While indigenous people make up nearly half the population in Guatemala, 76% still live below the poverty line.


While indigenous people make up nearly half the population in Guatemala, 76% still live below the poverty line.

Naming is claiming, and claiming a place in the digital world is seen by many as an important step for cultural inclusion and community development. More exciting than the evolution of the word “e-mail,” then, is that of taqoqxa’n pa kematz’ib’, its K’iche’ counterpart.

Asociación Ajb’atz’ Enlace Quiche’, an organization located in Quiche, Guatemala, has been at work this last decade to increase indigenous Maya groups’ access to and command of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The organization explains its intentions: to persist in “the educational labor to teach with computers and not about computers, contributing to the development of Quiche, of Guatemala, and of indigenous peoples in the whole world.” One way that Ajb’atz’ Enlace Quiche’ has worked to bring K’iche’ speakers to ICTs and, more so, bring ICTs to K’iche’ speakers, is to formalize a long list of technology-related vocabulary in the native language. The group worked with linguists and advocates, including members of Academia de Lenguas Mayas, Fundación Rigoberta Menchú, and Universidad de San Carlos, to create 28 new terms and agree on some 500 existing words and phrases to be resocialized. And from this collaborative effort is born the word k’atchak, meaning “network.”

(Source: )

A Roof for Guatemala

Another inspiring story about the power of students occurred this week when 850 volunteers from 19 countries banded together to build 100 homes over three days in Guatemala.

Between August 26-28th, members of the non-profit Un Techo para mi Pais (UTPMP), A Roof for my Country, built 100 transitional homes in the San Miguel and Las Lomas communities. These homes were built for families living in extreme poverty and with this accomplishment UTPMP has built over 1500 homes in Guatemala.

Members of UTPMP come from universities across 19 Latin American countries. Their mission is to work with residents of impoverished communities to build emergency housing and carry out social empowerment programs to improve quality of life. UTPMP’s vision is to create a Guatemala without extreme poverty.

Like Roots and Wings, UTPMP believes in sustainable development that is guided and carried out by the community.

Rather than groups of volunteers descending on these communities and building houses by themselves, the students work with the families and community members to build the houses together. In their own words the houses are not “gift(s) but rather an opportunity for the family to improve their own situation.”

In addition to helping to construct the houses, UTPMP also looks for families that want to make an effort to contribute to around 10 percent of the total cost of the house. Rather than charity, the houses are meant to be a catalyst for individual empowerment.

This emergency housing is especially important during this time of year when communities are at extremely high risk of being hit by hurricanes and flooding. In addition to providing shelter, the homes also contribute to a sense of dignity that is very important to families and empowers them to work towards a better future.

UTPMP acquires financing to build houses from partnerships with business, international non-profit foundations and donations from individuals.

According to their website, a group of 10 volunteers can build one house in two days.

The students and volunteers of UTPMP represent the power and strength of young people to make a difference in the world. As Chilean students fight for better education, these young people from across the continent are fighting poverty one house at a time. At the same time, UTPMP champions a sense of idealism that is so easy to lose in the face of extreme poverty.

UTPMP’s work reminds me of the story of the starfish on the beach.

In the story, an old man is walking along the beach and sees a boy picking up starfish from the sand and throwing them back into the water. When the old man approaches the boy, he asks why the boy is throwing them back into the ocean. There are hundreds of star fish and the boy can’t possibly make a difference, the old man says. The boy only smiles, picks up another starfish, and responds, “I made a difference for that one.”

Looking for the Women in International Policy Commentary


There has been a lot of discussion just recently about why there are so few vocal women in international policy’s academic circles. It was started by Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute in blog post titled “Women and the Commentariat.” 

The idea he puts forth, that women are more disposed to one-on-one communication and therefore are actively eschewing public commentary, smacks of gender essentialism and is, I don’t think, accurate. However, I welcome the fact that he wants to open up the debate on this, which was the overall point of his post.

We tend have a range of ways in which we discriminate based on gender, and while those discriminations may seem a thing of the past to those who don’t experience them, they’re very real and active forces of exclusion. We gender our notions of expertise, meaning there are sectors (often deemed private) that are feminized, and those in which the masculine voice is preferred (international politics falls in the latter category).  The barriers to women taking up visible and vocal roles in international policy are not necessarily on paper or formal, explicit exclusion.  Rather, they are embedded social and cultural constructions around the appropriate arenas for certain genders. This is true of lots of academic and policy circles. Women are less likely to be accepted as credible, and less likely to be encouraged to pursue a career in these arenas (most especially in international security and defense policy). It’s part of a broad cultural separation of genders when it comes to professions and expertise and a gendering of types of knowledge. It may appear that since women could technically be taking part in more established forums for commentary, that the reason they are not is one of active choice, but this ignores our widespread cultural assumptions and constructions about a feminized voice of expertise. 

