Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Honduran economy depends on migrants' transfers to families

A couple of stories in the newspapers this week suggest the best way North Americans could help Honduras is to let a few more people head north to find jobs.
La Prensa reported remittances - the money sent back by Hondurans working in the U.S. - will be up 12 per cent this year.
That would bring the money sent home to about $3.2 billion, or about 18 per cent of the country’s GDP. Put another way, without remittances the GDP per capita would drop from about $4,400 to $3,600. (In Canada, the comparable figure is about $40,000.)
Just about everyone you talk to seems to have friends or relatives working in the U.S., generally without going through the immigration process. They send money home to support the family and cover the costs of getting ahead - a house, or a business. Many come home after a few years of working and saving have given them a chance at a better life here. (The issues are more complex than that summary suggests - some don’t come home, some forget their families and start a new life in the U.S., the money can create jealousies in communities.) 
La Prensa also reported that, with two weeks left in the year, 31,270 Hondurans had been deported from the U.S. by air. Every few days, a jet full of deportees lands in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula. (The new call centre industry has started recruiting among the returning deportees, looking for those who speak English.)
Thousands more are turned back at the border or robbed, killed or thwarted on the long and dangerous trip from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S.

There are about a million Hondurans in the U.S., about 60 per cent of them “undocumented,” the current term for illegal. Letting a few more in - or cutting the deportations - would mean more remittances and more investment.
Canada, of course, could offer the same opportunities. A small number of Hondurans have been allowed in under temporary worker programs. Opening the door a little wider - and not just for the jobs employers are looking to fill cheaply - could do as much for Honduras as many aid programs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A country where kids can't do math has a grim future

Honduras is in a constitutional crisis this week, as politicians take on the Supreme Court. Important issues, to be sure.
But there’s another crisis. A major international report on math and science knowledge gave horrible grades to the Honduran educational system.
The Human Sciences Research Council tested math and science knowledge of students in 45 countries. Honduran students ranked at the bottom, with South Africa and Botswana.
Children here aren’t stupid. They start school with potential. But they don’t learn.
The tests were administered to Grade 8 students in most countries, Grade 9 in Honduras, and assessed basic skills and knowledge.
And they showed the school system is failing Honduran kids. Badly.
Take one measure, performance at an international math benchmark. In the U.S., 68 per cent of Grade 8 students reached at least the intermediate level. In Chile, 23 per cent met the standard. In Botswana, 15 per cent.
And at the very bottom, Honduras, at four per cent. Only one in 25 Grade 9 students performed the intermediate level or better in math skills. 
Canada doesn’t participate as a country. But in Ontario, 35 per cent of students met advanced or high benchmark standards.
In Honduras, one per cent achieved the same levels.
Math skills are fundamental. If you’re going to run a business or farm, manage a family budget, plan for your future, you need to be able to deal with numbers confortably.
And the international tests show the Honduran school system is failing to provide students with basic numeracy.
No country - let alone a poor country - can afford to deprive 96 per cent of the population of the basic skills they need to make the most of their potential. The next Bill Gates might be growing up in Honduras, but without a basic education, he or she won’t likely succeed.
There are no easy answers. Schools are closed far too often due to labour disputes, but the government is also incapable of paying teachers on time consistently. Class sizes - perhaps 50 students in five grades - are ridiculous. Teaching methods are antiquated
But if things are going to change for Honduras, a better school system is critical.
The politicians can wage their constitutional battles. Unless students are getting a quality education, little will change in Honduras.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Great news - 4,500 people are going to lose their jobs

My grandfather - my mother's dad - was proud of his 40-year pin from General Electric.
There were a few years when he didn’t work, during the Depression. My grandmother served up food to the desperate men who showed up at the door, despite her family’s own hard times. 
But mostly, over more than four decades, Arthur Jones walked a long block down Lansdowne to the Davenport Works each day, came home for lunch, and went back in the afternoon.
There was an implicit deal - do the job well, and GE’s managers would do their job well so you would continue to be employed.
I thought about my grandfather this week, when a National Post headline sounded a familiar theme. “CP Rail shares climb on CEO's plan to cut 23 per cent of workforce,” it said. 
I like the psuedo precision, and neutrality, of phrases like “23 per cent of workforce.”
While shareholders were bidding up CP Rail stock, about 4,500 families - that’s the number of jobs to be cut - were coping with very bad news. People learned they would be unemployed, losing a good job a time when finding any work can be challenging.
I know CP Rail isn’t in business to provide jobs. That if managers didn’t cut these positions, then customers might go to a more efficient railway, and more jobs might be lost. And that shareholders deserve to have managers who run the business effectively and prudently on their behalf.
And I know that no one is being malevolent. CP Rail CEO Hunter Harrison and the management group are charged with - and rewarded for - increasing shareholder value. If they can run the railway with a fewer people, they have an obligation to do so. I’ve been a manager, and made those decisions.
But it’s troubling that we don’t see, or talk about, those 4,500 people and what’s ahead for them, as we talk about the share price. Can government help them, or should there be policies that protect the jobs, or support retraining?
I saw a lot of newspaper stories about Harrison’s plan to cut costs and jobs. But I didn’t read any stories about the family dead terrified by the prospect of unemployment, wondering how they would tell their kids that they had to move because they couldn’t make the mortgage. 
Who does speak for those people?
And how did the social contract between good employers and good employees change so dramatically, without a public discussion?
My grandfather’s tenure with GE came at the end of an era. Celebrity CEO Jack Welch won great praise for chopping more than 100,000 jobs at the company in five years in the early 1980s. 
It’s quite a contrast. My grandfather built giant transformers, as a worker and a foreman. When he was getting older, the company moved him into the guardhouse at the entry to the works, instead of eliminating his job. (He died too young, of lung cancer. You might wonder about the PCBs in those transformers. Or the roll-your-own cigarettes he smoked for 50 years.)
GE wasn’t an anomaly. Employers considered it correct to look after the people who did the work.
That’s changed. Global competition, reduced unionization, tremendous pressure on managers to produce better results every quarter - the social contract has been rewritten.
What’s troubling is that we haven’t talked about the change. We haven’t tallied the cost, or considered policy options, or discussed mitigation strategies. We’ve just adopted policies that resulted in millions of lost jobs. And millions of damaged families.
I doubt the CP Rail jobs could be saved.
But attention must be paid. (Yes, it’s a quote.) People’s lives should not be so casually altered for the worse.
And our public policy debate should be based on more than share prices.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Details of MacIntyre firing shows premier's office plays rough

