Monday, February 2, 2009

Trickle down poverty

Posted by Terry McNichols

On my recent trip to El Salvador, I was struck by the trickle-down effect that the economic crisis in the United States is having on poorer countries. Our consumption-driven lives over the past years of a bullish economy have given the poorer countries a false sense of security. Our willingness to spend money, rather than save and be prudent, has given work to the poorer economies. They have built factories to supply our extravagant desires. I remember seeing a shirt at REI that I considered purchasing for my first trip to El Salvador. It was just what I wanted for keeping cool in the very hot climate and for protecting myself from the blazing sun. However, when I looked at the $45 price tag and noticed that it was "hecho en El Salvador," I couldn't bring myself to buy it. Don't get me wrong. I still bought a similar shirt for the trip, I just made sure it was made in China! Certainly this was misplaced angst, but somehow it bothered me to wear my expensive locally-made shirt to visit the poor.

I was aware that several family members of our villagers were working in the United States and sending remesas (remittances) back to El Salvador to support their families. These families have been using this money to pay off their land loan. On this visit, however, we were struck by the worries that those families now have, as their loved ones can no longer find work and can no longer send the money. In addition, those loved ones cannot afford the pricey plane ticket to return to the village. They are stuck in limbo, here in the U.S. Last week's Seattle Times has an article discussing the impact of this problem on Mexico, as well as throughout the world. Remesas comprise 14% of the Gross Domestic Product of El Salvador and this is considered a very large percentage. Mexico's percentage is below 4%, yet still there is a huge impact. However, the same article cites Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, as having 40% of their GDP based on remittances. There is a mass exodus of guest workers throughout Europe, as well as the United States, finding their way back home, where there are even fewer jobs.

Once again, I quote Margaret Mead, from last week's post, and hope that I have indeed grown wiser and more able to scrutinize my own culture.
As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own. --Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1901-1978)

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