Saturday, November 14, 2015

On a Dark Day

I saw the news scroll across the bottom of the television screen that hung above my friends’ heads – for whatever reason, the restaurant was playing the news in English. “100 hostages reported in Paris concert hall” and “40 dead” and “Explosions throughout the city.”

The number of dead and injured kept climbing on the ticker at the bottom of the screen – I couldn’t hear what the reporter was saying, but she stood on a dark street and the people running behind her looked afraid. After a few minutes, the channel changed to a soccer match and I turned back to my friends’ conversation.

That could be it. That could be my entire connection to the tragedy that is still unfolding. But it shook me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head all last night, this morning.

“Pain is one of the gifts God gives us.” From the back of my mind comes a lesson from my second or third-grade science book. I remember the picture of a girl with her hand outstretched, about to touch a hot stove. “Pain lets us know that there is a problem so that we can fix it,” and she pulls her hand back. The second picture shows her smiling, hand raised.

This morning I took a bus to a coffee shop so I could read the news – 129 dead in Paris; 352 injured, 99 in critical condition. I read friends’ posts that pointed out, rightly, that similar massacres occurred this week: in Beirut where 43 were killed and 239 injured, and in Baghdad, where 26 were killed and dozens injured.

I read posts criticizing the media for focusing on tragedies in wealthy, Western nations while ignoring these tragedies elsewhere. I remembered again that while the media runs on a news cycle, the world does not. Though I haven’t read about Syria in a few weeks, refugees still flee for their lives from the atrocities that continue to happen there. Somalian refugees still crowd into boats that cross the Mediterranean. Refugee camps in Nepal still host families who have been left stateless for two decades – the world has more or less forgotten them.

And why stop there? In Honduras more than a dozen people are murdered every day. In the United States, mass shootings erupt often enough to feel like a pattern. Around the world, violence and hatred against women and ethnic and religious minorities form a slower and subtler massacre that doesn’t prompt the same outpouring of support.

But compassion comes from a bottomless well. Praying for France does not detract from anyone’s prayers for these other tragedies; on the contrary, prayers nearly always prompt more and greater prayers, more and greater action.

Anger or judgment against those expressing pain, even if it's only changing a profile photo on Facebook, deadens our own feelings, holds our own hand to the fire.

“They can’t feel anything.” Now I remember the page in my Storybook Bible where Jesus heals the men with leprosy. They were wrapped up in bandages, almost like Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb a few pages later. “They have no feeling in their body,” I remember my mother explaining, “So when their foot gets hurt they keep walking on it and that makes the hurt worse. But then Jesus healed them and made them feel again.”

This violence is terrifying. This violence is senseless, and I use the word “senseless” as if any murder makes sense. These reports would be easier to read if my senses were deadened. They would be easier to ignore. If you feel nothing you can smile as your skin blisters, keep walking though every step cripples you more.

As a global body, we should welcome the pain we feel, knowing it is a signal to react as quickly and decisively as the girl pulls her hand from the stove. 

It is empathy, feeling others' pain, that should compel us to donate talents and time and money to counter hate and violence from our immediate neighborhoods all the way to our extremities on other parts of the globe. But more than that, it is love.

It takes a brave love to withstand this pain day after day, to resolve to not let ourselves become numb to it. We will be exhausted by this. There will be days where we think that we cannot continue.

But feeling, even pain, especially pain, is what it means to be healed.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Justice Looks Like Paperwork

It’s the end of the month, so I’m going over my budget and making sure everything is accounted for. Every purchase I’ve made all month is meticulously recorded, receipts are duly labeled, photographed, and filed in a manila folder. It’s tedious work. My spreadsheet rarely comes out right. I don’t like doing this.

My friends, family, and church donated generously through Mennonite Central Committee so that I could work here at the Association for a More Just Society, and through MCC all my expenses are paid – rent, food, transportation – as long as they’re all properly documented in my Excel sheet. Sometimes I wonder, when I enter my daily fifty-cent bus fare, whether this is all a little bit much.

But there is a reason for this sort of attentiveness, however time-consuming. In fact, I’m becoming convinced that these are the details that matter about an organization, that these records and audits and due process, as unsexy as they might seem, are actively bringing about justice.

