One year ago today…

June 29, 2010

After spending a day buried deep in writing about the political and economic history of Honduras for my thesis, the last thing I really feel like doing this evening is more writing.  And yet as the sun sets in NZ and rises on Honduras on June 28 2010, I want to add my two cents (lempiras?) worth to the discussion surrounding the one year anniversary of the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, and which is still not over. Not that I would really characterise it as a conversation, with the two sides still firmly entrenched and with such different and conflicting narratives as this and this.

One year ago we had just arrived in Honduras for nine months of graduate research for my PhD.  While I was well-versed in development theory, and somewhat familiar with the Honduran context I had limited understanding of Honduran politics – after all, I was studying grassroots development and ICT, not political science (although my Honduran husband majored in politics).  Over the next few months I had a crash course, reading all I could from both sides and talking with people on both sides of the divide (often to the detriment of my field research work).

Because I felt unqualified to comment, and because I was worried about my research community (mostly pro-coup) I didn’t write much about the coup for a while.  But it didn’t take long for me to figure out some key truths about who was doing the talking, although I have to confess to becoming heartily sick of the use of the word truth, which was manipulated in many ways in the months following the coup. Eventually, with some trepidation, I came out as resistencia. My reasons for doing so still stand, and another nine months of reading and research have only strengthened my support. In fact nine months after I wrote that post have strongly reinforced the final reason I gave in that most – that this was a clearly a coup to protect the status quo, not for change.

This is something that had really struck me as have been writing the Honduras background information for my thesis. Coups, constitutional manipulations, the use and misuse of power by oligarchs, the business community and the military, corruption, international meddling… there ‘s really nothing new under the Honduran sun (including the names of those involved). Understanding the history of Honduras places so much of what happened last year into context. The coup of 2009 is easily seen as one more attempt by the Honduran ruling elite to maintain their own position, to protect the interests of big business and ensure Honduras remains on a neo-liberal path, following the same policies that have lead to the dire poverty and inequality we see in Honduras today. And so in 2010, under the un-democratically elected Porfirio Lobo, it is literally ‘business as usual’.

But something is different this time. Zelaya may be gone but the events of 28 June 2009 were the spark that ignited a new force for change.  The coup has bought together labour unions, campesino and indigenous groups, womens groups, LGBT groups, academics… Hondurans from across the social spectrum, in a peaceful effort to ‘re-found’ Honduras. The traditional media and the coup supporters may sneer and label them misinformed agitators and haters, but I believe they misunderstand and underestimate the resistencia, the emergence of which is something of huge historical significance in Honduras (although given the human rights abuses directed at the resistencia I suspect the government understands this significance!).

I might not be Honduran, or even in Honduras at this time, but I know with whom I stand this June 28. Not next to the powerful, but with the poor, the indigenous, the disabled, the women and children who have been left behind by Honduran economic ‘development’ time and time again. I do not know what the future will bring, but I do hope that the historical cycle will not continue to repeat and that one day, soon, real change will come to Honduras. The resistencia might not be perfect, but I see more hope there than with any amount of international development aid.



March 23, 2010

Some quotes that are inspiring me as I start the writing journey:

Might it be possible to use other scholarly skills, including the ability to tell a story that both acknowledges imperial power and leaves room for possibility?
-Anna Tsing (Friction, 2005, p267)

What if we were to accept that the goal of theory is not to extend knowledge by confirming what we already know, that the world is a place of economic domination, conflict and oppression? What if we asked theory instead to help us see openings, to enable us to find happiness, to provide a space of freedom and possibility?
-J.K. Gibson-Graham, (A Postcapitalist Politics, 2006 p7)

In a time so widely understood by Hondurans to be one of desperation, it is my hope that they will have full support from one another and from those of us who cannot claim to understand Honduran habitus but who find ourselves struggling against the same agents of violence… it may be unstable but our compassion must not wither.
-Adrienne Pine (Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, 2008, p203)

From my research blog:

Hi from New Zealand! We have been back in New Zealand for a month now, have settled in our new home and are now well immersed back into the university routine so it really is about time I posted here. Because I have been busy with travel, moving and settling in work on my thesis has slowed to a snail pace but there are a few things I should catch you up on.

