Category Archives: Development

… Writing & Technology

In a past life, I had a job as a Credit Analytics consultant with Ernst & Young. I whipped up more than my fair share of spreadsheets and coded up a few SAS analyses here and there for the banks I worked with. However, the most important part of my work was the documents I wrote. Distilled into one sentence, my job as a consultant was to synthesize analytical work into model validation reports and model methodology documentation. At one bank I wrote over 500 pages of text, and over my more than two years with EY I produced more than 1,000 pages of analytical documentation.

However, my true love for writing and a passion for technology both blossomed while I was a Volunteer in the Peace Corps.

Writing seems like something that naturally goes with Peace Corps service. Volunteers have tons of meaningful experiences and tons of time for reflection. That lends itself to writing. I did plenty of writing, mostly on my two blogs, both of which I continue writing on to this day. However, technology is more of a non-sequitur with Peace Corps service. I did not have much access to technology, so how did I become so interested in it?

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Me being Nicaraguan

Along with time to write, Peace Corps service gave me a lot of time to read. I had to tell my mom to stop sending me links to articles. I had inevitably already read them. I read most of the NY Times on a daily basis, and my parents got me a digital subscription to The Economist. I also devoured much of Wired, and whatever else popped up around the internet and on my Facebook feed.

Digesting all of this information led me to realize that technology could go a long way to solve many of the problems that Nicaragua and other lesser-developed countries around the world face. Even more so than ‘technology,’ which is a word typically associated with something tangible or engineered, there is a thirst for innovation in lesser-developed countries. New ideas, new ways of doing things, and connecting disparate ideas to come up with novel solutions to problems can all be used to solve the problems of international development. Even a staid and old idea in one culture might be embraced as new and promising in another.

When I completed my Peace Corps service I entered business school intent on learning about global business, operations management, entrepreneurship, and technology and innovation.

Midway through business school, during the height of my summer internship with UPS, I felt confident that I had the skills to try to tackle some of the problems I encountered in Nicaragua. I founded a startup in July 2017 called ChickenBus. It is a socially minded tech startup dedicated to improving access to public transportation in lesser developed countries. The MVP is under development, and I hope to ship in Q1 2018.

Read the continuation here on my other blog, Incidents of Travel

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… Economic Development, a Reflection

The preceding article was posted at 1:14 AM EST, the time that my flight was scheduled to take off from Nicaragua. This article was posted at 5:43 AM EST, the estimated landing time in Ft. Lauderdale.

Originally I had envisioned a grand follow-up to the preceding article. I wanted to reflect on a year’s more experience in Nicaragua, present some economic research, and pontificate about Capital in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, time got away from me and I have not had sufficient time to formulate, research, or write the article. I still very much intend to (I have a brand new Lenovo X1 Carbon awaiting me at home in NY and I know exactly what the first assignment I complete on it will be), but for now I can present a few brief points and observations:

  • First, I think it is clear from the article that I disliked much about the Sandinistas. This is still the case. However, I no longer think that removing them from power is the ideal solution. The opposition in Nicaragua is very disorganized and arguably more corrupt than the Sandinistas. Nicaraguans themselves need to band together, from the left to the right, and denounce corruption in all of its forms, in both parties. I was extremely pleased that Guatemala was able to peacefully do just that last year, and I see no reason why a popular movement cannot improve the state of politics in Nicaragua as well.
  • I still believe that the Trees of Life are an exaggeration. Furthermore, it is wrong to use public funds for propaganda in the absence of a thoroughly democratic budgeting process. Even more so, I found out that the trees are built by Ortega’s son’s metallurgy firm. I haven’t bothered to check, but any guesses as to whether the fabrication went to a competitive bid? All of that being said, the trees are not ugly and making Managua (or León for that matter – Chayo gave us our first one as a Christmas present in December) a worse place to live. They have been an integral part of the revitalization of Old Managua which is certainly a boom for the city’s economy and quality of life standards. What the Trees of Life need is a balance – democratic budgeting that balances urban beautification and aesthetics with other needs of the city and the country.

