Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Exorbitant Cost of Accessing My Own Money

By Ian Toal, 2nd year MDP student

The day before I left Xochimilco/Mexico, I was running a little low on money. I didn’t really need anything, but in Xochimilco almost all business transactions are done in cash – to my knowledge, there was only one place we used where groceries could be bought with a debit card. Just in case I needed anything, I thought I would maybe go to the bank and withdraw 100 pesos, just to have around. Withdrawing a larger sum would not be necessary, as I was leaving the next day. I didn’t want to have to exchange pesos once I got home. Another factor favouring a small withdrawal was that getting change for large bills in Xochimilco was difficult. Even a 20 peso note can be difficult to change. One hundred pesos would be a good amount.
As I considered this, I realized that the banking charge for a withdrawal was 24 pesos. So I would lose ¼ of my money just by getting access to it.
I decided against the withdrawal, but began to think about banking charges. 24 pesos is approximately the same value as a banking charge at a Canadian bank – somewhere around $2. So from that perspective, it does not seem like a high rate. However, when the buying power of the peso in Mexico is considered, the charge becomes less reasonable.
The day before, I had bought four grapefruit down the street for 9 pesos. Admittedly, they were ‘seconds’, either the wrong size or shape for the picky Canadian market, but they were perfectly fine. Grapefruit in Canada can cost up to $1 per fruit. Using this as a rough guide, in Xochimilco I could have bought about 10 grapefruit for the 24 pesos I would spend on a bank charge. To buy the same 10 grapefruit in Canada would have cost somewhere around $10. In terms of buying power, the Canadian bank charge should be somewhere around $10. If the Canadian cost was less for the ‘inferior’ fruit – say 50 cents each - it would still have amounted to $5, which is still pretty steep for a bank charge.

Although banking charges are not fixed – at the airport they are 30 pesos or more – 24 pesos seems to be a fairly standard fee in the rest of the Mexico City. So people are faced with a dilemma. Either they withdraw a large amount of cash at one time, or they lose a significant amount of money each time they go to the bank (not to mention the time involved in getting to the bank). While Xochimilco is a fairly safe neighbourhood, someone walking around with hundreds of pesos is at risk for losing it. And as mentioned, the people have to use cash – there is no other option.
The Mexican people I met were hard working, happy, but not well off. Affordable banking should not be beyond their reach. Why the banking charges are so high while the cost of other services are not remains a bit of a mystery to me. Tortilla prices are regulated, because they are a necessity of life. Getting access to a bank account is also a necessity. Losing a significant chunk of money with each withdrawal makes poor people even poorer. Walking around with large amounts of cash is unsafe. Payday loans are being investigated in Canada. Perhaps Mexico needs to investigate its banking system. Incidentally, the bank we used was Scotiabank.    

Further Communication

By Susan Maxson, 2nd year MDP student
Xochimilco, Mexico City

In our ongoing assignment to improve communication between RITA members and between central office and the members – the difficulties which I enumerated in my last blog – we asked the question “What about using the mail?” “It doesn't work” was the answer by many people in the RITA office.  But one brave person said “I don't think it works, but I don't really know.”  We then emailed the same question to a former MDP professor who had lived in Mexico.  His answer.  “Yes, it works, but it it isn't used very much.”

So Alejandro, Ian and I decided to test the  Mexican mail.  We sent five numbered envelopes to each of four RITA members (twenty letters total) whom we could phone and warn that the test letters were coming.  We asked them to tell us the date that each envelope arrived.

What a surprise!  The furthest place, Chiapas, received all five envelopes in only four days after they were mailed.  In the end, all twenty envelopes arrived promptly.  The Mexican postal system not only worked, it worked well.

This totally revolutionized the conversation about communication at RITA central office.  It opened up possibilities.   Our practicum team put together a proposal of a monthly newsletter which could go to all members whether or not they had a phone or Internet.  The newsletter would not only have articles by RITA head office but would include  photos, stories and events submitted by members.  Through this we hope to encourage horizontal communication between members as well as vertical communication from head office outward.  It is also hoped that  conversations on topics of interest could continue from month to month or be revisited to encourage clarification, and understanding of ideas or exchanges of practises which work in one area and might be tried in another.

Working on sending the "test letters" and the August newsletter

These are big hopes to pin on one small monthly newsletter.  But when communication has been so difficult, and the only good communication is the General Assembly every three years, this is exciting stuff.