Along these lines: there are more women out here talking about this than you think. They aren’t always doing it in the context of association with think tanks or universities or agencies, but many times they are quite vocal. I regularly comment on international policy, but often in the context of this blog or my own journalism. Many of the people who have replied to Shanahan’s statements, like Natalie Sambhi and Caitlin Fitz Gerald, are incredibly active voices in discussions of international relations. I’ve come to know a number of women with very vocal, well-formed opinions about everything from counterterrorism to development policy. I don’t see in these women, and I don’t see in myself, an obviously gendered desire for more one-on-one versions of policy discussion. I would personally much rather have my opinion published than have an intimate conversation about it.  Shanahan, however, defines public comment as public speaking (something his colleagues took issue with in their response). That rigidly defines active voices on policy as voices that are associated with institutions and accepted enough to be given the opportunity to lecture and speak on their opinions. This very definition of commentariat is exclusive of the existing female voices on the topic.

This is in many ways an issue of how women are voicing their commentary, and it’s often through less “formal” means of communication. Shanahan seems to say that this is women’s active choice, and something to do with the way women in general prefer to conduct themselves. Again, this perpetuates a stereotype, and lacks depth perception about the culture of establishment and expertise in academic circles that excludes women from talking about certain “masculinized” topics.

While the youth London riots rocked the world media, Chilean youths are nearing the fourth month of protests against the failing education system.

The student protesters in Chile have remained largely peaceful and are gaining more and more momentum as more special interest groups join in to protest poor social services and rampant inequality. Even as the government has agreed to make concessions and provide more funding to a poor education system, the students, labor unions, and the political opposition show little sign of tiring.

Today, Chilean youth have banded together with the country’s largest union and numerous social organizations to begin a two day nationwide strike. The strikers are now calling for better retirement benefits, better health care, and more environmental protection in addition to better and cheaper education.

Needless to say, President Pinera is not happy about the strikes, arguing that the strike will cost the nation millions in lost business activity and only hurt the nation more.

Chile is known to be one of the most prosperous Latin American nations. However, high rates of income inequality persist despite a healthy economy and a stable government.

The students claim that the cost of high education leaves students under an insurmountable mountain of debt for a poor quality of education. It is important to note that these education and income inequality issues are not unique to Chile, but are widespread across Latin America, including Guatemala.

The current system favors the wealthy that are able to afford expensive private schools while the public education system that caters to the working classes and poor is underfunded and inadequate.

Now the students are demanding free public education and widespread reforms that address and significantly decrease this inequality.

Pinera has said that the government will increase spending on education by 1.9 trillion pesos (4.1 million USD), but students say that this is not nearly enough and that the five percent of GDP that the government spends on education is woefully inadequate.

Whether free, high quality education is possible is another question up for debate. The important lesson from these events is that students have spoken up and the president is listening.

Although their demands may be idealistic, their persistence and refusal to cow to minor concessions is admirable.

These youth who have organized on Twitter and Facebook demonstrate that students do have the power to make their voices heard. Students like those from the Dario de Salas school who have just ended a 37 day hunger strike.

Today’s youth are uniquely empowered because they can easily use social media to organize and demand change through letter writing campaigns, rallies, community forums, etc. It will not be surprising if students across Central and South America follow the Chilean students lead in calling for educational reform and decreased inequality.

The Dario de Salas students may have taken extreme measures to bring attention to these issues but every student’s actions, big or small, speak volumes.

In 1994 the UN declared August 9th the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme is “Indigenous designs: celebrating stories and cultures, crafting their own future.” The theme highlights the importance of preserving indigenous cultures by celebrating the rich and beautiful forms of indigenous arts. This little known holiday is especially important as indigenous people continue to struggle to preserve their land, history, and cultural identify amidst the increasingly globalized world.

On the one hand, more and more people are able to experiences indigenous creations than ever before thanks to the fair trade movement that allows indigenous peoples to sell their products directly to consumers in the US and abroad for a fair price. However, globalization is also a powerful force that endangers indigenous languages, traditions, and beliefs as youth become more and more assimilated into western culture.

According to the CIA World Factbook: 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is of indigenous Maya descent, which includes a large number or groups like K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam, Q’eqchi, and others. However, these numbers are only estimates, and like in the rest of the world, more and more people are of mixed descent. Although the other 60 percent of the population is considered Mestizo or European, Mestizos are descended from mixed indigenous and Spanish or European heritage.

While there are many positive aspects of modern culture, it is important to remember our heritage and appreciate unique cultural traditions so that we can remember the lessons of the past.

One of the most striking and well recognized aspects of indigenous Guatemalan culture is the brightly colored traditional clothing known as traje. Most indigenous women, especially in rural areas, proudly wear these beautiful garments which also have a complex history that casual observers or tourists might not realize.

Even after European colonization, indigenous people held on to the traditional styles of clothing and now wear them as s symbol of pride and perseverance. Unlike western clothes which are mass produced in factories, traditional traje is handmade and sewn with hand woven details and designs.

Like the more well known kilts and tartans, the traje patterns can be tied to specific villages or groups. Overall, the traje styles are divided along language boundaries which can then be divided into more individualized groups. The traje can communicate the wearer’s language and geographic origin. In some cases, it can also indicate one’s place in the social structure, or one’s religious beliefs through the symbols and hand woven designs.

In Guatemala, these bright and colorful garments stand out in stark contrast compared to western clothing, but western clothing also communities much about the wearer as well. Those who adopt western clothing show that they want to embrace modernity and the western style of life.