After leaving Honduras in early February I participated in the Doctoral Colloquium at the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conference in Savannah, Georgia. It was a very interesting experience, which reinforced the relevance of my study. In the midst of a sea of brand new applications and web tools, the more than ten years of experience the network I am studying has was of great interest to many. While I went there to learn more about CSCW and computing, I found that I spent a lot of my time sharing what I have learned. As there seemed to be a lot of interest I am currently thinking about expanding my presentation into a journal article.

While there is much I could write (and will write) about the computing aspects of this study, this is a development studies thesis, and my interest is evolving well beyond the internet networking. The network founder uses the term ‘human capital’ to refer to people’s “time, energy, expertise, experience, talent, and contacts”. As I continue my analysis and start writing it is the people and organisations within the network and what they are saying and doing that is capturing more and more of my attention. I’m also interested in the philosophy of the network (constructive, positive and apolitical) and how people in the network interpret and work within that space, and how this all interrelates as a model for development.

So onwards I go. I am still trying to finish up some last minute interviews via the internet, and working on transcribing and coding those that I have completed. Within the next few weeks I hope to finally start putting some words on paper (or at least on the screen) and starting to write. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Sunday Reader #3

February 1, 2010

Opps, I’ve missed a week already.  Bad internet and general busy-ness as I prepare to leave Honduras (this week!) are my excuses.  Next week I’ll be at a conference in Savannah so I will probably miss another one, but should be back more regularly once we are back in NZ.  In the meantime here are some of the issues I’ve been following and other random internet goodness for you to pick through.


The big news in Honduras this week was the inauguration of Porfirio Lobo as President.  The coup “de facto” government is gone!  I wanted to write a whole post on this but just don’t have the time.  Maybe once I get back to NZ I will, but for now here are some photos by Honduras e logo ali of the procession to the airport to farewell Zelaya.  The march was completely peaceful – maybe because the military left them well alone.

Not related to the inauguration, but directly connected to the coup is a feature in the NYT lens blog of Pablo Delano’s photographs.  In 1997 Delano, a professory of Fine Arts, started a project to document the varied ethnic groups in Honduras.  His work was unfortunately cut short when his collaborator and patron in the government Darío A. Euraque was ousted by the coup leaders. The photos are stunning and a testament to the beautiful diversity of Honduras.


The internet continues to buzz with posts about how to help Haiti.  And aid workers continue to try to draw attention to how not to help.  This story and this one remind us why despite the best of motives and intention, for most going to Haiti is just not the best way to help.  For those determined to go, Saundra has some tips on how to evaluate volunteer opportunities in Haiti.

While campaigns to cancel Haitis debt heat up across the web, Venezuela is amongst the first to actually do so.

Other random stuff:

Julie Clawson has an interesting post up on walking the justice walk.  Long before any crisis of faith, I had a crisis of confidence in the church. This is why.

PhD comics neatly sum up my feelings about my thesis work at the moment.

And finally this photo from Wellington Daily Photo reminds me of why it is time to go home. Summer in my city.

By now much of the world will be aware that there is chaos in Honduras right now. Exiled President Manuel Zelaya has found his way back to Tegucigalpa and is holed up at the Brazilian Embassy.  The interim / defacto / golpista government has responded with what seems to be to be alarming overkill, breaking up protests, shutting airports and borders and putting the entire country under a 24 hour curfew.  While this is supposedly for the protection of the citizens, those same citizens are suffering as people can’t work and can’t get food. Businesses are suffering.

