Today was a fundamental day. It was my first day out in the neighborhood where the foundation for which I am interning works. It was a day to learn what poverty is here, in Buenos Aires. It was a day to put my mind around what it is the foundation intends to do and what it is up against.
The poverty in the surrounding areas of Buenos Aires is different than the poverty I saw in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, people could not secure basic needs – food, shelter, water. In Buenos Aires, most of the people can secure enough food, have a house (albeit a flimsy one made of scrap wood) and beds on which to sleep, have electricity, and the truck that dispenses potable water passes through once a day. They have secured the most basic level of existence on Maslow’s hierarchy, but nothing more.
In the neighborhood where Fundacion Metafora works, most of the people did not complete high school and, consequently, are unemployed (50% unemployment rate, estimation). An elementary-educated, workless mass of people is a swamp socially and culturally. If a large group of people have nothing productive to do all day, every day, they will do other things, such as have a lot of unprotected (high reproductive rates, disease), unsolicited (rape, incest) and premature (pregnant 14-year-olds) sex, drugs, or enter the black market (prostitution, narcotics). Culturally, they will function at the basic level as well. Inter-feuding is rampant in this neighborhood, making it nearly impossible to bring the people together so that they can change their living conditions. Clientelism is thick here – political entities manipulate the uneducated in exchange for votes and loyalty. I get your family access to more government programs or buy you a new refrigerator, you convince your neighbors to vote for this political party. Clientelistic practices exacerbate division within the community and generate a gross amount of mistrust and suspicion.
In Virrey del Pino, the neighborhood where the foundation works, there is another complication. Ten or so years ago, a multinational corporation built a factory alongside the community. The company didn’t employ any of the people in the neighborhood because, well, they don’t have high school educations. It also did not dispose of its chemical waste in a proper manner; it dumped them, contaminating the neighborhood’s water source and causing other unpleasant environmental consequences (it has since cleaned up and follows regulations). There are other complaints . . . loads of them. Needless to say, the people in Virrey del Pino don’t have a very healthy relationship with the factory. Enter politics, power and money. If I manipulate these uneducated, bored, deservedly-angry people into rising up against the factory, I could then bribe the factory to pay me a little to take care of the mess. Strikes start. Factory work interrupted. Extortion. Manipultion. Money. Money. Money. Or, I am a lawyer. I convince these uneducated, bored, deservedly-angry people that it IS the factory’s fault that their roof is leaking, that the air smells funny, that they feel dizzy and have a chronic cough. I convince them that they should file a lawsuit and I - their savior, the one to free them from the yoke of poverty – will be the one to make their voice heard and make that bad, mean factory deliver the money. Deliver to me, that is, because I will get an outrageous percentage if they ever see anything at all.
That’s the poverty existing in the neighborhood where Fundacion Metafora works; a poverty stemming from social exclusion and political manipulation. A poverty that kills hope, stunts progress, creates cynicism, stirs conflict and seeks scapegoats.
The foundation’s way of combating this poverty is to create active, aware citizens out of the people who currently reside in the neighborhood. For them to change they way they live, they have to change their minds. The foundation is trying to form a bridge of understanding between the factory and the community in place of the one currently built on suspicion and mutual resentment. Last week, community members were invited to take a tour of the factory. The foundation offers workshops for the population such as cooking, basic computer courses, parenting, and even one where the young people write articles for a community newspaper. They have helped create a sewing cooperative among some of the women. All of this is done with the hope that the people will have a reason to come together, an outlet for their energy and talent, a hope that they can advance themselves and be the creators of their own future.
Having only been in the community a year, there is a lot of work to be done by the foundation. Step one: turn complainers into doers. Turn divided minds into united by the desire for progress. That in itself, from what I learned today, is going to take awhile.
I am definitely writing conflict resolution and community development on my resume for graduate school.