They play rough in the premier’s office. At least that’s the way it looks from a series of emails following Sara MacIntyre’s firing as communications director in October.
Vaughn Palmer wrote about the emails this week.
MacIntyre seemed “blindsided and bereft” at her firing after eight months in the job, Palmer notes. She had apparently given up a pretty good gig as press secretary to Stephen Harper to join Christy Clark’s team.
The hiring might not have worked out. Certainly MacIntyre messed up in one notable exchange with the media - the video is here - that came to define her in a negative way.
But the firing, based on the email exchange, was brutal and unprofessional.
MacIntyre was called in for a morning meeting with Dan Doyle, Clark’s new chief of staff and told she was out of the job and would be dispatched to a undefined role in the government communications and public engagement office. (The PR shop.)
Later that day. MacIntyre tried to find out what the new job would be, what she would be paid and what her options were. That’s reasonable. That kind of downward move is a firing. The person involved - MacIntyre - has to consider whether to opt for severance rather than the new, lesser job.
So she emailed Lynda Tarras, head of HR for the government. 
“I would like to request some sort of written job description with duties and obligations, reporting structure and terms of employment as well,” wrote MacIntyre.
Tarras said pay and benefits would be unchanged and MacIntyre woud find out what her duties were when she reported to work for her new boss the next morning. No job description was provided.
As a former corporate guy, I have some experience in pushing people from jobs. 
And MacIntyre’s shift was not good HR practice. She should have been given information about the new role, a couple of days to consider her options - and see a lawyer - and respect as an employee.
It’s particularly brutal from the office of a premier who professes to be interested in a different way of doing things. (Though perhaps explained by a desperate desire to avoid paying still more severance to political appointments shown the door.)
I dealt with MacIntyre in her Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation days and found her professional, good at communications and always helpful.
Which doesn’t mean she was the right person for the communications’ director job, of course. And at that level of political job - it paid something like $125,000 - the risk of dismissal is always present.
But the emails suggest a basic disrespect and lack of professionalism.
Palmer notes another interesting aspect to this. The NDP used an FOI request to get the emails, which show HR head Tarras was communicating with MacIntyre in writing. But in ousting Clark's chief of staff Ken Boessenkool a month later after an incident in a Victoria bar with a female staffer, Tarras committed not one single word to paper about her investigation or the departure.
That too shows either poor HR practice, or a desire to avoid FOI accountability.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Clark's new staff, and the hiring freeze that wasn't

When Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced a hiring freeze in September, because the government's budget projections were faulty and the deficit was rising, most people thought he meant, well, a hiring freeze.
Certainly in my past life as a corporate guy, a hiring freeze meant you couldn’t hire people. (Not always a smart policy.)
But according to an unnamed spokesperson for Premier Christy Clark, what de Jong really meant was that no new positions would be created.
So when Clark added three new people to the premier's office Monday - taking her staff from 31 to 34 - that was consistent with a hiring freeze, in her mind, because she had 34 people working for her at some point in the past.
The public wasn't alone in being confused.
The government's HR arm outlined a "NEW" Hiring Approval Process after de Jong’s announced “freeze.”
"There is currently a hiring freeze on all non-critical positions across the BC Public Service. All internal and external hiring requests - including regular, temporary and auxiliary appointments, renewals and extensions - require approval from your deputy minister and the Deputy Minister to the Premier. Hiring will only be approved for areas of critical service or to meet an urgent government priority.
“Consideration must first be given to internal candidates. Requests for external hires will only be approved for critical roles -- corrections and social workers, for example -- and must demonstrate why an internal candidate could not be identified.”
The website could have been a little more accurate. Critical roles include “corrections and social workers” and staffers in the premier’s office.
Clark added her fifth key communications staffer in 21 months, former TV reporter and Ontario Liberal staffer Ben Chin.
Which brings to mind a joke I used in reference to Gordon Campbell’s fretting about communications problems.
A man goes to see the marriage counsellor who has been working with the couple, and says, “The problem is my wife doesn’t understand me.”
“Sure she does,” the counsellor says. “She just thinks you’re a jerk.”
After hiring and whacking three communications directors in a short period, it’s time to consider that the problem might not be communications strategy. It might that people get what you’re saying, and just don’t like it.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Heading to the hills and a model finca

