which they buy their coffee. Crime does concern him. He’s aware of the impact it has on the people with whom he works and questions how to deal with such a complicated issue.
Dick Moxon, Special Projects Coordinator for Global Partnerships, focused on the status of micro-finance programs in the region. He pointed out that “this is a relatively optimistic time in South America,” making it easier for organizations to be successful. While the U.S. still muddles through a financial crisis, “Latin American countries have come out of their crises and are doing well.” All of this bodes well for investors, and thus for micro-finance programs. The problem begins with the political models of the various countries. “There are two models in vogue,” Moxon explained. “The Chavez model and the Lula model.” Countries with the more authoritarian, or left of center, Chavez model are perceived as more risky. “Our funders don’t want us to put too much money in those countries,” Moxon stated, giving Nicaragua as an example. That said, Moxon pointed out that many countries, such as Bolivia, have excellent micro-finance laws and have regulated interest rates, while “our friends in Mexico have their own unique system.” Moxon also noted that crime has many impacts on their work, citing how organizations in El Salvador now have to pay into a protection racket. Global Partnerships has begun to also focus on short-term financing options, and has partnered with Sustainable Harvest.
Serena Cosgrove, Assistant Professor at Seattle University and author of Leadership from the Margins: Women and Civil Society Organizations in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador, wrapped up the presentations by looking at the issues from a “micro level.”
“Ethnographic detail absorbs me,” Cosgrove stated as she focused on how violence and insecurity is impacting El Salvadorans on a daily basis. She noted that the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Cosgrove lived in El Salvador from 1989 to 1993, during some of the gravest years of the country’s unrest. But today, she states, “it feels more unsafe now than in 1989 [a particularly gruesome year during the 12-year civil war.]”
She provided a poignant example of the issues of security with a story of a friend’s daughter whose cell phone is stolen each time she takes the public bus. Yet, if she doesn’t take a phone with her, what does she do if something happens to her? Cosgrove encouraged all of us to imagine what it would be like if our daily lives were dictated by such choices of personal security. She noted how these increasing levels of violence and crime impact all levels of society, citing that young women in the middle class have very limited movement because of the violence.
Further challenging the illusions of progress, Cosgrove impressed the need to notice the income inequalities and extreme poverty in Latin America. One woman in El Salvador even mentioned to Cosgrove “we are worse off now than during the war. At least during the war we had a dream.” Despite the fact that big donors are investing less money into the region, Cosgrove noted that some sectors of civil society are doing great, mentioning that many organizations that are successful are women-directed. “The struggle has only just begun,” finished Cosgrove. “There is still so much that needs to be done to address the inequalities that lead to the conflict.”
Many of the attendees stayed to meet with one another to discuss their programs and strategies. It was an evening charged with energy and intention, and one that will no doubt lead to more people paying a bit more attention to this complex region we call Latin America.