News reports are conflicting.  TV and radio stations have been intermittently shut down leaving those without internet access to get news (propganda?) from those supportive of the current government. Depending on the news source, there have either been no deaths or hundreds; the violence is the result of the raging protesters, or the provocation of the police and army; the vandalism is the work of the pro-Mel groups or a set-up by the golpistas.  Who knows.  I suspect the truth is in the middle somewhere but it is very hard to get an honest report here.  What I do know is that the whole situation is causing significant suffering for the ordinary people here, and the longer the power-hungry leaders in Tegucigalpa continue to refuse to negotiate properly, the more they will suffer and that breaks my heart.

Personally, the situation is causing some difficulties.  I am supposed to be at the conference on Honduras starting tomorrow, and I will, but it has been shortened and will be small as conferees may not be able to get here.  Luckily we came early, before the return of Zelaya, as my sister was visiting and we wanted to chow her Copan.  However it wasn’t so lucky for her as she arrived in San Pedro Sula to catch her flight home just as all airports were closed.  She is still in SPS, holed up in a guesthouse and waiting for the first plane out.

Here in Copan the streets are quiet, but the curfew has not been enforced so we are able to get out and about (and I am able to do my work and blogging from a sun-drenched rooftop cafe!).  I am enjoying the relaxed pace here, and the personal and cheerful service from businesses who are so grateful for my custom, but I would far rather things returned to normal as quickly as possible.  Honduras, and Hondurans, can’t afford this shut-down.

Mille feuille

August 13, 2009

My academic supervisor just suggested my latest theoretical analogy reminded her of mille feuille. Apart from the fact that it makes me really want to eat something sweet and custardy (and I’m highly unlikely to find anything like that around here), I think the idea of envisaging theoretical ideas as food is great.  It means I can combine two of my favourite things – theorising and eating.

Actually that is probably something I do really well already.  My recent research trip to the North Coast and Roatan was characterised both by very interesting interviews and discussions, and by great food – fresh fried fish and tajadas, chorizo, many many baleadas and yummy tropical fruit.  Some of my best research conversations have happened over food, both in restaurants and homes. I’m not sure what it is about sharing food that encourages good discussions (I wonder if anyone has research that yet – now that would be fun research to do!), but it does seem to work that way.   It doesn’t take much of a step from there to start making theory from the mix of food and ideas.

The trip wasn’t all work and eating.  I managed to have a lovely mini-holiday on the beach in Roatan with my family.  While there we were able to stay a little more up-market than we normally would, the political crisis and travel advisories have succeeded in significantly reducing the number of tourists arriving, and hotel prices have been slashed as a result.  Not good for business (and I do feel for the hoteliers) but nice for us.  We swam, watched dolphin shows and lay in the hammock and just relaxed.

Now I am back at my desk with a pile of notes and a voice recorder full of interesting interviews.  But this time I’m not the only one who was at ‘school’ – my little big girl is now a big school girl.  Well, almost, she’s a big pre-k (preschool) girl, and today was her first day.  She loved it.

All round, life is going well.  The research is progressing.  I am enjoying living here, and my family is happy.  All I need now is a slice of mille feuille and all will be perfect.

We made it to La Ceiba!

July 27, 2009

This is a long planned research trip which had been delayed due to the ongoing political crisis.  Given that things had been more or less normal and I needed to get on and get some research work done, we decided earlier this week to just go.  Of course, as soon as I had made the plans, booked accomodation and scheduled interview appointments we were warned that the unions and pro-Zalaya faction were organising strikes and roadblocks for later in the week. After a very late night on Tuesday revewing our plans we finally decided to go Wednesday and attempt to get all the way to La Ceiba before the strikes started on Thursday, a decision helped by a changed interview date in the SPS area (we had planned to stop there for a night or two en route).

It proved to be a good decision – we made it and did avoid some disruption on Thursday – but also a bad one, it was a looong trip with a small child and very tiring – it took us 9 hours of driving, 100km of road works, one forced detour through the countryside, 2 broken bridges, 2.5 meal breaks and 5 toilet stops before we finally made it to La Ceiba. But it was good to get the North Coast, and get started on the business of this trip, gathering data for my research.