Now the newsletter is written and ready to go out, but addresses are proving to be the difficulty.  There is no data base with all of the member addresses in it.  There did not seem to be a reason to collect them in the past.  We spent the last few weeks of our practicum trying to find addresses.  We have not been particularly successful.  We have only 21 addresses of the 120 members. So we are back to the grapevine method of communication.  We are putting an insert into all of the newsletters that are being mailed out asking for all of the addresses of members that they might know so next month RITA can send out more newsletters!

Relationships as the Backbone to Community Development

By Alison Everitt, 1st year MDP student

I have now completed my field placement with the Health Division in Norway House Cree Nation. I spent eleven weeks working in the community and I can honestly say that I learned a lot. Leaving for my placement, I had certain expectations of what I was going to see and do during my time up north. I thought that I would write a few funding proposals, sit in on community events, and maybe see a bear or two. While all of this did prove true in the end – and certainly taught me a lot – it was the unanticipated knowledge that I found to be the most rewarding from my time in the community.

The main memory that I will take away from this experience is the importance of building relationships within the community. The people that we met in Norway House were incredible and I was always treated with great kindness. People were always ready to offer words of welcome [“We’re very excited to have you here!”] and pieces of advice [“You’re living on West Island? Watch for bears!”] in the hopes of making our stay in the community as rewarding and comfortable as possible. As Rachel and I only knew each other when we first arrived in Norway House, the support that was given to us by community members was greatly appreciated.

What I soon learned was that this level of support and kindness was the backbone of the entire community. All of the people in the programs in the Health Division work endlessly to help as many community members as possible in spite of limited access to the resources that are often enjoyed in ‘the south’. Local businesses make significant donations towards community events in the hopes of making them as successful as possible. Individuals also play their part: for instance, by the beach there is one family who will sit outside and make sure that all the children are safe while they play in the water. Family members also allow the children to leave their bicycles on the lawn outside their house so that they can ensure that the bikes won’t be stolen. 

Our work in the community repeatedly highlighted the importance of relationship-building. During my time in the Health Division, one program manager in particular demonstrated how this rapport is necessary for community development programs. By observing her interactions with the women who participate in her programming you could tell that they all really liked her and also held so much respect for her. This allowed her to talk about topics such as breastfeeding, and have everyone listen and really value her input. She really showed me that, particularly in a First Nations community, your relationships with people are your top priority. Your word is everything; and once people trust and respect you, then you can start having a meaningful impact in peoples’ lives. This is when actual change happens. Working with wonderful people like her was one of the most rewarding parts of this field placement and it is these relationships that I will never forget.

Rachel Bach (Front-L) & Alison Everitt (Front-R) at the Norway House Health Division

This summer, I saw how things actually work on a reserve. I was able to see what really needs to be improved and also to see what initiatives are already in place to try and do so. I can also now appreciate how many opportunities there are to make a difference, as well as numerous challenges involved in doing so. For example I learned how small initiatives, like a cooking class, can have such a large impact for those who participate in it. I now know that a project or program doesn’t have to be a big, complicated one in order to make a significant change; it just has to be one that will produce a change that is actually needed.

In sum, my time in Norway House taught me a lot of the things that I was expected to learn on my field placement. However, it also gave me knowledge and insight that I did not expect to gain and that is why my time in this community was so valuable to me.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Working with few in a community of two thousand people: some practical lessons

By Reuben Garang, 2nd year MDP student

I had ten weeks of field placement in Ghana. One was spent in Accra and another week settling in before the actual work began in Kperisi, which is a small rural community of two thousand people located about ten miles away from Wa in the Upper West Region of Ghana.

Cattle drinking from reservoir
My experiences in Kperisi were highly rewarding, and gave me insights into some of the practical challenges of community organization and development. However, before going into that, let me summarize what we (two other MDP students and I) did during the field placement. In the eight week time frame, we held focus groups and conducted needs assessments where different groups within the community identified and prioritized intervention plans. The plans dealt with projects such as building a storage facility for a women’s group, rehabilitation of community's dugout ( lack of water is a big problem  in the Upper West Region in  Ghana) and Senior High School plan. Senior High School's students from this community and nearby communities study in boarding schools in Wa. The community sees this as separation of children from parents and families.  We consulted with different development agencies and government departments to gather information needed to facilitate the community development interventions. Finally, we wrote two project proposals and together with the community built a small storage facility for a women’s group. It was incredible! We enjoyed working with the people from this community.

Still, the processes which led to the above achievements were full of surprises as well as learning opportunities. It was our initial expectation that many people would show up for community meetings and work projects. However, we soon learned that our expectations and assumptions did not match up with people’s every day realities.

