Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thinking of Honduras as an African country

I've been doing some research on Honduras for a project, and, while it's early days, I'm working toward a theory that would see the country, in many ways, as an African nation.
I've been mining the United Nations Human Development Report 2011, which I highly recommend for its exhaustive quantitative comparisons of 185 countries.
There are obvious findings. Northern Europe and North America are good places to live. Most of Africa isn't. And there are broad regional trends. Neighbours will generally be similar in a lot of ways.
Honduras, again based on first looks, seems an outlier.
Take income inequality. The HDR uses the relationship between the average income of the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent as one measure.
In Honduras, the average income of the richest group is 30.4 times the income of the poorest. Only Namibia (52.2) and Angola (31) have greater inequality. (Canada's ratio is 5.5.)
That's partly because the poorest 20 per cent are really, really poor. But Honduras still has more in common with African states than its neighbours.
The other data supports the finding. On the Environmental Performance Index, based in 25 indicators across 10 categories, Honduras scores 49.9, on the average for countries with "Medium Human Development." But its peers in the Latin American and Caribbean group score an average 65.2, significantly better.
Honduras is below the medium development group for under-height and underweight children ("stunting and wasting," in the language of the reports. But the rate is almost twice as high as the average for the region.
About 64 per cent of the eligible population is attending high school, a little worse than the average for the medium group. But in Latin America, 90.7 per cent of potential students are in high school.
It's striking, across most measures, that Honduras is out of step with its neighbours and, perhaps, more like countries in Africa.
I'm not sure what that means. But I expect the nature of most things - aid, trade, government relations - is different for African nations than for countries in the Americas. And it might be time to think of Honduras as a lost piece of Africa.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Living in the space between cultures

We're finishing a brief trip back to Canada to visit friends and families and so my partner could pick up an honourary degree from the University of Victoria. It was, of course, much fun, and it was especially great to visit with family after five months away.
It was also crazy busy, as we ran from appointment to party to storage locker. (The storage locker, six feet by eight feet, contains the last of our worldly possessions in Canada. After five crime-free months in the murder capital of the world, we returned to find someone had broken into our supposedly secure locker and made off with some clothes - the few things we liked well enough to keep - and a pair of speakers.)
I quickly realized life in Victoria, even after such a short time away, was foreign. We don't rush to appointments in Copan Ruinas. Our lives are self-contained. There are no big stores and few restaurants, so beyond my almost daily walks to Bodega Gloria and the market stalls, life is simple.
And we don't have a car. We rented a nice Ford for our time in Victoria, which was handy. But I was surprised how irritating and unpleasant I found it to have to pile into a big metal box and cope with crowded streets to get anywhere. I missed the sunny, warm strolls to run errands.
It was, in short, a time of culture shock, and a persistent feeling that I didn't belong here.
But the culture shock is just as real in Copan. Language, attitudes, values are almost all strange and unfamiliar. In Honduras, saying someone has 'ambicion' is a term of disapproval. Striving for a better education, house or job is seen as putting yourself above the community. 'Comformismo' is a compliment, praise for the way a person fits in and accepts the values and unwritten rules of society.
In my most recent stint in Spanish classes, the maestra and I spent a while talking about homelessness and mental illness. We shared many of the same views. But she also described a woman in her father's community who walked in the woods at night and began to act more and more oddly. Surely evil spirits are sometimes the explanation for mental illness, she suggested.
I've always felt a bit apart, but it's striking now how much I'm a man without a country.
Which is not a bad thing. Distance gives you perspective on cultures' strong and weak points. As an outsider, I can observe that religion in Honduras can serve, for some, as an excuse for inaction. God gets thanked or blamed for a lot of things, when really people could just try a little harder to make change themselves.
And with the benefit of distance, I have a greater appreciation of philanthropy and "good works" in Canada. There is a tradition of giving, and of service clubs and churches stepping up to help when needed, that is a much greater strength than Canadians recognize.
One of the week's chores was paying my taxes. The endlessly patient accountant who works with me observed that I was probably happier paying taxes after five months in a country where services are non-existent or substandard.
He was right. The 'all taxes are bad' crowd should spend a year in Honduras, where schools are overcrowded, policing ineffectual, the health-care system is struggling and basic infrastructure is crumbling. Those people insisting that Canada must cut health care spending would benefit from a tour of a Honduran hospital. Health spending in Canada is about 9.6 per cent of GDP; Honduras spends about 6.2 per cent. That level of spending translates into more illness, deaths and costs to families.
I don't mind the feeling of being between cultures. And I consider it a good sign that I'm much looking forward to getting home, and back to walking the cobble streets to the market.