Margarita and family drying coffee in the new secadora
We headed up into the hills this week, to beautiful, rainy forests and a family farm doing everything right. OCDIH, the organization I’m helping with communications, wanted a case study to present to funders.
So we went to meet Rosa Margarita Escalón España. (We, because I recruited Jody, knowing my Spanish would not allow a good interview.)
Which meant 90 minutes on a bus. Then 45 minutes in a truck with Alex and Alexis, the OCDIH ag tech guys who guiding us. After a stop for breakfast in a woman’s tidy kitchen, we pushed up muddy, slippery hills as far as we could and started walking through slippery, sucking mud. (Telephone Spanish is especially challenging; I had apparently missed Alex’s request that we bring boots. They scrounged some up.)
Papayas, with dark green coffee plants behind
Margarita’s place was on the side of a mountain about 45 minutes walk from the road. She had coffee plants, and sugar cane, and of course corn and beans. But she also had papayas and carrots and onions and was trying to grow a few apple trees ordered from the U.S. It’s an integrated ‘finca,’ a farm that combines coffee and a bunch of other crops in a small space.
The family had a sugar cane grinder, run by a horse hooked up to a long arm who walked around and around, grinding the tough cane. The boiled the juice down for sugar, and made caramelos to sell.
The first thing we saw when we arrived was a new secadora - a long structure with a clear plastic roof stretched over arched white PCV tubes. OCDIH promotes the project. Margarita’s family was just finishing the wooden drying tables, with screens across the bottom. The first plastic tub of coffee beans was dumped in the screen while we were there. (Coffee berries are red, like small cherries. You have to pick them, and strip the beans out. They’re kind of slimy, and need to be dried. Typically, they’re dumped on a concrete pad and turned with shovels. The secadora means faster, better drying and fewer broken and damaged beans.)
The house was totally basic - lean against the wall and you would be white with the lime used to paint the adobe bricks. But there was a solar panel, and lights in each room, and a Claro satellite dish.
Margarita and her family are a success story. Standing on the edge of a section of two-year-old coffee plants, with papayas ripening, onions and carrots sprouting and chickens running around the yard, I thought this family had it going on. The soil is good, and enriched with compost. The farm is organic. Margarita is a leader in almost a dozen community groups and women's networks, mostly promoted by OCDIH.
But it’s still a life far removed from what I think of as the modern world.
Jody and friend, in the door of Margarita's tidy kitchen
After we did the interviews and took a bunch of pictures, it was time to go. Two horses were saddled for us. Or one was saddled, for Jody. Mine had a rig made of four branches and a towel, with no stirrups. 
Everyone else walked - Margarita and two of her sons, including the youngest, a nine-year-old. I felt a bit odd, but it was another 45-minute walk, all uphill.
After about 35 minutes, we stopped to admire the Escuela de la Republica de Canada, a development project. It is a heck of walk to that school, but all Margarita’s kids have attended (or still are attending).
But the school goes to Grade 6, and that’s as far as any of the six kids are going to pursue their education. It’s a four-hour walk to the nearest colegio, or high school - less time if you can catch a ride in the back of a passing truck. That’s just too far. The nearest clinic is the same distance. (Though Margarita, as part of the income-producing activities promoted by OCDIH, has attended workshops on traditional medicines and grows plants to use and sell.) Getting products to market means a long slog with a couple of horses.
And I haven’t figured out how the six kids - without their own land - will make their way in the community.
No easy answers - but a heck of a finca.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The life and times of a reluctant volunteer, by the numbers