The first meeting held in the community was poorly attended, although the date and time for meeting were agreed to a few days earlier. In the morning of that day, my colleagues and I arrived exactly at the time communicated by the leadership. To our surprise, we were the first people in the venue. We looked around and saw people sitting down under trees and others were moving back and forth in the village. We began to speculate on why people were not coming, but community leaders were not worried. They were optimistic that people would still come. A few minutes later we were told about a group of people who were sitting under another mango tree. They were remembering a woman who died in the past year. We also noticed people were leaving the village to go and clear lands as they were waiting for rain to sow seeds. Parents, particularly women, were busy preparing food for family members. A lot of activities were going on in the community. In the end, people still managed to come for the meeting, and we found that quite remarkable.

The reality is that people in the community have their own lives besides planned communal goals (meetings in this case). For this reason, people may not show up in big numbers for community meetings or work projects. They have other priorities in life. You may see people sitting under trees while a community meeting is going on but that does not mean they are free. Some might be resting after work or are mentality and/or emotionally engaged with other matters. From this insight, I learned that I have the opportunity to acknowledge the numerous issues and challenges facing the community only when my mind is free from trying to blame people for not participating in community affairs. I learned to work with the few people who attend, and take steps to bring new faces to subsequent meetings. I learned it is easy for those who come to the meetings to disseminate information in the community. People will come and go and share the information at the same time as they pass by people in their homes. Sometimes, as I learned, people do not attend community meetings not because they are opposed to communal plans, but because they are aware of them  and perceive them to be in the interests of all. Also they have trust in the community leaders and the decisions that they will take on behalf of their community. In case of Kperisi, most of the people in the community supported the need of the dugout rehabilitation and for the community to have a senior high school.

MDP students with community leaders in Kperisi

My time in Kperisi also taught me about development fatigue. Rural communities across Upper West Region in Ghana frequently receive students doing development work. Some people in these communities have development fatigue from working with students on projects which are rarely implemented, and Kperisi is not an exception. People see no benefits and are keen not to waste their precious time. This reality might have contributed to poor attendance in our case. Another factor might have been community politics, which can divide people and thereby pose an obstacle to participation.

Although attendance for all the meetings we held in the community was not as high as we had initially expected, numerous people participated in the building of the storage facility for the women’s group. Youth, women, school children and elders did incredible work on this particular project. These experiences and the realization that the community has a myriad of social challenges and commitments governing each and every individual's life helped me learn how resilient the people of Kperisi are and how vigilant they are in maintaining collective pride and preserving their communal values.

Thinking out loud

By Badriyya Yusuf, 1st year MDP student

Picture this: You’re working from the 12th floor of a skyscraper in New York City, sitting behind a computer screen, sipping a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee as you collect data on climate change trajectories in Ouagadougou. Funny thing is you’ve never step foot in Ouagadougou, heck, it’s the first time you’ve ever come across the name of the capital city of Burkina Faso, but yet you are in charge of this data collection process. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a great researcher but is something amiss here? 

I came across the term desktop research quite a number of times while undertaking my field practicum this summer. It is defined as the process of gathering and analyzing information, already available in print or published on the internet. Pretty much the same process we utilize for our research papers. Online tools actually exist to make the process even easier. It is both cost effective and time efficient. It is also a methodology used by development, aid agencies and think tanks to formulate policy recommendations to be implemented in different corners of the world. However it comes with the risk of unreliable data, assumptions far different from the reality on the ground and the high probability that the intended beneficiaries will not be a part of the implementation process. Could this perhaps be among the reasons why sustainable development remains an elusive quest in many parts of the world?

Downtown Winnipeg
I recently found myself wondering about the ‘poverty trap’ as coined by Jeffrey Sachs. With so much technology currently available, collaborative knowledge sharing and money given in the form of aid and investment, why is poverty not a thing of the past? I found a partial answer in Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden” where he says “It is a fantasy to think that the West can change complex societies with very different histories and cultures into some image of itself”. (Did you know he was actually fired from his job with the World Bank?). Anyway, what if his words do actually hold some ground? To me, Indigenous populations around the world come to mind when I reflect on that sentence. Are there perhaps not alternative pathways to sustainable development? Did you say, “Well, if there were any effective alternatives, we would have known them by now”? You could be right, but staying put in a different corner of the world could also be why we are yet to get there. I strongly believe that sustainable development needs to be homegrown. It will require putting more youth through school systems that recognize their heritage, contributions and limitations, filling their libraries with relevant books and ultimately empowering them to sit behind a computer screen right there in their villages. Now that’s what I call desktop research that provides sustainable results!