Of course it’s not all work.  Today we took a drive to Sambo Creek, where we ate seafood, and my daughter was able to have her first splash in the Caribbean.  She as convinced it would be cold (and that there might be sharks!) but it didn’t take her long to realise it was not a kiwi beach… it was nice and warm and only a light shade of brown (lots of rain here yesterday). In the next few days we’ll be sailing over that water to Roatan, where she and her Dad can spend all the time they want in clear blue water, while I keep working (ok, yes I’m sure I’ll have a few swims myself!).

We are of course watching the political situation carefully.  At the moment all the action is near the Nicaraguan border at Las Manos, ironically not too far from our little casa on the hillside but far away from where we are now.  I think we made the right decision after all.

While I should really be planning interviews, transcribing or otherwise engaged with my research work, I’ve been distracted this morning by a foray into the world of aid worker blogs, and specifically an ongoing conversation about the role, or non-role, of expatriate volunteers in aid projects.  This is a topic I have a great interest in – being central to both my Masters and PhD research, and to my own experience as a wanna-be volunteer.

It started with a single tweet from @SarahMDC:   “Good dig at some of the muky issues surrounding international dev #volunteers + volunteer projects“.  The link is to Tales From the Hood, and the post is the final in a series on international volunteers.  I found myself nodding in agreement with the post as it reflected my own academic scepticism of international volunteers, particilarly short term ones.  It set me thinking once again about my reasons for pursuing post-graduate study in development, and for choosing my research topic.

Here’s an abridged excerpt from some work I did last year on international volunteering:

Despite mounting evidence of the altruistic nature, and global popularity of international volunteering, I remained in a critical frame of mind.  Much of the literature surrounding volunteering for development is explicitly positive, identifying it is something that can potentially shape such new thinking and help to ‘humanise’ globalisation (Lewis, 2005, p. 15).  However I was reading with the eyes of a cynic, and found that not only was it easy to find literature that highlighted the problems with international volunteering, it seemed the critiques overshadowed the positivity.

The first criticism is the related to altruism.  While volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity, in most cases there is considerable benefit to the volunteer, perhaps even more than to the community or hosts.  Benefits to the volunteer include personal development, enhanced career prospects, friendship and adventure . This criticism is strengthened by the lack of research on the impacts on communities, who arguably may in fact be adversely affected as they spend time, energy and resources to accommodate the volunteer. This argument is particularly directed at volunteer tourism, where programmes may be explicitly developed for, or marketed to tourists rather than being developed from and for the community to be served.

In addition to this, while one of the purported benefits of international volunteering is the development of cross-cultural appreciation and understanding, research suggests that it may actually have the reverse effect, reinforcing stereotypes and actively promoting an image of a ‘third world other’ that is dominated an ‘us and them’ mindset…  The ‘us and them’ mentality is reinforced by the inherent inequality of the volunteer experience, where “the processes that allow young westerners to access the financial resources, and moral imperatives, necessary to travel and volunteer in a ‘third world country’, are the same as the ones that make the reverse process almost impossible” (Simpson, 2004).

International volunteering is also criticised as the volunteers come from outside the host community, with limited skills, experience, and understanding of the local context.  My research on short term, volunteer medical missions was very critical on this point, arguing that language and cultural differences, inadequate resources and time, and a lack of local knowledge significantly limits what the volunteers could do and often results in poor medical care.  (Other studies have found that short term volunteers programmes may) encourage the (false) view that development is a simple matter, and something which can be ‘done’ by non-skilled, but enthusiastic volunteer-tourists.

Another criticism is that international volunteering cultivates dependency.  A host community may become dependent on volunteers and voluntary programmes when these are promoted at the expense of longer term or community driven initiatives.  Dependency is also fostered when volunteers undermine the dignity of communities with handouts.  In addition Western volunteers can be seen as ‘modelling’ a lifestyle of cultural and material values that may be inappropriate, and which promotes modernisation, or development as westernisation.

