My wife and I were working with our computers this morning, trying to synchronize some file sharing, exploring the best way to communicate with each other through the “magic boxes.” (It’s an activity that still feels very strange when we are sitting together in the same room, talking face-to-face.) She was describing to me a process which one of our daughters had used in her file-sharing process, a sequence of actions which was totally alien to me. Actually, there’s a great deal of computer use and savvy that completely escapes me, and I am quick to admit it to my wife, my daughter and any technical help person I might encounter over the phone when I’m stuck. Becoming smarter about computers requires that I don’t pretend that I know more than I do and that I admit what I don’t know. It’s called learning.
None of us has a corner on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We are all possessed of a unique combination of skills, knowledge, experiences and perspectives which make us singular resources on any subject. (If you doubt the voracity of that idea, simply ask a group of people about, for example, the most important means to a long and happy life.) But the answers to difficult questions are not vested in all of us; some of us simply know more or less about certain things. It’s why we need each other.
Too often, we believe that we know all that we must. Self-reliance is a good thing, but self-deception is not. It’s a dangerous place to be. For if we acknowledge the fact that no one has a perfect understanding of all things, then we necessarily embrace the reality that we could be wrong on any given issue, and that someone else might well see the matter with a clearer perspective. As begrudging as it may feel, we might be wrong. Acknowledging it, admitting it, is not a symptom of weakness, but rather a sign of self-confidence in learning. And there is never anything impotent in that. Impotence lies in the false posturing that is fostered by ignorance, or an unwillingness to accept wisdom from someone else.
I’m occasionally asked whether our partners in Nicaragua are grateful for the partnering with Winds of Peace. The answer is yes, they understand its importance and impact, of course. But the more complete answer is that the learning experienced by those of us who interact with Nicaraguans, both rural and city, is at least as great as the value of what WPF brings to the partnership. There’s a lot that I don’t know about Nicaragua. My acquaintances there are just the ones to help me with that. Who better?
The world is a big and diverse place. Facing our own shortcomings about what we know versus what we think we know is both a curse and a blessing. It’s tough to admit that we aren’t omniscient and in control. But it’s a gift to recognize that fact as the starting point for seeking out the truth. Likely, I’ll never know everything about my computer….
Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead
Why do institutions like NITLAPAN exist? What is the purpose of the people working in such institutions? Why do people go to institutions of higher education? Beyond the apparently obvious responses to these questions, I address these reasons and reflect on them in this essay.
In doing so I find that teaching has been reduced to the classroom and to status, and with it, the gap between people with professional education and the rest of society is growing. Formation is giving way to education, and learning to teaching, and knowledge to status. In contrast to the period between 1950 and 1985, where there were less people with higher education and more thinking in Latin America, e.g. the dependency theory, liberation theology and the pedagogy of the oppressed – the paradox of the last 25 years is that there are more people with higher education and less thinking – or only repetition of the neoliberal approach.
In this text I examine university education, and I reflect on the experience of the Research and Development Institute (NITLAPAN). On this basis, I introduce immersion, insertion, writing and dialogue as fundamental elements for working on territorial development, which leads to personal change and change in thinking, that have the potential to imprint meaning on the synergy of research, learning and development actions, that in turn might contribute to the formation of human skills for transforming our societies.
1. Logic of university education
In this section I lay out part of the university rationale on teaching in the last 30 years, I point out some structural causes that are reinforcing this logic, sketch out tendencies in some universities around “international accreditation”, and finally I attempt a critical reflection on this way of thinking and proceeding.
“Did you finish high school?”, I asked Ariel Cruz, an 18 year old young man from Peñas Blancas (in the municipality of El Cuá). I did not have to wait for his response, “The thing is we are not interested in studying, because the people who have studied are there without work, and with nothing; they are worse off than I am.” In terms of numbers, there is a multitud of professionals; there is almost no community in the country that does not have young graduates of Universities and technical schools. In spite of what young Ariel told me, on Saturdays the buses are full of young people leaving their communities, interested in studying. In terms of quality, multiple voices say that “that is where the problem is”; some signs in this direction are the fact that people talk about “garage universities”, that seek more to accumulate capital than to train people; the growing competition for students, which has led to multiple majors and degrees depending on the market demand (linked to business administration, law and agronomy), and not so much on the demand of society or on the type of society that we want to build; majors that graduate with a very expensive “additional course” instead of requiring research expressed in a thesis; majors that prioritize diplomas over education, and therefore Universities interested in organizing devalued doctorates; doing consultancies instead of research; having teaching staff practically without publications (and without doctorates). All these practices make it seem that the end (formation) has become the means, and the means (administration, status and a job) an end in itself.