A day in the fast-paced life of an international development quasi-volunteer, by the numbers.
6:30 - The time in the morning I boarded the bus.
6:45 - The number of hours I spent travelling from Copan Ruinas to Santa Rosa de Copan and back for a two-hour meeting.
146 - The actual road distance travelled, in kilometres. (Which, yes, means an average speed of 22 km/h.) 
2: The number of dead cows I saw by the side of the road. One, coming home, was quite deflated. The morning dead cow was fresher - a dog was tugging at its stomach, and about 15 black vultures were waiting their turns.
30: The number of Powerpoint slides on writing effective case studies I used to compensate for my poor Spanish. (Sorry, Steve Jobs.)
9: The inches between rows of seats in the Cassasolo Express bus, and the exact size of the tiny stools they had crafted for people to sit in the aisle - a very nice touch.
1: The number of monkeys I saw tethered to a tree outside a house on the bus ride home.
35: The people squeezed into a bus with seats for 24.
11: The buses that can back into spaces at the Santa Rosa de Copan bus terminal, a dusty parking lot with the highway in front and market stalls behind. It’s a part of Honduras that feels truly Third World. Touts lie blatantly about travel options - that bus doesn’t run any more - and wrestle people toward buses. Vendors sell everything from food to medicines. If you go with it, there is a charming energy.
28: The number of fireworks stands, on one side of the road, on the way into La Entrada, the reputedly druggy town between Copan Ruinas and the rest of the country. The stands all look exactly the same. Only one actually had a name; the rest were generic. And the fireworks are made in households in the nearby villages, a fact that should raise alarms on so many levels.
1: The man heading into a car repair place to beg in La Entrada with two metal protheses for hands and forearms, slings to hold them in place and two feet that pointed directly toward each other. It is hard to see how an accident could have produced such a bad outcome.
3: The number of roadside stands selling tortoise eggs. Is that legal, I asked on an earlier trip? No, but they're very tasty, I was told.
31: The number of vendors, from 7 to 60, who descended on the bus in La Entrada, selling everything imaginable. Off-brand soda pop, belts, toothpaste, watches, krazy glue, mangoes, chips, potato and plaintain, anti-fungal medicines, a piece of chicken, tortillas and cabbage in plastic wrap, lychees, gum, popcorn balls, cucumber chunks. Tough to say no to the kids, or the wizened.
8: The number of 50-pound bags of coffee beans hoisted on to the roof of the bus in La Entrada. How the two guys would get them anywhere in Copan Ruinas is a mystery.
3: One seat in front of me on the bus ride back, there was a young, skinny guy with a white straw cowboy hat, a jean jacket with some fancy beading and a sketchy moustache. The young woman - girl - with him seemed fragile, a scarf with kid-like images over her hair, kind of hunched and clutching herself. When we stopped in the middle of nowhere and they got up to leave, I realized he was carrying their brand new baby, all swaddled in a hat and blankets and scarves. She was maybe out of hospital little too soon. But hey, a new life was starting.
 I remember that. It's different here, but some things - maybe the most important things - are the same.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cornhusk dolls and flawed development plans

Children of the cornhusk dolls on the march (Jody Paterson photo)
The cornhusk doll kids of La Pintada are part of life in Copan Ruinas.
La Pintada is about five kilometres away - an hour’s walk, one more poor village among many. A few years ago, a development project introduced a couple of microenterprises, women’s co-ops to produce “artesania” for the tourist market.
One group of women make cornhusk dolls. They’re cute, brightly coloured and obviously take some skill, but are a little boring.
And the marketing plan is deeply flawed. The children of La Pintada walk into town, with grubby plastic bags full of the dolls, and brandish them at gringos. They ask $1 for a doll. A few kids have laminated sheets, in English, that describe the co-op. They’re pretty persistent in thrusting a doll at you and, usually, looking solemn.
I haven’t seen the dolls in tourist stores, or being sold by any of the jewelry vendors on a street off the square. 
The women don’t set up a table in town and make dolls where people can see them doing the work, take pictures and perhaps buy more.
They do sell some dolls in La Pintada, which is a turnaround point for tourists who book horseback rides. But the marketing approach is the same, maybe slightly more alarming. A dozen or more kids, looking a little like the children of the corn, descend on visitors brandishing identical straw dolls.
It’s not far from institutionalized begging. I’ve seen tourists hand over money without taking a doll, which seems rude.
The other women’s co-op does weaving. Their work is good - we’ve got a couple of nice place mats on our table. But they only do place mats, table clothes and runners. And as far as I can tell, they only sell at the little co-op in the village of some 200 people.
The co-ops are a good idea. And the income is not to be scorned. The organization where my partner works is hosting a group from Tennessee helping to build ecostoves for families this week. (Less wood consumed, less smoke in the house - a very good thing, at about $60 a household.) About 15 of them rode up to La Pintada Saturday, and probably spent $20 on cornhusk dolls. That’s significant in a subsistence community, where many people have cash incomes of a few dollars a day.
But you have to wonder about the thinking behind the development project. It’s not enough to teach people how to make dolls, or help them buy a loom. You have to help them develop a plan to sell the goods.
The options seem obvious. The agency could have hunted out a storefront in Copan so some of the weaving could be done here, where tourists could see the work. 
It could have helped the weaving co-op come up with more products - bags, or shawls. It could do the same thing with the dolls, and figure out what sells - maybe a day of the dead collection, or Frida Kahlo cornhusk dolls, or Guadalupe, or Lady Gaga. Or creations based on the women’s lives.
Academic Lucy Ferguson looking at the gender implications of the projects in a 2007 paper
She identifies some of the problems. “The Women’s Council of CONIMCHH (Comite Nacional Indigena Maya Chortí) argue that in practice women’s groups are being held back, as they are only encouraged to produce artesanía, and not how to market or develop their products,” Ferguson writes. “There is little encouragement for Chortí women to work on their creativity or own designs, with workshops clearly directed towards particular standardised products.”
I am not slagging the enterprises. I like the cornhusk doll kids. They’ve seen me often enough to accept my claim that we have too many of the dolls already. The Internet was out in our house last week so I was in a bar with Wifi, and a little guy and I looked at pictures on my computer, some of his village, until he gave me a fist bump and went back to selling.
But a fair chunk of money went into these projects. People - development types - were well-paid to plan execute them.
It wouldn’t have cost any more to do it right.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bad teeth, bad diet and hunger in Honduras

