domingo, 12 de junio de 2011

Statement of purpose

As the end of the first week comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the purpose of my latest endeavors.

A question comes to my mind, what am I doing here? But not from the ego... What can I bring to the table that can truly be of value to the future generations of Ruhiirans? After a few days at the MVP(Millenium Village Project) office, one full day visit to the "field" (a strange way of referring to the village where the community that is receiving external support to improve their wellbeing live) and a weekend of leisure watching zebras; I keep asking myself this question...

I don't consider myself an idealist, not even an optimist. I believe that poverty is an inherent product of our social system and that "eradicating poverty" is sort of saying "saving the environment". Both phrases are quite nice for christmas cards. So, you might ask, what the hell are you doing there?

This beautiful girl asked
for 5 pesos before I took the picture.
Kids fishing in Chacahua, Oaxaca. 
This little guys need some shoes!
This guys need access to water!
Only 2 Billion people have
access to washing machines.
2 out of 7 humans.

Well there is one thing I do believe in. I believe that when people believe in the prospects of a better future they do make an effort to improve their living conditions. 

For example, Mexico is a country where you see people throwing garbage everywhere, fro their car windows, on the streets. The cynicism reaches its paroxysm when you see signs that say "those that are surprised throwing garbage here will be escorted to the nearest police station" and people concentrate their garbage bags around the sign. I also remember climbing some mountains, only to discover empty plastic bottles in the cracks of rocks on the top. The question is why do we do it? It is a major conspiracy by the G8? A tremendous plan by corporations to monopolize a new product/service. Is it a natural outcome of capitalism? I am afraid the answer is no...

Inequality in Mexico is increasing,
as a result insecurity has made better off
mexicans to start living in private streets
 that slowly become bunkers from reality.
Santa Fe, Mexico.
Unsustainability at its peak.
Just a nice house.
The richest man in the world...
 is not American, he is Mexican.
Makes sense since Mexico
 is the richest country in the world...

In the past 10 years, I've had a myriad of conversations about the problems that humanity is causing/suffering and the causes/solutions to them. In the population of conversations I have detected two stereotypes that make me sad...

On the one hand, you have those that do believe that things are going well, they do not want to see the problems. They have famous replies like: "The poor are poor because they chose to". I remember a conversation in the vicinities of Columbia University with a friend of mine, I mentioned the term sustainable development. My friend replied: "That is a meaningless concept! It just idealistic crap and what does that mean anyway". I replied with serenity: "I believe you are mistaken, the concept is actually the most important of all. Sustainable development is the process of achieving wellbeing in a durable manner. Economic development (not infinite growth) that is socially equitable and environmentally responsible taking into consideration the present and the future generations".

This is not at all an abstract thought or an idealistic concept. It has many ambiguities that we need to clarify, true. But it's about the fact that we live in a finite planet, with finite resources, that require certain systems to work in a determined way to maintain ecosystem services working in certain margins so that we may use these resources to increase our wellbeing and satisfy our needs in a way that allows for future generations to enjoy at least the same level of wellbeing we are having today. Of course for the whole system to be stable (I said stable not static!) you need to make sure that every community in the planet has access to a minimum level of wellbeing (it does not mean that we will all be equal!). My friend stood up when I pronounced the socially just words and replied angrily that that was not possible, almost calling me a communist (which apparently is the worst insult one can receive). I did not reply, there are times when there is just nothing to be said...

But the worse kind in this category are those that know what is wrong and they want to take advantage that they are on the good side of things (above the airline --- Hans Rosling concept of the Billion people around the world who have the possibility to fly for leisure once every year). After a couple of drinks in a certain party, someone said to me: "stop your blablabla Stephane, we are here because we want POWER". Straight from a scene of star wars...
Rural house in Dominican Republic
Slum in Iztapalapa.
The most populous and highest
 growing Municipality in the Country.

On the other hand you have the conspirationists/ecocomunalist/antisystemist. It is the complete opposite from the previous kind. While the first kind are happy with the way things are, they want to maintain the status quo. You have the second kind, those that see the system as completely flawed and want to start from zero, or almost. In this category you have those that believe that all the bad in this world comes from governments, corporations, the rich and the capital. They see the poor and not so poor as victims of a world conspiracy to take over every soul. They claim that man has never been on the moon, that 9/11 was a plot by the US government, that vaccines are a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to make us weaker so we buy their products.

Some of the people in this category strongly believe that we were happy before, in the times before technology and the industrial revolution, that people were truly happy 1,000 years ago and we were all friends and sang Kumbaya. Unfortunately this eden seems to have never existed,  ötzi the Iceman was killed by other humans as far as 5,300 years ago. We exterminated megafauna in North America 10,000 years ago (still debatable). Until the discovery of antibiotics and vaccinations the average life expectancy was 40 years old. So the once we were happy delusion is far from the reality.

Others want revolution, not the slow kind, the radical. They believe that expelling foreign capital/interests from the country is the only way to end inequalities, we have an interesting experiment of this strategy, Haiti. 

I saw this stencil in Mexico this May.
It promotes extremism, I don't like it.

In the meantime people are still throwing their garbage everywhere in Mexico city... 

I really think that people need to believe that they are the change in the world, that things do matter and that every little effort we do in this generation will be enjoyed by the next. That we shouldn't think that just because those generations won't pay us back we should not see any incentives to do it. If we really think like that then stop having children. Let's pick our battles and make a little effort every day. Pick one thing you will do in a more sustainable manner this year and play accordingly. Use less water to wash your dishes, buy a compact car instead of a hummer, throw the garbage where it belongs, demand that human rights are respected, complain! Complain about the things that don't work and imagine how things could and should be different, and then do something about it.

So what am I doing here? I will be doing maps... 

Honestly I will stop wasting neurons trying to understand if foreign aid is a type of neocolonialism or not, I will stop asking myself if the world bank is helping or hurting the developing world (another meaningless concept that I will explore in future posts), I will stop asking myself if this project has truly improved the lives of Ruhiirans and if it can be sustainable when the project leaves, I will stop asking myself if this makes any sense and focus on what I can contribute here. 

Monitoring, measuring, evaluating and planning for the future. How? With geographical information systems. I will provide a set of maps that will show in a very clear and understandable way, what is the next step, where are the gaps of the project, what additional infrastructure is needed, why are some new borns still dying, who is being left out. My expectation is that the conciliatory effect that my maps had in the automotive industry have the same effect in the development world. My purpose is to help moderate constructive discussions about what needs to be done to improve things. 

Be the change you want to be? I'll map the change I want to see...

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