In the midst of this reality, in 2012 the CNU (National Council of Universities) decided that the universities of the country should have international accreditation. This means that the universities have to have teaching staff at the level of masters degrees and especially doctorates, quality teaching by being combined with research, which is shown through academic publications, and that the physical and technology investments have to be adequate, etc. How are the universities going to deal with this challenge? International accreditation is a great opportunity for the universities to take a leap in terms of their quality, and for education to really be its purpose.
Nevertheless, other signs are joining the ones already mentioned. P. Marchetti, advisor to the Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala, evaluated the state of the universities: “The Masters programs in the Universities of Central America are a good last year of the licentiate or engineering degrees.” His opinion is not unique, we found it in various studies that were carried out within the framework of CLACSO (Latin American Social Science Council). Now with international accreditation it seems that the universities want to pass without improving, thus they are multiplying masters programs without really being masters, they are getting involved in organizing doctoral programs in order to have teachers with doctorates however they can, and some universitites are embracing “University Social Responsibility” – following the style of the private enterprises that camoflauge their thirst for capital by embracing Business Social Responsibility – which is promoting “social service” so that the students might “put into practice what they have learned.” On the other hand, the international accreditation industry, to a certain extent, is facilitating or legitimizing that attitude of passing without improving, because this industry is done by companies-institutions that are competing with one another to find markets (Universities with an interest in getting accredited), not so much to make the universities improve, a practice that would coincide with to the universities´ strategy of passing with formal and cosmetic changes.
Why is this opportunity not taken advantage of in order to really change? The members of the Society of Jesus with universities and high schools tend to say: “ we are forming the leaders of these countries,” meaning that the academic level is very high. But this perspective is countered by: “seeing the type of governments that we have, what kind of leaders have you formed!” A different perspective was provided in 1993 by the then President of the UCA in Managua, X. Gorostiaga and the then director of Nitlapan, P. Marchetti, both Jesuit priests, who asked themselves, “What are we teaching in the universities?” They themselves responded: we are teaching from imported manuals, distancing the students from their own reality; in business administration we are teaching about the realities of large businesses, when most of the businesses in this country are small enterprises; Gorostiaga (1993) placed these facts within the global context where neoliberalism was coopting the Universities. It was a self critique of the UCAs of Central America and of the Society of Jesus itself. That reflection underlies the separation between research, learning and development actions, a separation that has gotten even worse today. Other scholars go beyond this, stating that there is no research, that what exists are consultancies where the donors define the very questions. Aware of these explanations, in the following section I reflect on a part of the experience of Nitlapan.
2. Nitlapan, a privileged space for questioning the focuses on learning, research and development
Nitlapan was founded due to the impossibility of combining ressearch, develop,ent and learning in the schools of the UCA, as P. Marchetti remembered in his speech on the 25th Anniversary of Nitlapan and the 20th Anniversary of the Local Development Fund (FDL):
On day in August of 1988, Fr. Cesar Jerez and Fr. Otilio Miranda called me into the office of the President. César, in his direct style, said: “Well, Peter, this your bus stop. Your team mixed in with the teachers is not going to work. They are like oil and water. Too much tension. I think that your people have a great future for the UCA, but with a lot of autonomy in terms of the UCA teachers. I am going to give you general power of attorney over a research and peasant action institute that you should start right now.” (…) Feeling like a failure in my attempts to change the UCA, I left without knowing what to do.
25 years later, “each time I come to Nitlapan, I find it reviewing its actions in a self critical manner,” said L. Baez, a member of the Advisory Council of Nitlapan, in a workshop in the beginning of 2013. With this spirit in the origins of Nitlapan and its openness to self-critique, we note down our tensions in this section.