Early on, I was struck by the number of little kids here with bad teeth, often with a strange pattern of decay around the edges of their baby teeth.
A story in the newspaper offered a possible clue. Funazucar, the umbrella association of sugar producers, proudly announced it's donating 40 tonnes of sugar to a school lunch program for poor kids and to help nursing mothers with nutrition. Some 21,000 people, about 16,000 of them children, will benefit.
That works out to about 1.9 kilos of sugar per person. It's not a lot. The average North American consumes about 60 kilos of sugar a year, thanks to a heavily sweetened diet of processed foods and soda pop.
But the Honduran donation will be mainly used to add sugar to children's milk in the school lunch program. That seems like a bad idea.
The standard Honduran diet is already high in carbohydrates. About 70 per cent of the calories consumed - higher in rural areas - is from corn, used for tortillas, and beans.
People like both - it's a rare meal, breakfast, lunch or supper, that doesn't include tortillas and beans. They're cheap. And subsistence farmers can grow their own corn and beans, even on the steep, generally poor-quality land they can access.
That dependence is a problem. Poor farmers don't have irrigation, of course. They plant, as people have for hundreds of years, when the rainy season is supposed to start. If it doesn't, or there isn't enough rain, the crops do badly, as they did in southern Honduras this year. And when the crops are poor, people go hungry until the next year.
(Which, given the coming impact of climate change on corn and bean production, is very bad news for Honduras, and much of Central America.)
In Canada, kids seem big for their age. Here, I found myself guessing children were two years younger than they really were. About 29 per cent of Honduran children under five are stunted - they’re significantly too short for their age - and eight per cent wasted - they weigh significantly too little for their height. (Even the terms convey a certain desperation.)
Partly, it’s a matter of limited diet - too few fruits and vegetables. People are reluctant to give up any of a tiny cornfield for unproven crops.
Partly, it’s a symptom of more complex problems. Water sources in rural communities - home to about half the population - are often unreliable and impure. Diarrhea and parasites take a toll on everyone, but especially on little children. Families cook over smoky wood fires, often inside buildings. Children suffer from respiratory illnesses as a result.
People are working on the problems. Mission groups are installing water systems - though many fail within five years - and helping families build latrines to protect water sources. Agencies, including the one my partner works with, are helping families build ecostoves that use less wood and don’t fill the house with smoke. But progress is slow.
And partly, people just don’t have enough to eat. So sugar, with its quick energy and big calories, is a welcome addition - to kids’ milk, everyone’s coffee.
But sugar as a healthy additive to kids lunchtime milk?
I was already surprised, when I bought a bag of sugar at Bodega Gloria, to find the package proudly proclaimed “With added Vitamin A.” It seemed like trying to market soft drinks with added fibre. (Which Coke and Pepsi both already do in Japan.)
Back to bad teeth. That’s not just a question of diet. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are too expensive for poor families and dental care out of the question.
There are solutions. A U.S. university did a project where they taught kids in a poor rural community to clean their teeth with their fingers and salt and instructed teachers on twice-a-week fluoride rinses. A prominent community member was designated ‘Keeper of the Rinse’ and distributed it to teachers. There were problems, of course.
The baseline study, done before the program, found 83 per cent of the six to eight year olds had cavities. Eighteen months later, it was down to 14 per cent. (The samples were small; you can read about the study here.)
When you don’t have enough to eat, you take calories in whatever form you can get them. But sugar-laden milk - even when the sugar has added Vitamin A - doesn’t seem like a great nutritional step forward.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Long bus rides, and the high cost of lousy infrastructure in Honduras