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  • One of the main points of my article was the idea of “Group Based Development.” I now realize that that is nothing new. It has been around for decade, especially in the form of gender based development. Development organizations and governments have been working with women since the 1970’s. I suppose I did not recognize this at first because of how disillusioned I am with the current state of gender based development. My main complaint is that it can be extremely gender normative. Organizations and governments tend to develop the skills of women only in fields that we traditionally associate with women, such as textiles, jewelry, and food preparation. What they should be doing is helping women access the most productive industries in society. Furthermore, development organizations and governments should be working with men to give women access to these more productive fields. Lastly, organizations and governments should be working with men to have them more highly value traditional women’s work so that wages go up and men begin to work in these fields as well.

However, I still think that group based development can be further emphasized in development. Poverty may be entrenched in society because of the structures and institutions of society. Without directly addressing the structures of society development organizations are not going to make much progress. However, if we work with underprivileged groups within this system we may make more progress. Women are not the only marginalized group in society. If government and society are effectuating the marginalization then external support is important to accelerate change (I certainly don’t want to say that a marginalized group can’t help itself – it has certainly happened before, but external support can be helpful as well).

  • Lastly, my opinions on the charter cities has turned very negative, especially after having traveled to Honduras and read more about the state of politics in that country. The extractive institutions in a country may very well be the corporate class, so ceding them power over municipalities is not likely to change anything. I am currently writing an article on my trip to Honduras and will write more about this in the next few weeks.

… Economic Development

… Gender Equality in Nicaragua

This article is being cross posted on my other blog, Incidents of Travel. Incidents of Travel chronicles my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua and my thoughts on culture and life in general. Please check it out if you are interested. The article was also submitted to the Peace Corps Nicaragua Gender & Development Committee for publishing on their blog, but they declined to respond.

A book that I read recently that influenced me greatly was Why Nations Fail. The thesis of the book is that the main differentiator between the development path of nations is neither geography nor culture, but instead the institutions of the country, and how inclusive they are of the population. The more politically and economically inclusive, the more development potential, past and present.

I am very compelled to the thesis, and I tend to agree with the theory that culture does not have a strong effect. For the very most part I believe, scientifically, that all humans have equal capacities for intelligence and that characterizing a culture as “lazy” or “hard working” can be an inaccurate generalizing claim based in racist tendencies. The authors instead demonstrate that what may superficially look like a lack of economic motivation on the part of citizens may instead be a response to the lack of economic stimulus and opportunity that exists in the country due to poor societal institutions. For instance, a farmer may not exploit her land to its fullest potential because agricultural price policies lead to over-supply in the market. Or rather, laborers may not seek full employment because of strict government wage schedules across all industries that keep wages artificially low and working is literally not worth the bother.

Nevertheless, the idea that culture may inform economic divergence between nations nags at me. Rugged individualism, the importance of hard work, and the Protestant work ethic are well engrained in my American psyche. In addition, I routinely hear from Nicaraguans that they are an haragán (lazy) people, don’t like to work, and that their labor doesn’t size up to other countries’.

So how do I reconcile the theory with my conditioning and what I hear here in Nicaragua? First of all, folk-theories about rugged individualism, the importance of hard work, and the Protestant work ethic are probably just artifacts of a colonial world riveted by racism. I’m sure there are thousands of essays, papers, and books on Max Weber and his virtues and follies. I won’t delve further into that. As for the self-characterizations of the Nicaraguans as lazy and not hard working, I think that they may have internalized their own oppression and poverty. The imperialism, tyranny, and their derivative poverty that they have lived under for hundreds of years have become to such an extent part of the Nicaraguan psyche that they legitimately start to believe it and express it in their actions. I have seen multiple times teachers, who are poor people themselves subject to the same oppressive institutions as their students, lecture their students telling them that they are poor, come from a lazy culture, and are inferior to other countries. The result of this conditioning is that the students will begin to act accordingly. And these attitudes and behaviors will last for the rest of their lives. In effect, even though culture does not have a direct impact on development, cultural norms and beliefs can become entrenched in the institutions of a country itself, and institutions do affect development.