The connection between research and development, and between the legal aspect and development actions, is strong in discourse, but diluted in practice, or strong in some periods and weak in others. When high quality teaching-learning is added to this, the results at the institutional level reveal the weaknesses: researchers and development promoters of Nitlapan that teach classes in different majors, do it as individuals, which in general is a praiseworthy contribution, but something that could be even better for Nitlapan, for the quality of the teaching, as well as for the students. Why is the UCA, its schools and institutions like Nitlapan, not able to create conditions that would facilitate the research-teaching (learning) combination in such a way that the students would benefit, the teachers would learn more, and the programs of institutions like Nitlapan might improve? This question seems to be simple when we think about the fact that Nitlapan, like the different schools, are part of the same university, but it happens that this has not been resolved for decades. Structures really do have a lot of weight: there are walls that separate research, development and learning, walls that extend beyond the good intentions of having a “research university”; market forces like a magnet are influencing the selection of majors and their content, attracting the soul of the staff who will not do research nor teach if it is not through a consultancy, and set the prices of the majors in such as way that if there is a financial deficit, they will apply the increase in tuition, a measure that excludes low income social sectors; and like the markets, the status of their titles makes the people in those positions repeat phrases that the ancient institutions of the Roman Catholic Church say: “we are the ones who move, the rest should respect us (obey).”
Nitlapan has a strategic plan that mandates doing territorial development, to combine research and development. What then prevents it from being a learning organization? There are some who believe that it is because of the power relationships, that the directors of the programs in the Institute are resistant to change, because they are managing resources, or have made the institution their “modus vivendi.” There are others who think it is the lack of a clear definition in the territorial development approaches. And there are others that say, “Nitlapan has no direction”, with that they mean that Nitlapan lacks vision (we would say insertion). Between 2012 and 2013 Nitlapan has made changes in internal organization, rotation of directors, including the strengthening of intermediate leaders as territorial coordinators in 7 territories, which responds to the argument of “power relationships”. Also work has also been done on a territorial development approach through various workshops and studies, which was the beginning of a response to the argument of knowledge. There is movement in Nitlapan and in the territories, but do these movements express changes in Nitlapan? We have doubts about that. What are those doubts based on?
“I am a technician, not a researcher,” said a member of Nitlapan when we asked him to tell us about the reality of the municipality where he was working; the research-action duality governs our minds. In pressuring to have the staff move forward with more thought, one of the coordinators responded; “we have a plan, everything is clear, we only have to do, do and do”. It reminded me of what a teacher had told me was her secret to teaching: “ each year I grab the same papers and repeat the same class, and if someone asks me a different question, I play with it, “an old rooster can kill with its wing”. It is not the reality that is teaching, according to what they are telling us, but the pre-defined plan (of technical assistance or teaching) that rules. In the midst of these tensions, one of the directors reflected: “we have never asked our technicians to think, even at one time it was said that you had to hire ‘ignorant technicians’ to be more efficient, who execute exactly as asked, that they would not waste time asking or reading “how do you want us to think now?” – he ended, questioning me . The mentality of the large estate owners where they are looking for “ignorant” workers who only execute (“respect”) what the foreman tells them, without thinking, had also penetrated the institution.  The reality appears more obstinate, and the institution of “not thinking” more ingrained than imagined.
Crossing over from the Pacific to the Caribbean Coast, another type of institutionality hits us, “If you are not from the Coast, you do not understand the Coast, unless you are white.” In our institutions social differences count, and so do ethnic differences; when staff with certain resources are better educated, then the staff with less resources, instead of making an effort to learn from them, and the better educated, instead of reducing their arrogance, they end up creating tension. When the ethnic differences are added to the social differences, the situation is more complicated, the challenge of interculturality is really a big challenge in the communities of the Coast, and in any corner of the world, and it also exists among intellectuals, the discrimination is both ways – from the Pacific to the Coast, and viceversa, even though clearly it is a different degree of discrimination. The population of the Coast has observed and experienced how those from “the Pacific country” believe that there is only one Nicaragua and only one country, “that when they are in the Coast they are in their country”, and that if things do not work out the way they think they should, they think it is because the people of the Coast are “backward”, and they are not recognizing the depth of the historical, cultural, productive, ecological, religious and ideological differences between the three countries – the Pacific, the Interior and the Atlantic, and between the two Nicaraguas. This arrogant attitude in line with the modernization theory of the Pacific, contributes to the fact that the staff from the Coast and those from the Pacific are not able to create spaces for mutual learning, and end up covering over their own deficiencies.
