Saturday, October 24, 2009

Update on my research

The contacts I made a year ago (and originally three years before then) have come through in an amazing way. My wife, six-month-old son, and I were permitted to stay in the center of Divina Providencia (the focus of my investigation) and only a few miles from my other site, Ciudad España. Although living in the center of town sounds ideal for ethnographic research, the loud honking buses, the kindergarten in the backyard, and adult night classes all contributed to a crabby baby and cranky parents. Fortunately, we were able to move four hundred yards down the road to a small home where four Catholic nuns had lived. Tranquilo would be about the best word to describe the new place and we all sleep better hearing the lapping of the river rather than the roaring of engines. Fundación Cristo del Picacho, the organization that is sponsoring our stay, has been extremely supportive of my work, especially after I presented a PowerPoint presentation to the board of directors. They have given me full access to all of their documents, their phone numbers for future interviews, and an open timeframe to stay. However, to be clear about my role and personal boundaries I have explained to them that my investigation will illustrate the positive and negative of their organization and their community development efforts in comparison to that of two or three other non-governmental organizations and communities. I am very aware how living in one community and being supported in this way by one NGO could affect my objectivity. I plan to continually be self-reflexive on how these factors influence my judgment. As a show of respect both for the community and the Fundación I volunteered to put on a soccer tournament for the community children as well as present my initial conclusions to the Fundación board before I leave.
Two other institutions (The Red Cross of Honduras and CESAL[a Spanish development NGO]) have also been extremely generous with their time and their documents as I continue to learn about the trajectory of each post-disaster community as well as their role in shaping (or not) the culture, politics, and social control mechanisms within the community. I have interviewed a number of major actors within each organization and have gathered a number of their documents including previous studies which will enable me to highlight changes over time. Similar to my promise to the Fundación, I have discussed with the Red Cross staff and CESAL about putting on a second valley-wide tournament for adults. I also committed to presenting to both organizations my findings at the end of my stay.
The support I have received from these organizations has encouraged me to expand my study from two to four communities. This is an exciting prospect as it will give greater depth and variance to my initial project. With funds given by the SSRC, I have hired one assistant and will hire three university students who will help me conduct an ambitious 600 surveys across three communities. Currently, my assistant is compiling a dataset of all of the crimes in each community, the first of its kind in the valley. This will help me compare delinquency across communities over time as well as benefit law enforcement by illustrating when and where the most common crimes occur. The surveys will cover attitudes, opinions, and important demographics enabling me to make causal inferences about the effects of NGO practices.
Outside of my research agenda I have engaged with the community on different levels and in different ways. Most prominently, having a six month-old child has offered excellent entrée into the lives of families in Divina Providencia. A child provides instant rapport providing something significant to talk, complain, laugh, and joke about. In addition, participating in community events, playing soccer with the kids and adults, eating at the local street stalls and being visible in all of the neighborhoods has gained me the trust of many community members. I have also been interviewed for a national TV show about my experience in Divina Providencia as well as my research.
The difficulties I have run into have been on the national level, especially the political drama surrounding the ousting and return of President Mel Zelaya. A strict curfew, a closed embassy, major strikes, protests, highways that are shut down, and a highly divided populace have created some hurdles to connecting with interviewees and obtaining necessary documents. It has also put me in an awkward position vis a vis my opinion about the current situation. When asked I usually respond with a white lie about not knowing enough about each side’s argument to judge. While this protects my position in the community, I am not used to hiding my political opinion.
In contrast to the difficulties I have found that my project will be both practically and theoretically useful. Practically, as I compare four post-disaster communities I am learning about best practices by NGOs and how organizations and communities work together. My investigation also shows how trauma must be dealt with by the NGO and the critical “moment” of the first year in creating a new community culture. Theoretically, many of the common development strategies useful in non-disaster settings are not applicable or have the opposite effect in post-disaster communities. In addition, my initial impression is that particular relationships between NGOs and communities have counter-intuitive relationships. Paternalistic NGOs rather than more “solidarity” oriented NGOs seemed to have more success in creating social control mechanisms. However, these are still preliminary assertions.
On a different note, a last second goal by the U.S. national soccer team against Costa Rica promoted Honduras to the World Cup for only the second time in the country’s history. I became a local hero with pats on the back and handshakes for this even though I had nothing to do with it. I have taken the opportunity to celebrate with the country—indeed, a nation that is in need of some hope and optimism with the political crisis, economic recession, and increasing social problems, especially crime.

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