Monday, March 8, 2010

Battle of Who Could Care Less

Apathy is a plague on democracies everywhere. In the US, despite a supposed civic responsibility, many people do not vote at all, even in national elections, never mind small local elections. In other countries, voting is obligatory, though this hardly ensures that participants are well-informed about the candidates and the issues. Here in rural Peru, civic participation is something different entirely, though I don’t think they’ve perfected it either. A range of important functions are served by elected, sometimes unpaid officials: “purification” (a rather ineffective chlorination) and maintenance of the water system, collection of payment for electricity, and distribution of milk to mothers with young children through the program “Vaso de Leche,” to name a few. However, the degree to which the officials perform their functions varies wildly from person to person. In one of my casarĂ­os the president of the committee for maintenance and purification of the water system quit to devote herself to her upcoming huayno music video, in other community the president of Vaso de Leche said she would happily be president but would refuse to sign any document, leaving the mothers without their government milk-subsidy.
This leads me to how positions are chosen: election is probably the wrong word, something akin to “getting suckered into it” would be more accurate. Watching an election of an APAFA position is hilarious—or would be, if it weren’t a bit sad. Every person nominated gives a fervent speech about why they can’t possibly serve, and every person has the same reasons: they are too busy; they need to cook; they need to work in the fields and so on. Finally some rube ends up with the responsibility, a two year position, and, depending on the person, will either suck it up and do a good job, or slack off and leave their community with unclean water, a school director that robs them blind, or no representation in the local government.
Yesterday I participated (ie: listened to 2 ½ hours of arguing in quechwa) in a meeting that the committee for the water system held in one small casarĂ­o. A representative from each household was required to come. While calling the meeting, over the community’s loudspeaker system, the committee explicitly threatened to cut off the water of any household that did not attend. Even with this looming threat, the president, vice president, and treasurer of the same committee did not show their faces.
One of our goals, as health volunteers with Peace Corps Peru, is to encourage leadership and strengthen local organizations. Faced with such deep-set apathy, I don’t know where to begin. In a way, it is no different than in the US, but the consequences here, in communities where having slightly safer drinking water depends on someone doing chlorination by hand each month, having milk to drink depends on someone following the procedure at the municipality each month, and any improvement in the community only comes after explicit and time-consuming proposals to the municipality, are far more severe. I suspect that people know this, and feel like a jerk when I point it out. The positive part of this demanding civic participation is that when faced with a slightly more responsible and energetic official, things do change. There are opportunities. Currently I am working in several communities that are blessed with one or two people like that, and we are proposing projects of latrines, water system improvement and libraries to NGOs and local government. Despite my general disenchantment with the system, I am excited about the possibilities.

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