A new bridge installation didn't go so well in Olancho last month; communities will continue to be isolated in the rainy season
I’ve made the trip to Tegucigalpa, the capital, a couple of times in the last few weeks. 
It take about eight and a half hours from Copan Ruinas, with a stop in San Pedro Sula to change buses.
It’s comfortable. Cuso encourages people to use Hedman Alas, a high-end bus line that makes a big deal about security. Airport-style check-ins, with hand baggage checks, a metal detector and a digital snapshot of every passenger. (I’m not sure how that is supposed to increase security, but I smile for the camera.) No stops along the way. And the buses are new, with comfortable seats, and an odd selection of movies. (Coming home on the weekend, I had Furry Vengeance with Brendan Fraser, whose presence is a reliable indicator that a movie will be bad, and The Reunion, a WWE-produced action vehicle for wrestler John Cena.) For a few dollars more, you can even go Ejecutivo Plus - sort of a bus business class.
Eight hours is still a long time. The distance between the two cities, as the crow flies, is about 220 kilometres. But Honduras is mountainous, and the roads follow the valleys where possible. 
The total travel distance is actually 435 kms.
The mathematically astute will have realized that means the average speed for the journey, mostly on the country’s main highways, is about 55 km/h.
The long trip to Tegucigalpa is no big deal for me. But for businesses that need to get there or make deliveries, it adds cost and time. For small producers, it’s a big barrier to getting goods and crops to urban markets. 
The problem is even worse off the main roads. By official count, Honduras has 14,296 kms of roads. Less than a quarter of them are paved - about 3,200 kms. A Peruvian economist who spoke in Tegus last week, Enrique Cornejo Ramírez, estimated that only 10 per cent of the road network is in fair condition.
The paved roads, with some exceptions, aren’t good: Potholes, washouts, never-ending construction.
Trucks ease by with two wheels on those logs
And the unpaved roads are much worse. They wind up steep hillsides and ford streams, and wash out in the rainy season and turn to dust in the dry. I was at a workshop on adding value for small farmers and co-ops. It was hard to talk about expanding markets or product differentiation when people’s first problem was that they couldn’t get their honey eight kms to the nearest town because the road was frequently impassable. When they can only sell locally, they face competition from all the other farmers growing the same things, and get lower prices.
Why are things such a mess? Hondurans point to Hurricane Mitch as a big factor, and it did result in massive damage to roads and wiped out bridges across the country in 1998.
Corruption is a problem. A newspaper story last month reported up to 25 per cent of government spending - including on infrastructure - is lost to various forms of corruption.(Before Canadians get too smug, remember the current Montreal construction corruption scandal.)
And Honduras just doesn’t have enough money. Work has halted on many of the current projects because the government hasn’t paid the companies in a couple of months. Tax loopholes and evasion reduce the money coming into government. (Teachers, for example, are exempted from income tax; companies show paper losses year after year and don’t pay tax.) Spending is routinely over budget. And IMF aid deals limit government borrowing. (Which, at interest rates around 11 per cent, is problematic anyway.)
It’s not just roads. The country’s main port is inefficient and outdated. There’s been talk of an airport for Copan Ruinas - which would make a huge tourism difference - for a decade, with no progress. 
And it’s not just transportation. The country’s phone company, Hondutel, is broke. Rural schools are substandard. In San Pedro Sula, with 1.9 million people, the Rotary Club is raising money to build the first public library. It’s been better lately, but for a couple of months power outages were routine in Copan, to the point that a group blockaded the road to Guatemala in protest. (Which seemed to help.)
And I’m writing this offline, because Internet service has been erratic for about 10 days.
This all goes far beyond inconvenience. Imagine trying to run a business, or any economic activity, when electricity is unreliable and transportation dodgy.
Once, it might not have mattered quite as much. Honduran businesses were local, shared the same handicaps and worked around them.
But Honduras, like so many countries has embraced freer trade as a route to more prosperity. Which means its businesses often face competitors operating in places with every infrastructure advantage.
Infrastructure tends to be a boring topic. Until it’s not there.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Honduras model cities plan ruled illegal

I've written about Honduras' model city plan several times, most recently here.
The idea, championed by the government, was to create new, privately owned cities from scratch. The owners would make their own laws and set up their own schools and police forces and courts. It would be like a do-over for the country, separate states within Honduras. The tacit admission was that Honduras couldn't fix its problems.
But the Supreme Court of Honduras ruled this week that the model cities law was unconstitutional, in part because it violated sovereignty by creating a country within a country. 
The idea is, for now, apparently dead.
The politicians complained about the decision. They argue that new, secure cities would result in investment and jobs.
As I've written, model cities have great risks. Owners are naturally going to make laws in the interests of big investors, not citizens, and basic principles of democracy and accountability are at risk.
But after nine months in Honduras, I was a lot more open to the idea than I would have been a year ago. As Bob Dylan wrote, when you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.
One of the big problems is that a country trying the idea out of desperation likely lacks the skills and mechanism to provide proper oversight.
The first city was to be developed with no track record. A promised international oversight commission to ensure all was legitimate and rights were protected was never put in place.
Given the way the project was proceeding, the court decision was probably good for Honduras.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The freedom to create a building out of buses

The freedom to build a bus walkway

Blog posts on Honduras can gets a little gloomy. 
OK, a lot gloomy.
But there are always upsides. When there are no rules, for example, people can enjoy a certain crazy freedom unknown in a place like Victoria, where opening hot dog cart turns into a regulatory ordeal.
The view from the highway La Prensa
People like Manuel de Jesús Cardoza, who has built a sprawling, four-story building out of old school buses and other scrap. (La Prensa wrote about him today.)
Cardoza, who says he’s an engineer with a degree from the “university of the streets,” has used more than 40 old school buses, old machinery, iron wheels, train tracks and other scrap to build the complex beside the highway at La Lima, near San Pedro Sula. He learned to weld and build things as a child workers in a lot of small workshops.
It’s been a 13-year-project, and judging by the pictures, there’s still a lot of work ahead. He’s spent $150,000 so far, and figures another $50,000 will finish the project,
Cardoza told La Prensa he started out thinking it could be an entertainment  centre, with a nightclub and pool. But two years ago he became a Christian and now only wants to hold religious events and weddings.
La Prensa says it’s pretty luxe, with “areas the envy of any luxury hotel,” including a terrace where people can watch the highway sitting in comfy chairs that were once the drivers’ seats in luxury buses.
The whole thing is supported by pillars made of bus wheels welded together and filled with concrete.
The use of a bus as a pedestrian overpass is a particularly stylish touch.
It’s all a bit crazy looking. But the freedom to follow your dream - even if it’s an odd one - is worth something.
Creativity in action
And if you’re looking for a really different wedding venue, think about the Cardoza’s castle