These attitudes and perspectives can also be observed when research is done in any indigenous community in the Caribbean Coast. Because of a tradition imposed by German aid since the beginning of the 90s, the people interviewed or who participate in a workshop are paid, because “they are losing their time and that is why they have to be paid,” and because “the research and the trainings are not useful for the communities.” Contextualizing this situation, D. Kaimowitz observed that this idea of payment is related to an economic model where what prevails are the projects/transfers, and not the productive economy, which is why one form of accumulating is accessing those transfers, and not improving production; E. Fernández, after studying the community of Mukuswas in 2004, observed: “they live so far from the municipal capital of Bonanza and since they produce only for their own consumption, the only way of getting cash is that some go out to sell wild boars, and the leaders charge the consultants and the organizations for “training them.” The challenge remains intact: the research and other project activities need to be useful for the communities, something that will happen if the relations between the indigenous population and the researchers improve.
More dramatic is listening to the peasant families with whom Nitlapan began its work at the end of the 80s: “Nitlapan has changed, before they used to walk in, sleep in our homes, ride on mules; now they come in big SUVs with their windows closed, they get out for the workshop and then they get back in their car, leaving us in the dust.” (leader from San Ignacio, Matiguás). M Naira, a territorial coordinator of Nitlapan, also heard a similar story in Somotillo where the people of Nitlapan are known as “the people of the Prado”, in reference to the brand of one of the SUVs. It surely is not a matter of changing from a vehicle to a mule necessarily, but these words reveal the distance and the wall that has grown between Nitlapan and the families with whom we work. And that wall or distance is repeated with a different nuance inside the Institute, in being concerned about the formation of young researchers, we were questioned by one of the directors: “ you are out of date, those times when the director sat down to review the work of the youth is over with, now we are decentralized and we are involved in 2 to 3 works at one time; there is no time to be forming people.” Each new element that we add makes us see the reality that structures count: it is not just a matter of “ignorant technicians” and of “Dons” (the way the technicians refer to the directors of Nitlapan), but also institutional conditions (distance, walls, absence of mentored formation) that are turning its back on the human potential of new professionals that are joining Nitalapan.
That distance is accentuated also on the side of those who are “educated.” In a workshop in El Salvador as part of the facilitating team, I committed the “sin” of recognizing that I had doubts about the approach and methodology that we were proposing; doubt is key in the social sciences, while in disciplines like economics and law there are no doubts, the categories and laws are clear. In the face of the “sin”, immediately an international consultant said that he had to rework that topic again, because the facilitator himself had “doubts”. Later on my colleague with whom I was facilitating, in a tone of scolding said to me, “if you are the facilitator, it’s because even if you don’t know, you do; if you ask a question, that shows that you do not know; the people hired you to tell them clearly how and where to go, and not to be questioning; if you express doubts, they’re not even going to pay you.” From that logic, getting in and out of an SUV is coherent with the status of “the one who knows”. Appearance matters, not what is under the iceberg. Another colleague told me about her experience with a microfinance institution; “we were giving technical assistance to their clients, later we would write out “in peasant language” (simple language) the receipt so that one copy would stay with the producer family, and another copy would go to the microfinance entity, but the latter rejected the receipt, saying that it showed that we didn’t know how to do it, that we should write in appropriate language, in other words using technical language.” In a workshop on the effects of the coffee rust with peasant families in San Juan del Río Coco in March 2013, an agronomist said that the producers do not pay attention to the technical recommendations, and immediately a producer reacted, “and how am I going to pay attention if you did not even come to see my farm.” The Universities teach to teach and not to learn, not to listen to and learn from the producers, not to take notes from them. “I left my community for the University, because in the University you learn, while in the community there is nothing to learn” – educated people tend to say.
If we enter into the life of a faculty and the majors they offer we are going to face also a large amount of tensions that touch on the institutionality of the hard mdrive– paid-by-the-hour professors, use of manuals, teaching without research, professors without publications, banking pedagogy, ideology of teaching, the more responsibility one has the less immersion and more distance from the students, etc. And behind these practices we will find myths, hard institutions and the force of power relationships. So when we talk about connections between research, teaching – learning and development, we can stay on the level of appearances and say that we are changing, or we can pay attention to the fact that we are on territories where things are getting difficult, and where the challenges of changing and taking advantage of opportunities to improve are doubly complicated. How can we change? We are interested in real changes; so the following two sections sketch out four elements that, if put into practice, have the potential of challenging the status quo of our reality, and helping us to change gradually and progressively. See the attached diagram with the four elements moved by learning.