“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”
― Paulo FreirePedagogy of the Oppressed

Another profound aspect of the Nicaraguan culture that has become more deeply entrenched and truly institutionalized is machismo. Machismo is a cultural system that values qualities traditionally considered to be masculine over qualities traditionally considered to be feminine. It manifests itself in many aspects of life. At its most innocuous machismo dictates the games and activities that parents play with their children, and at its most destructive it leads to domestic and psychological violence against women and even femicide. Economically, machismo manifests itself through gender roles: jobs that are assumed to be for women and others that are presumed to be more suitable for men. For instance, in Nicaragua employers typically search for women only for positions such as clothing store attendant, house maid, secretaries, childcare, nursing, and chefs/waitresses (often the same person) at small eateries. Men are deemed more suitable for management, transportation, medicine (especially surgery), physical labor, finance, and engineering. From what I’ve seen, secondary education is more equitable, but primary education is more of the feminine realm (and yes, primary school teachers make a little bit less money than their secondary counterparts, which I find asinine given the importance of primary education and how challenging the work is).

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The results of this culture are numerous and deleterious. First, women on average earn less money than men, so they often find themselves financially dependent on men even when they would be better off single. This leads to health and emotional consequences, such as being coerced into having unwanted children. Furthermore, seeing less potential for financial attainment after school, women will seek less education. This leaves women with fewer opportunities, especially well-paying opportunities, so they turn to the informal sector, which constitutes 80% of Nicaraguan employment, and is overwhelmingly feminine (men are more likely to immigrate out of Nicaragua, especially to Costa Rica or Panama).

I work with a cooperative that has 12 male members and one female member. The cooperative is acquiring a small restaurant to feed their guests, and they let me know that the female member would be placed in charge of the restaurant since that is naturally a feminine task. The woman immediately interjected, stating her reluctance and her lack of knowledge about cooking and restaurant management. Nevertheless, she remains in this capacity. This decision winds up hurting the whole cooperative. Maybe she is better at guest relations or accounting, and maybe a male member of the cooperative has skills suited for cooking and restaurant management. If their roles were re-arranged the cooperative would be operating more optimally and probably obtain more profits for its associates, but a machismo culture prevents this from panning out.

The informal sector in Nicaragua is hard work for a pittance. It usually involves waking up early to buy basic food ingredients, then making snacks to sell on the streets or in the bus terminals. Competition ensures that margins are thin to non-existent. In addition, being self-employed, these women have no benefits. They literally cannot afford to get sick and miss a day or work, and they are not paying into the Nicaraguan social security system to hopefully one day retire with even a modest pension that the system provides.

This is the institutionalization of machismo, and it pervades the public sector as well. In Nicaragua, the law states that for high ranking officials, there needs to be equality. For instance, if a mayor is a woman, then the vice-mayor must be a man, and vice versa (curiously, the President and Vice-President are both men). But this mandatory equality is only at the highest levels of government. The bureaucratic ranks are male-dominated.

Apparently only women are suitable for retail

Apparently only women are suitable for retail

Basically, I am describing the institutionalization of culture. Insofar as an exclusive culture (such as machismo) becomes institutionalized, culture very much can have an effect on the development of a country, and I believe it is having that profound effect on Nicaragua.

Despite what I have observed about the pervasiveness of institutionalized machismo, I have seen some conflicting reports in the news. The Economist reported last year that the World Economic Forum’s Gender-Gap Index ranked Nicaragua sixth-place globally for gender equality. Based on what I have observed and described here, I find this very hard to believe. And a deeper dive into the WEF’s data seems to corroborate my doubt.

The score each country receives in the index is an average score of four sub-categories:

  • Economic Participation and Opportunity (0.635)
  • Educational Attainment (1.000)
  • Health and Survival (0.980)
  • Political Empowerment (0.544)

Nicaragua’s 0.789 was sufficient to rank sixth place worldwide.