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Food prices, hunger and climate change

Pretty interesting juxtaposition of two stories on the El Heraldo website this week.
The cost of the basic food basket in Honduras - the food needed for a family of five for a month - has risen to 6,950 lempiras, or a little under $350, the newspaper reported, citing a report from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
The second story reported that the minimum wage might go up in December, depending on the inflation rate.
A little less rain, and the crops fail
But it also noted that the current minimum wage schedule ranges from $230 a month to $355 a month. (The minimum wage schedule varies depending on the nature of the work and location. Farmworkers and others doing similar work are at the bottom; urban office workers get the higher minimums.)
The laws aren’t actually enforced. But even if employers are paying minimum wage, the stories highlight how tough life is for Hondurans.
If there is just one parent working at minimum wage - common enough - then the total income covers less than two-thirds of food costs, leaving no money for anything else. (A family of five is about average. Women start having children early - abut 18 per cent of women between 15 and 19 had children, according to the 2000 census. The Roman Catholic church oppose contraception. Sex education is lacking. And cultural factors support large families.)
Even someone earning the top minimum wage would see the entire amount go for food.
Of course, it’s not that straightfoward. Nothing is here. About half the population is rural, and many grow beans and corn, the staple foods. A tipico meal - breakfast, lunch or supper - virtually always includes corn tortillas and beans. 
But there was bad news on that front as well. Catholic Relief Services, along with a couple of expert food production groups, released a report on climate change and bean and corn production in the CA-4 countries - Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The forecast is disastrous. By 2020, Honduras is predicted to see a 12 to 30-per-cent drop in corn production, depending on soil quality. Bean production is forecast to decline by 15 per cent.
That’s not surprising once you’ve seen Hondurans farms. About 70 per cent are on steep slopes, with poor soil and no irrigation potential. Farming follows a pattern that’s hundreds of years old - plant corn in May, in anticipation of rain, and add beans in September, when rain increases again. It takes only a small change - rain that comes late, or temperatures that are too high - and the crops fail. 
And in rural communities, that means hunger. Even today, the World Bank reports 29 per cent of children under five are stunted - shorter than the range for their age because of malnutrition. I’ve given up on guessing kids' ages - six-year-olds are the size of four-year-olds in Canada.
Cuso International and its partners are doing a lot of work on improving food production, diversifying crops and increasing cash incomes. But it’s a huge challenge when people are focused on having enough corn and beans for the next 12 months, and worried that any experiment that goes wrong will mean daily hunger.

Canadians shouldn’t get too smug. The Dieticians of Canada do an annual report on food costs, and found a family of four needs to spend $868 a month in British Columbia. A person working for minimum wage makes $1,666 a month, leaving not much for everything else.
A disabled person in B.C. trying to raise three children - it happens - gets $700 for rent and $672 for everything else - 77 per cent of the amount needed for food alone.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Model city to use laws of Texas

Some supporters of a plan to build private cities in Honduras have described it as creating "a little Canada" in the country.
It turns out the backers of the first city to win government approval want to create a "little Texas" on the country's Caribbean coast.
I've written about the model city plan here and here. The notion is that the private cities would be a chance to start from scratch, with the rules made by technocrats and the investors. Instead of fixing Honduras' problems, you create new states within the country with different laws, policing, education and health systems and tax structures. Crime and corruption would be banished. The constitution would apply, but basically the owners would have something close to their own country to run.
That raises obvious concerns. The interests of the owners and investors might best be served in ways that are bad for Hondurans living in the new cities.
But the idea is appealing in a country facing widespread poverty and weak institutions of all kinds. 
The first developer - owner? - is off to bad start. 
MKG Group hasn't offered many details in Honduran news reports or on its website.
But CEO Michael Strong was more forthcoming with FoxNews.com, which presented this report.
 “Once we provide a sound legal system within which to do business, the whole job creation machine – the miracle of capitalism – will get going,” he said.
And the new legal system, separate from laws on the rest of Honduras, would be based on Texas state law, because it has few regulations.
“It will be Texas law with more freedom of contract," Strong told Fox News. "Texas scores well on state economic freedom rankings,” he explained.
Our goal is to be the most economically free entity on Earth,” he said.
Music to libertarians' ears. But does that mean no minimum wage, no employment standards, no health and safety rules?
Strong also said the new city would have no income, sales or capital gains taxes. (Honduras' existing factory zones offer foreign business investors 10 years of no taxes, although income taxes still apply.)
Which raises questions about who will pay for the vision of better health care, education and policing. 
The biggest problem might be where MKG has chosen to share its plans for the new city.
The private city plan is controversial and facing political and legal challenges in Honduras.
Yet the FoxNews.com report is in English and available on the Internet. Few Hondurans speak English, and about 85 per cent don't have Internet access.
The concerns about private cities are, in part, that the owners won't care about the interests of Hondurans, or will at least put the interests of foreign investors first.
MKG's decision to share details with Fox News and an English-speaking audience, before informing Hondurans, will add to those concerns.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dumb attack ads, and the real tax-cut winners