“Transparency” and “accountability” are the mantras here in an organization that spends most of its time making sure that the government works as it’s supposed to.  It’s an uphill battle. No one thinks that they’re a crook, especially not people who have been unchallenged their whole lives. No one thinks they need the sort of accountability that exhaustive documentation provides.

Certainly a few corrupt people exploit regulatory gaps to steal millions of dollars or threaten others’ lives. But most people’s corruption looks a lot more tame. It’s clocking in twenty minutes before you actually start to work. It’s failing to get a signature. It’s signing off on something you didn’t actually do, because you’ll get to it eventually.

It’s not that any of those minor infractions breaks a system, but the culture it creates, the balance of risks and rewards it shifts, starts to strain a system to its breaking point.

The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is Transparency International’s local chapter here, and last year signed a landmark agreement with the Honduran government that charged them, as civil society, with monitoring the transparency and anti-corruption efforts of major government ministries.

That’s how I found myself from the first day elbows deep in the Honduran Education System’s Purchasing and Contracts protocols. I translated graphs of compliance percentages and documentation delivered and began to realize why people say that the Devil’s in the details.

You can’t talk about justice on a big scale without talking about justice on a small scale. You can’t talk about education reform without making sure that it’s recorded whether your teachers actually show up to teach their classes.

Take health – Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America, and approximately 70% of its population depend on publicly-funded hospitals for all their medical care. Yet too often they’re sent home without desperately-needed medicine to treat illnesses from heart disease to schizophrenia because the hospitals don’t have the necessary medicines in stock. When I visited the hospital, doctors talked about buying extra sutures with their own money for the times when the dispensary ran out mid-surgery.

There are two ways to respond to this system that isn’t working as it should. One could create supplemental medical brigades, donate medicines from abroad and send foreign doctors, form health nonprofits or give low-interests loans to purchase medicines on the private market. Or one could go to the source, the Ministry of Health itself, and start to ask questions about why it isn’t working like it should.

Transformemos Honduras, a program of AJS, did the latter, sending request after request for the sort of official documentation that would help them see how medicine purchasing was being managed. Though Honduran law says the information should be delivered within ten days, they waited six months, during which time these justice fighters probably didn’t feel very much like heroes.

When what documentation there was began to come together, it told a bleak story. The Ministry of Health wasn’t analyzing the market to see how much medicines should cost, and it wasn’t following the purchase contract process in the way the law laid out. That meant it was paying double, triple, even seven times as much for medicines as it should. What’s worse, the companies themselves were involved in writing the purchase orders, telling the Ministry of Health what medicines it should purchase instead of the other way around.

The already-strained Ministry of Health was overpaying for medicines that weren’t even necessarily the ones that were needed. Even worse, some of these medicines were never delivered, while others were delivered in unacceptable quality – after audits started, auditors found some medicines infected with bacteria, while others were delivered with only four of their 11 essential ingredients.

The story gets even worse – the warehousing government medicines was run by a woman who appeared to use the stash as her personal piggybank, forging medicine orders and selling the excess, mismanaging the disorganized warehouse so that expensive pills were left to spoil while people in hospitals died for lack of drugs.

In 2013, Transformemos Honduras presented their report, which was numbers and percentages and all the little pieces of methodology that sometimes seem unimportant. The effect was electric. The Honduran government immediately removed the director from her position. She, along with other wealthy, powerful people would eventually face consequences -- caught in their corruption by a missing trail of paperwork.

It’s not always fun or exciting to sift through hundreds of spreadsheets or file the government forms that will give you access to hundreds more. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. We need to realize that investment in “unsexy” work like social audits and performance reviews is foundational to creating systems that serve the most vulnerable well, and that transparency and accountability aren’t just buzzwords, they’re building blocks to better systems.

Working at AJS, I’m empowered to be a part of civil society’s oversight of government systems. But transparency and accountability touch my own life as well. It matters that I account for the money I spend, that I’m willing to be as open with my use of others’ funds as I want the government to be with their’s.

So I stare at the expense column in front of me. I write my daily 50 cents under the appropriate column in my expense spreadsheet, hit save, and then hit send. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why I Don’t Recycle


I used to recycle religiously. My environmental-scientist roommate helped me learn how to twist off caps, tear off labels, and flatten plastic cartons. We kept our recycling in a big wicker basket, and every other week we would empty the paper and bottles into a bin and drag it to the curb to be picked up, trucked off, sorted, and crushed – remade.