All of these are reflected in the significant criticism of neo-colonialism.  This criticism… is reinforced by claims that volunteer programmes are built on the structures of colonialism (Smith & Elkin, 1980), use developing countries as training grounds for future professionals (Raymond & Hall, 2008) and are modelling a Western way of living (Roberts; Simpson, 2004).  At it’s extreme, is the argument that international volunteers are a form of Northern imperialism, as their activities boost Northern Government interests rather than tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice (Devereux, 2008).

This excerpt is part of a larger piece that explores both the positive and critical literature on international volunteering, and expands on the ideas as they apply to my research (probably not so interesting to blog readers!). It ends on a more hopeful note, one that is looking forward, looking for ways in which the passion and skills of wanna-be volunteers  (like myself 10 years ago) can be harnessed in ways that are mutually beneficial and constructive; and in which Westeners can learn about the reality of life in other parts of the world in way that break down rather than reinforce stereotypes.  I find it interesting that this is actually the starting place for the series from Tales From the Hood:

Appropriate, structured cultural exchange can be a very positive thing.This, I think, is an important starting place…  We blame lack of having traveled and lack of awareness and understanding of international issues for everything from Third World Poverty to the fact the George W. Bush initiated the Iraq war. But then, when someone has the idea of taking some ordinary citizens from “here” and letting them see what it’s like “over there”, we’re very quick to pick them apart for that. And perhaps in some cases, rightly so. But we ourselves offer no alternatives.

We need an accepted mechanism for exposing aid-work-outsiders. Our work is critical. It is (or should be) making a difference…
But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.

I guess I have taken this as my challenge.  I’m not sure whether my PhD study will find any definitive answers (actually I’m quite sure it won’t) but I know the questions will continue to haunt me in my future career, be it academic or in practice.

For now I really need to get back to work.  There will be no answers without actually doing some research.

Some other good posts on the issue:
Good intentions are not enough (series on guidelines for international volunteers)
Aid Watch

Next post – back to the non-drama of living and doing research during a (non-?) coup!

CasitaAfter a month of organising, packing, travelling, holidaying (vacationing) and settling in we are now officially, properly here in Honduras.  This trip is a little different to our past visits here. We have a home, I have an office, and we are working on getting a car. Simply having a home base and a kitchen makes life in Honduras a lot easier, and we feel we have hit the jackpot with our little casita (pictured).

We found the house through a client of a friend of ours here last year.  At the time we looked at it last year it was an empty concrete shell which the owner was planning to finish and furnish for rental.  We took a risk agreeing to rent it before seeing the final result but we are very pleased.  It is slightly upgraded traditional Honduran style – tile floors, painted concrete walls, concrete kitchen and cold running water.  But it is comfortably furnished, has a coffee maker and hot shower (shower head water heater) so I’m happy.  It also helps that it is on a small farm surrounded by mango, orange, lemon, mandarin and avocado trees, and banana, coffee and corn.  It is very quiet ( a small miracle in Honduras), very safe and absolutely beautiful. The only problem at the moment is transportation, we are reliant on others for rides or it is a long walk to the main road for buses.  Hopefully in the next week or so we will find a car, and we’ll be properly mobile again.

We have arrived here in Honduras just in time for the big news of the year, that is of course the (rumoured? currently underway? attempted?) coup in Tegucigalpa.  I’m not going to go into detail in this post (that would be a whole post of it’s own… La Gringa has a good one here), my feeling is that while I can’t really see any sort of good outcome for the Honduran people, I also do not think it will escalate into the kind of violence seen in this region in the past.  We are very safe where we are, all is quiet and life goes on as normal.

While mindful of the potential for civic and political unrest, I am continuing with my research plans.  I am lucky enough to have been offered office space at a nearby (and respected) university, and am making the most of both the facilities and the contacts.  Over the next few weeks I will be meeting with people around here and in Tegucigalpa, then in late July will be taking the family to the North Coast for another round of interviews and a few days on the beach in Roatan. Apparently fieldwork is supposed to be rough and challenging but political instability aside, so far I think I’m going to enjoy the next few months.