Nicaragua receives low marks for female participation in the work force, wage equality, and participation in civic life. On the other hand, it gets high marks for education and health. And it is true, as I mentioned, Nicaragua has a high number of female government leaders – statutorily. Nicaragua even had a female President, elected in 1990. Doña Violeta was the first in the line of three non-Sandinista interregnum presidents. Overall though, Nicaragua’s marks for economic participation and political empowerment were mediocre. Nicaragua’s relative strength in the ranking comes from educational attainment (theoretically perfect, according to the WEF’s methods) and health outcomes.

WEF’s data for educational attainment come from UNESCO. However, UNESCO compiles its reports from figures sent in from the Nicaraguan government, which recent investigative reports have exposed as being highly suspect. UNESCO’s last submission from Nicaragua was for the 2010 school year. Publically released information in Nicaragua has been self-contradictory with regards to enrollment levels, and over a ten year period prior to the numbers released for 2014, publically released data actually registered a decrease in the number of students (despite population growth and a large youth population), and then an enormous increase in 2014. In addition, there is evidence that the numbers are being smoothed by selectively including tertiary education, technical education, and adult literacy courses. In addition, there is no comparison in public data between students in conventional daily classes vs. secondary school students in weekend classes. Taken all together, the WEF’s educational attainment score is not reliable, even though it is the largest contributor to Nicaragua’s impressive ranking.

Nicaragua’s score for “Health and Survival” is almost startling. It ranks first place worldwide, which is an amazing accomplishment, especially for the second poorest country in the hemisphere. But again, on closer inspection, I doubt the conclusion. Health and Survival only takes into account two statistics: sex ratio at birth, and healthy life expectancy. Worldwide, women have a longer life expectancy than men. The index attempts to correct for that. However, I think the effect may be particularly strong in Nicaragua, which may account for some of Nicaragua’s strength in the area. Men, on average, have riskier lifestyles. Many more men than women are alcoholics, and men, due to their prevalence in heavy labor jobs, face many more occupational hazards. Fishing and logging are the two most dangerous jobs in the United States; imagine the risk in a country where OSHA does not exist and most fishing, logging, agriculture, and small industry is nearly completely unregulated. In one town alone, Chichigalpa, there is a neighborhood known as the Island of Widows because so many men (an estimated 20,000) have died from kidney failure related to sugar cane harvesting.

In addition, “Health and Survival” does not take into account other indicators of feminine health, such as domestic violence and abuse and teenage pregnancy. This is a methodological choice on the part of the index creators. They want to capture gaps between the sexes, and these factors are not subject to gaps – men simply cannot get pregnant, and there are no data collected on domestic violence and abuse against men in Nicaragua (or most countries). Nevertheless, Nicaragua has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Central America. One in four new mothers are under 18 years old. This leads to health complications for the young women, plus lower educational attainment and lifelong economic dependency on providers, who very well may be the abusive men who got them pregnant in the first place. Domestic violence and abuse is also prevalent in Nicaragua due to the machismo culture. The psychological element of this abuse leads directly to political disenfranchisement.

Overall, I would take the index results with a grain of salt. Methodologically, the index omits a number of important variables to capture the type of data it is selectively looking for. In addition, by averaging the four categories evenly, the index implicitly assumes that economics, health, educations, and political participation are all ends in and of themselves, but many would consider economic participation and health as the ends, with educations and political participation being the means. And lastly, the unreliable nature of data collection and dissemination in Nicaragua makes me suspect of the statistics and results compiled for the index in the first place.

So culture can in fact affect the development path of a nation, if an exclusive culture (such as machismo) becomes institutionalized.

Sources:

http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/economies/#economy=NIC

http://www.economist.com/news/economic-and-financial-indicators/21629478-gender-equality

http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2015/04/22/nacionales/1819357-increibles-datos-en-matricula-increibles-datos-en-matricula

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/09/world/americas/deadly-illness-in-nicaragua-baffles-experts.html

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