Clothing can be important means of communication as there are as many styles of clothing as there are languages in Guatemala. In addition to Spanish, the official language, there are about 23 officially recognized indigenous languages spoken by about 40 percent of the people.

On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples it is important to remember that indigenous clothing, art, and other forms of expression are extremwly powerful forms of communication.

Mention the U.S. border debate and most people will have a very strong emotional reaction. It’s a topic that we take very seriously and is hotly debated by both sides.. Arizona has been at the forefront of the debate this year, and the controversy continues to unfold as Arizona is revisiting plans to fund building a wall along the border. Although the word “border” usually brings to mind the U.S.-Mexico border, the concept is complex and covers both geographic and symbolic borders that separate people and cultures.

Last week I wrote about Guatemalan theatre group Artzenico, and recently had the privilege of exploring the idea of borders by watching their play, Fronteras, with performers from Guatemala and New Orleans. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from an absurdist play about borders because it carries such heavy connotations. The only thing I was certain of was that it would make me think, and Fronteras did not let me down.

The play was a work-in-progress showing, meaning that it was unfinished and the performers wanted feedback from the audience as they continue to mold the play before presenting it in Guatemala next year. Because it was a work in progress, I think it would be unfair to provide a full review since the final product will likely be very different. However, I can say without a doubt that it was one of the most unique theatre experiences I have ever had. The play was presented in a format that required audience to choose which “scenes” or “acts” for the actors to perform next, based on their titles, as if you were choosing episodes from a DVD. Secondly, it is an enormous challenge to make such a serious topic like the border absurd and funny as is their signature style, but judging from the audience’s laughter they definitely succeeded. Although many parts were ridiculously over the top, they still held a serious element of truth, and I left the theater with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling and many questions about what I just watched.

My biggest take away from the experience was how much perceptions of culture and people change and are twisted across borders. One element of the play called out the ridiculousness of a nervous American who may be up to no good faced with intimidating officers at an immigration checkpoint in a certain Latin American country. Other elements showed how aspects Mexican or Latin culture, such as song and dance, are twisted into watered-down and twisted into easily understood and non-threatening forms for American consumption. These forms of art are stripped of their context and natural beauty and instead become faceless stereotypes with little connection to their true origins.

Indeed, many United States citizens often stereotype all Latinos in the US as Mexicans and distance themselves from anything that they find threatening such as unfamiliar languages and cultures. These emotional borders make it easier to dehumanize immigrants and make it easier to justify discrimination and building physical walls to separate “them” from “us.” It’s when we question and break down these physical and emotional borders that we left with the realization that those on the other side of the wall are just as human.


For the first time ever, the finance minister has allocated almost four million dollars from the current national budget to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

This comes after persistent pressure from women parliamentarians who took the issue of girls’ absenteeism from school, due to lack of sanitary pads, to parliament. It was a campaign that left their male counterparts speechless, for such matters are rarely spoken about in public, let alone in parliament, in Kenya’s conservative society.

In their persistent lobbying, the women parliamentarians brought to the fore a problem that could have continued to hinder the education of young girls. Thirteen-year-old Dorothy Akinyi, a standard seven pupil from Kibera, which is arguably the largest slum in Africa, stays at home every time she menstruates.

“Without sanitary pads life at school is difficult. We are subjected to very embarrassing and humiliating incidences, especially from the boys. Tying a pullover around your waist to hide the soiled patch behind your uniform in case the tissue leaks is a dead giveaway. We choose to stay at home,” explains Akinyi. But the situation is bound to change for Akinyi and other girls like her. But only if the money allocated for the sanitary wear is spent efficiently.

This is gender responsive budgeting at work. Being sensitive to the distinctive needs of men and women, while allocating and spending public funds,” explains Jacinta Nyachae, executive director of Kenya Aids Law Project and an advocate of human rights.

Her comments come just as Rwanda prepares to host a global high level meeting on increasing accountability and developing effectiveness through gender responsive budgeting in Kigali from 26 to 28 Jul. The meeting is held in conjunction with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and the European Union.

But girls are not the only ones to have benefitted from a gender sensitive strategy. In a move that has seen women break socio-political economic barriers, the planning and budgeting for the establishment of the ministry of gender and children affairs remains government’s strongest show of its commitment to address gender inequality.

But gender planning and budgeting is not enough, the rampant corruption across various government ministries is a clear indication that there’s need for tracking and monitoring how these funds are used,” explains a source from the G-10 alliance, which is a coalition of women organisations fighting for women’s rights.

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One of the most trendy critiques of the Humanitarian Aid Industry right now coming from cynical insiders and angry self-appointed pundits alike is that aid isnot efficient.

There really is no getting around the fact that there is an awful lot that looks really, really damning to industry…

 Very good post on aid and why the misguided for-profit emphasis efficiency doesn’t work for NGO’s.


Torre Pendente, Pisa, Toscana (by Vicky Lamburn)

 Getting in the mood for my trip to Italy


Torre Pendente, Pisa, Toscana (by Vicky Lamburn)

 Getting in the mood for my trip to Italy