Mama, PhD

May 30, 2009

mamaphdNext week I am off to Honduras to do my research fieldwork.  Although I am crazy busy at the moment  juggling home and research preparations, I thought it would be a good time to review Mama, PhD, an anthology of essays by academic Mums (actually Moms, they’re all US Americans).  

I bought the book last year, having followed the Mama, PhD blog for a while, looking for some insights into how others have managed the precarious balancing act that is being a mother and being an academic.  And a precarious act it certainly seems to be. The overwhelming impression I came away with was that maintaining both a family and an academic position is hugely challenging, and at in some cases the two are simply incompatable.  This was neatly summed up by my sister, who is neither an academic nor a mother, after I caught her reading the book and teased her about it.  She laughed and commented that it was kind of like watching a road crash.  It’s often horrific, but you just can’t look away. 

I couldn’t look away either, the writing is compelling with a mix of humor, emotion and insight.  It lays bare the patriarchy of academia, and the reality of work in an environment that seems to still be adjusting to the presence of women.  Over and over the contributors write of the difficulty getting sufficient maternity leave and the lack of childcare facilities.  They also write of the need to disconnect themselves from mothering when at work, of being ignored or worse by collegues, and of missed opportunities and compromises made.  In Scholar, Negated Jessica Smart Gullion writes of how her Sociology department, her “feminist enclave”, attempted to kick her out because she was pregnant.  The reality of the institution seems to override the rhetoric of feminism and equal opportunity. 

Fortunately for me, this has not been my experience so far.  Maybe I have drawn the lucky straw when it came to choosing a university.  Or maybe New Zealand universities are ahead of the US in thier approach to motherhood. I think mostly I have had the great fortune of having supervisors (advisors) who are both mothers, and of being surrounded by an awesome community of female staff and students.  When my husband wasn’t well last week, I had no hesitation in taking my daughter with me to campus.  She sat though an hour long presentation quietly with her crayons and books, but even if she had been disruptive I know the rest of the room (all bar one also Mums) would have been fully understanding.  My daughter knows her way to my office at the “versity”, knows several of the staff and students, and is always made a fuss of when she drops in for a visit.  Conversations over lunch range comfortably from post-structural analyses of development theory to toilet training techniques. And if I am late turning in work or unable to attend a meeting the excuse my daughter is sick is perfectly acceptable.

I do share with the contributors to Mama, PhD a frustration in finding enough time to give to my PhD and to my daughter.  I know the guilt associated with leaving my child in the care of others 4-5 days per week.  I am enormously grateful for on-campus childcare, government subsidies to pay for that childcare, and that my daughter loves her childcare centre, but I still wallow in guilt at times, especially after a visit to stay-at-home Mum friends with perfect (and clean!) homes and home-cooked meals every night. While this frustration and guilt is not unique to academia, Mama, PhD has made me more aware of the peculiarities of academic work, and how motherhood impinges on that – such as the need to be intellectual, and to have space to think.

While many of the contibutors have negotiated, or are successfully negotiating an academic career while rasing a family, many have also left academia or gone to ‘non-traditional’ jobs.  It is abundantly clear from reading Mama, PhD that if the academic community wants to attract and retain great teachers and researchers, they need to address the issue of patriarchal and outdated systems that make motherhood and academic life so difficult for many.  This is I believe the strength of the book.  While it is an interesting read (with plenty of laughs thrown in – anyone game to let undergraduate males choose thier child’s name?), it is the underlying commentary on the institution of academia that is most powerful – and necessary.  

After reading some of the essays my sister has no desire to become an academic or a mum.  I on the other hand continue to have no regrets about either.  Reading Mama, PhD has opened my eyes to both the wider community of Mums in academia and the challenges they face, and to the potential pitfalls and challenges I may have to face in the future.  Here’s hoping that whereever  find myself working I will continue to feel the same support I do now.  If not, at least I know I will not be alone.