Right now I’m in Iquitos, Peru. I’m doing an evaluation for an organization called Eagle Condor, helping set them up to be able to tell which parts of their program are important at helping people become self-reliant. I thought I would write some stuff about it when I get the chance.
Stepping off the plane, you first notice the characteristic humidity of the Amazon, as well as the cool feeling of “I’m in the Amazon!” The trees are different, the smells are different, and the first ride to my house for 3 weeks was quite different.
I got a ride from the airport on a motorcar: a 3 wheeled contraption that’s basically the front half of a motorcycle welded to a wider seat in the back. These guys flood the streets and people get around either by using them, or by using their own motorcycle. The experience of riding through the city to my destination just after it got dark (at about 6:00) could be worth the trip if experienced with the right eyes.
It was a Monday evening, but it seemed like things were just getting started (as indeed they might have been, as I later learned there had been a large protest that day and everything was closed.) The bike wash places were going strong, stores were selling stuff, and construction was quite busy.
The rules of the road were more like guidelines. It’s expected that when the light turns red that a few more motos will shoot through (sometimes long after the light has been red.) We ran into a “road closed” sign on one of my outings later in the week, but all the cars just drove up onto the sidewalk and the grass to go around the sign and continued on the road.
The drivers are much more skilled that in the US, as they weave in and out of every little space. They all seem to know exactly how wide their vehicle is as they constantly pass within inches of each other, of sidewalks, of walls, and of everything else. They drive fairly aggressively, but I haven’t seen any accidents yet. This might be because their vehicles can’t go as fast either, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten over 40km/h (about 25mph,) but I still think that the average (or even above average) American driver would quickly end up in an accident if tossed into this mess.
There was a bunch of trash in the street (which was also probably there in greater amounts due to the protests of the day.) We also went by an area that had flooded earlier in the year that people were still trying to clean out with brooms and shovels.
The streets, sidewalks, and buildings all appear to be in a state of disrepair. They have lots of holes, the concrete is crumbling apart, paint is peeling, and only the largest holes in the road are marked. Again, the drivers here are good, most US drivers would not be ready to notice the holes, nor have the skill to get by some of them. We would also need special training on how to recognize speed bumps as most of them aren’t any special color and I don’t often know that we’re coming near one until the driver slows down to go over it.
Construction isn’t as blocked off as it is in the states either. They put up signs saying to be careful, and some areas will have tape blocking it off, but that’s about it. You can comfortably walk next to a moving CAT. Well, others can comfortably walk next to it, I can comfortably walk a safe distance away.
Regardless of what looks to an American’s eyes like dizzying chaos, danger, and disarray, few people show much discontentment. Like anywhere else, people live, they have their families, they keep doing their day-to-day tasks. Most people here don’t know any different, but have only heard of difference from TV or radio.
|One of the Facilitators (right) with
a participant (left)
It’s like all the stuff that people in development keep saying, that all these people with so much less are so happy and grateful. They tend to share more, be less concerned with problems, and enjoy more leisure time. Sometimes people seem to enjoy leisure to the point of laziness, but aren’t many people working so hard so that we can afford to enjoy more or better leisure? If that’s the case, why not enjoy the leisure and the people where it comes? More expensive leisure isn’t necessarily better leisure. Besides, it’s hard to find other productive things to do, and even harder to do them when it’s so dang hot all the time. (I recognize other reasons to work hard. Personally, I have a high need for achievement. Even useless, meaningless achievement. It’s important for us to recognize what drives my actions so that we can mitigate their possible negative effects. Maybe I’ll write a short post on that someday…)
|The sign says” I deserve and
can have success”
Another thing talked about frequently in development is freedom. It’s incomplete to measure how developed a region is by its GDP since that doesn’t really get to the heart of anything, and GDP growth is generally distributed unequally. Amartya Sen talked about development as freedom. This can include freedom from sickness, freedom from coercive labor, freedom from economic restrictions, etc.
The rub is that it seems like we can do little more than trade on freedom for another. Take driving for example. Here, people are free to drive the way they want much more than in the US. They can maneuver more skillfully without getting in trouble, they can drive closer, they can drive where they want, they can drive at whatever age they want (not really, but they have ways of making that happen anyway.) In the US, we don’t have those freedoms, but we have the freedom of being able to drive in much more comfort, and much faster without getting killed. We also have the freedom from much unpredictability in other drivers.
|My sort-of outside bathroom|
So what are we doing when we do development? Are we always giving people one freedom at the cost of another? People seem to do a great job at sharing when they have next to nothing, but seem to have a harder time with it when they have more. Can we give people freedom from scarcity without taking or causing to disappear their freedom of property?
We seem to do a good job merging the worst of both worlds. Somehow, television and debt have preceded reliable water and sanitary food. Is there a way to merge the best of both worlds instead? Can we bring strong infrastructure and health to people who are more social and sharing? Can we do it the other way around?
|The shop my host runs
in the front of her house
Finally, we sometimes advocate for change on the basis that the people want it. Buy why do they want it? How justified is it to invoke a change the people call for because you convinced them to call for it? Everyone has a TV and radio and gets Madison Avenue loud and clear every day. How else can we drive people to action besides appealing to baser desires? How effective can we be at acting on what we need instead of what we want?
And what the heck do we need?