I don’t do that anymore. I throw plastic bottles in with cardboard in with banana peels almost like I don’t believe that the damage we are doing to our planet is irreversible. It’s not that I don’t believe in recycling and not that I don’t want to do it – but the systems that are in place around me simply aren’t set up in a way that makes it possible.

The fact is that recycling as I thought of it in Michigan doesn’t really exist in Honduras. There are no wicker baskets, and definitely no curb-side bins. Instead, at the end of the week, my host dad will drive our bags of trash to the single dumpster that serves our entire hillside community. 

For people who don’t have a vehicle and can’t make the walk down the steep hill with their bags of trash, the street has to do. Throwing garbage in the streets is not a good thing – but for many it’s the only real option. Throwing things away, let alone recycling, isn’t a moral decision, it’s a practical one.

It’s impossible to understand individual behavior without understanding the systems that provoke it, the balance of costs and benefits that always lead people to consider or decline actions.

In the United States, I didn’t recycle because I was a better person than the people who live here in Honduras – I recycled because it was easy, because single-stream recycling and curb-side pick-up tipped the balance of costs and benefits so far towards recycling that one would have to be actively against recycling not to do it.

I could judge Hondurans for not making the same decisions I used to make in the United States – but that would be ignoring the fact that our decisions aren’t actually the same at all.

I don’t recycle here because I can’t recycle here. Because of the lack of any recycling system, because of the way that materials are reused in different ways, no one would blame me. As I realized this, I started to think about other systems, how decisions I think people should be making may not actually be a meaningful option for them.


In Honduras, about 4% of murders result in an arrest, leaving an astonishing 96% impunity rate for homicides. Victims of crimes don’t always report them to the police, witnesses of crimes don’t testify, and dangerous criminals are left on the street.

The answer to this seems obvious – people should report crimes, lawyers should prosecute them, and judges should punish them. Yet Honduras’s justice system is riddled with roadblocks and dangers that generally mean involvement carries a much higher cost than benefit.

How could I tell people here that they need to cooperate with the justice system when doing so means risking death threats for themselves and their families? Witnesses have been shot for cooperating, their names revealed by corrupt police officers. Lawyers have been assassinated for standing up to the wrong people. Bribes and rampant bias mean that the wealthy and powerful are far less likely to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted of it, while the poor have none of these protections.

The fact that Hondurans don’t often bring cases to be prosecuted is not a problem of apathy, of laziness, or of disinterest – it is a structural problem that keeps everyone from equal access to justice. The balance of costs and benefits is warped – the choice to trust a broken system isn’t a meaningful choice.

It works the other way too – the costs of standing up against corruption are high, but the costs of corruption itself might be quite low. Without justice systems that regularly prosecute corruption, the scales are tipped again, leading people who in other situations would follow the rules to decide the benefits of crime are too attractive to ignore.

Context matters. Attaching moral significance to systemic failures too often blames the most vulnerable for their own problems. In the United States, it’s easy to feel moral superiority for doing things – recycling, eating organic, getting a college education, even trusting police officers – that simply aren’t meaningful choices for others.

These decisions aren’t always up to individuals. If we believe that eating organic is important, we need to do more than tell people to do so, we need to invest in making this food cheaper and more accessible. Valuing higher education means changing patterns of costs and benefits so that it’s a real option for students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. Increasing trust in police means ensuring that their interactions with people of all backgrounds are equally above reproach.

People aren’t always going to make the same decisions as me. Sometimes this is because they disagree with me – they don’t think recycling is important, they’re attracted by the corruption’s apparent benefits. But more often than I realize, there is no real decision for them to make.

I don’t want to say that what is good or what is right should be easy. But what is good should be possible, and it should be possible for everyone. Individual choices matter, but what matters more is the existence of choice in the first place.

That is part of why I get so excited about the work we do here. It is more than throwing a single can in a recycling bin. It is more than throwing a single person in prison. It is a fundamental readjustment of entire systems of benefits and costs, making it easier to do what is good and harder to break the rules – giving everyone the real opportunity to make choices that are better for them and better for our world..