I'm baffled by the B.C. Liberals' focus on attacking the leaders of the other parties. So far, the efforts have looked amateurish and cynical, and have failed utterly to change public opinion.
Surely the critical issue for the party is finding ways to make people see Christy Clark more positively, not trying to slag the other guys.
The last Angus Reid poll found 28 per cent of British Columbians approve of Clark's work as premier; 53 per cent approve of the job Dix is doing as opposition leader. It's hard to see how any collection of low-budget attack ads are going to drag Dix down to less than 28 per cent.
There's certainly potential in pushing the NDP to commit to positions in advance of the election. (Though Dix will then remind people about the Liberals' promises not to bring in the HST, and ask what their positions are worth.)
But the attack ads seem pointless.
And they risk raising unintended issues.
The latest web attack, for example, says "When the NDP left government, a family of four earning $60,000 a year paid $1,970 more in provincial income tax than they do today," citing budget tables.
That's true enough. But the budget tables also calculate total provincial taxes - MSP, sales taxes, carbon tax.Those other taxes and fees went up $1,463 under the Liberals.
The family still pays less to the province - but $507 less, not $1,970. It's a dubious approach for a party trying to claim Dix is the one who can't be trusted.
And the ad opens the door to other tax questions.
The tax changes since 2001 under the Liberals have meant low income people pay much less to the province - 50 per cent less for a single person earning $25,000, 40 per cent less for a family of four earning $30,000.
But the next biggest beneficiary, given the budget examples, is a single person earning $80,000. He, or she, pays 28 per cent less than he did in 2001.
And a family of four earning $90,000 has received a bigger overall provincial tax cut - in dollars, and as a percentage - than a family earning $60,000.
Worse, the smallest reduction has been for a senior couple earning $30,000 in pension incomes. They're  paying three per cent less - $1.50 a week in tax relief.
Then, of course, there is the bigger assumption in the ads that tax cuts, in and of themselves, are automatically a good thing.
That family of four earning $60,000 is paying about $10 less a week to the province than it did in 2001. Maybe many of those families would consider it good value to pay the $10 if health care or education was improved for them and the people they care about.

Hey Honduras, you're making an airport mistake

I don't take public positions on what should or shouldn't happen in Honduras, mostly because I don't know anywhere near enough. (Though I've been surprised at the willingness of bloggers thousands of kilometres away in Canada to make firm and unsupported assertions about the country.)
But the plan to relocate the Tegucigalpa airport is an exception, in part because there's directly relevant Canadian experiences.
Tegucigalpa - Tegus - is the capital, a city of 1.3 million people. It's tightly nestled in a valley, and surrounded by mountains.
Which is not a good thing for airport construction. The existing airport, Toncontin, regularly makes the world's 10 scariest airport lists. A History Channel show, Extreme Airports, ranked it second. (Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal, topped the list.)
The Tegus approach requires pilots to skim the hills, make a sharp u-turn, plunge steeply and then hit the brakes hard once they're on the ground. Pilots receive special training if they're assigned to the route.
When we flew into the county in January, we were sitting next to a young Honduran flying back from the U.S. We took it as a bad sign when he began fervently praying as we started our approach.
But, on the positive side, the airport is just six kms from the city centre. And, while landings and takeoffs can be challenging, there hasn't been an 'incident,' as airlines like to say, since the runway was lengthened in 2009. (After a 2008 crash that killed five people.)
The government has decided it would be better to move the airport, which might not be a bad idea. But it has also decided to build a new $125 million airport at a military airfield at Comayagua, 80 kilometres from Tegucigalpa. (The airfield is used by the Honduran airforce and U.S. units.)
It's not an easy 80 kms to travel. The highway climbs through steep mountains and the entrance to the city is chronically congested. The trip is certainly over an hour. Anyone catching a flight out of Tegucigalpa would have to allow much more time in case of traffic problems.
This should all sound familiar to Canadians. In the mid-1970s, governments spent about $500 million building Mirabel Airport about 40 kms from Montreal. It was a complete flop, despite good highways, because travellers and airlines wanted to keep using the existing airport at Dorval, about 15 kilometres from the city. There is little or no use by airlines, and the runways have been leased for car racing.
ALG Europraxis, consultants hired by the Honduran Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Investment, have offered warnings about the plan. Anything over 40 kms is considered a remote airport, the firm warns.
So I'm breaking my rule about the airport plan. Don't do it, Honduras.