There are levels of poverty in this world. Indexes from development organisations, the World Bank, Caritas Internationalis and the International Red Cross might give some idea of the statistical reality of the world´s poorest nations.
On a more intimate level, living in a poor country gives an insider view.
Poverty isn’t uniform.
It would be easy to solve world poverty if it were simply a matter of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The world’s resources theoretically are sufficient to do that.
Political will and genuine human concern is the biggest challenge, and it is being acted out in a bizarre theatrical slow-motion movie here in the small country of Paraguay.
It wouldn’t ordinarily be a big deal to cancel a class once in a while, knowing that if the teacher is away, things would proceed as normal the following week or day. It wouldn’t usually be a big deal if a workshop was cancelled for a week, or moved to a different location. In countries like Paraguay however, it means a certain death.
In these four weeks, one could say I’ve done nothing. As someone whose diary says that I should have been teaching for around 30 hours this week, I have spectacularly failed.
I have not given one class. I have shown up in the said locations, but found no students. It’s not that they are no longer interested, it’s that their houses are under water. Some haven’t moved more than 100 metres down the road, but everything changes.
The address for over 60,000 of Asuncion’s one million or so poorest residents has changed for the time being, and it has disrupted everything. Instead of an organised process which allows access to resources, schools, emergency supplies and shelter, the whole effort is a mismatch, and is characteristic of why countries like Paraguay, and in particular its poor, remain desperately grasping to survive.
Poverty is not just a simple equation that says anyone who doesn’t have water to bathe in or food to eat is poor and those who do aren’t.
It’s not simply a matter of people having enough money to buy building materials to construct temporary houses being rich or those who rely on charitable foundations being poor.
In a light moment last week, I enjoyed watching a family mounting an antenna on top of their cardboard house to watch the world cup, and we giggled and teased them about the electricity….but soon we realised that this wasn’t a laughing matter. This is all they have. Literally, they were borrowing a little electricity to be able to watch something that would be their only relief from the deep reality that their house is now underwater and everything they worked so hard for is unsalvageable.
Here, the lack of education is the greatest poverty. Ingrained, complacent, ignorant attitudes, frequently of the very richest of people are common, and yet their ignorance is causing havoc for the materially poor. In Paraguay, by their fruits they are becoming known.
The stark relief of watching people known to me, and the levels at which they choose to enter into the lives of the “damnificados” has been a lesson. The poorer the people here, the more likely they are to be found knee deep in mud and water, giving some rice, a jumper, donating a mattress or carrying hundreds of heavy pieces of steel to build houses. The poor are more likely to don their gumboots and three-dollar raincoat and jump in a canoe to carry food to those who are unable to leave.
The richer of my acquaintances denounce what is happening from afar. They might make an impassioned plea on social media, but yet never descend from their new vehicles to the areas where they are most needed.
I know people with the resources to argue the cases of people being forcibly removed from unused land, who instead stay in their houses, lamenting the rain and using it as a sound excuse for not jumping into the car to carry some food to the hungry.
Paraguay is a poor country. Most development agencies don’t favour the words “third world”, and neither do I, so let’s say that Paraguay is a country in development, and in many ways it is. The rate of development since I first lived here in 2008 is impressive. But, nothing has changed in the corruption or the standard of living of the poorest, if anything, they are poorer. The socioeconomic issues of this country continue. The rich are very rich. The poor are spread across hundreds of economic levels. The middle class virtually don’t exist.
The class system is alive and well. In Middle Asuncion around the shopping malls Mariscal López and Shopping del Sol one could easily imagine themselves in a progressive Latin nation. It could be Argentina, Chile even Spain at a pinch.
This is all taken apart in the comical song “La Chuchi” by Paraguayan musician Maneco Galeano, written in the 1980s and still used as a way of illustrating the classism which prevails. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ1q0I4bWac)
The class system becomes particularly stark in moments of national emergency such as what the country is living. The president magnate Horacio Cartes trotted off to the inauguration of the World Cup, while half of Asuncion’s poorest barrios were under water. Politicised attempts at relief have included printing Colorado (the ruling conservative party) slogans on the side of water bottles to give to the “damnificados” (people affected by the floods) and photo opportunities of the president visiting Banado Sur.
And let’s not even speak of Banado Norte, which is a smaller, yet less organised barrio than Banado Sur. Its lack of organisation means it has less resources, and less channels to seek help. An entire school has been underwater and uninhabitable for four weeks, and the only organisations who seem to care are a scattered number of Catholic NGOs and active religious congregations.
The state of Paraguay is playing Pontius Pilate. The state have washed their hands of the rising water and the irony is not lost. Facebook statuses regularly decry the incredible solidarity of the people and the total and complete absence of the government.
And, in a deeply Catholic country like this one, they must know that playing Pontius Pilate is a dangerous game.