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