3. Immersion and insertion, political perspective and practice
P. Marchetti used to tell us that living with peasant families in Matiguas, sleeping in beds made of sticks, and bitten by flees during the night, he understood the harshness of being forgotten, which is worse than being excluded, that social apartheid in which peasant society found itself; it was the decade of the 80s where thousands of young people went out to do literacy training, lived with the families where they were treated as sons and daughters – that experience that even today thousands of people remember as something that changed their lives. The immersion – used a lot by anthropologists and as part of the method of participant observation – is a powerful way of experiencing the lives of other people, it is direct experience that, as P. Senge (1990) says, provides the opportunity of “re-perceiving the world and our relationship to that world,” and that helps organizations´ policies and strategies to make a difference, as R. Eyben (2004) says, “it provides the type of learning that helps the agencies (organizations in general) respond intelligently in different and unpredictable circumstances.”
Immersion produces ideas because it has a personal transformative impact. S. Sheppard, the director of the Winds of Peace Foundation, told about what caught his attention in arriving at the Managua airport: “I saw a young woman hugging a Nicaraguan woman, both were crying, I understood that they were saying goodbye to one another; I’m sure that both of them will never forget that moment, in fact their lives changed with that experience of sharing life for a time. Formation is that, it’s as simple as that.” Yes, so simple, but we are not doing it in the universities of Central America, and I do not know of any organization whose staff does immersion, something that some of the personnel did in the beginning of Nitlapan, and that stopped being done – something that the peasant of San Ignacio (Matiguas) testified to in the previous section.
In the middle of the 80s, P. Marchetti, who later on would found Nitlapan, told us about his own experience in an informal conversation that we had in March 2013:
I was in Midinra and CIERA and I realized that Midinra did not know what the peasantry was about. In August 1980 I published in a IFAD report that the Popular Sandinista Revolution was letting the possibility of the peasant worker alliance slip away. There was no direct contact with the Nicaraguan peasantry. I told myself: I cannot continue working in MIDINRA and CIERA, because they do not know the peasantry. On the weekends I would go to live in El Arenal, one of the first places of rural organization of the FSLN, where the nomeclatura would go to celebrate Pikin Guerrero without any idea about what was happening in the lives of the peasants of El Arenal after 1979. I did not do it because I was a Jesuit, nor for the ideals of insertion of the Society of Jesus. I did it for professional and political reasons. I brought that practice from Chile, there we took over land, breaking the law; I would spend the night with the peasants, talked all night, there we formed an alliance, and we took the land. It is a political action. If you don’t sleep and get up with the peasantry at 4 in the morning, and you begin to talk with the women who are making the food, you cannot understand what is really happening in the countryside.
When I went to Matiguas, a territory liberated from the contras in 1984, from the immersion I came upon the discourse of the Contras, the macro, meso and micro factors behind the insurrection of the peasantry against the FSLN, as well as the fissures between the discourse and the action of the Contras. At times I would stay one week with some family to understand in depth what was happening to the family production systems in the war. Without passing the night in the homes of the leaders, I never would have been able to talk with them about the faults of the Contras. When these leaders forced the Contras to move the war 40 kms east or lose two thousand of their combatants, I was surprised because I never would have thought such a thing could happen.
Immersion is a key element in all the alliances between the peasantry and the urban intellectuals that I know of in Latin America. You cannot insert yourself into the peasant political mobilization without having gone through immersion. Political insertion is the normal extension of immersion, and the fundamental reason to opt for an immersed style in the first place. The human quality of the insertion is only tested in the insertion in the struggles of the peasantry.
A. Grigsby, also a founder of Nitlapan along with P. Marchetti, while he was introducing me to the zone of Carazo in 1990 told me about his immersion at the end of the 70s:
In those communities of Francia and San Ignacio I was immersed with the peasantry for years, combining it with my studies in the Central America Colegio. I lived with them, and helped them in their work. One day, before 1979, Edgardo García showed up, a leader of the ATC, and he found me carrying bags of coffee with the peasants to a truck. He told me that he recognized my commitment, but that it was urgent that we join the insurrection. We had similar ideals about change, but also strong differences: for me the most strategic thing was the alliance with the peasantry, for him it was joining the armed struggle.
From both of them it is important to locate the context that these experiences refer to, a context of insurrection and revolution that both leaders are contributing to by “swimming against the current.” Later we make a distinction between what is immersion and insertion. Immersion is living, taking our own shoes off completely to be with the excluded who are in struggle (e.g. for land and for territory, for their dignity, for being peasants and farm owners, for their identity, for managing markets and value chains). Here insertion happens in so far as we build alliances with the excluded families – and without alliances territorial development is not possible, for example. Insertion is political struggle and long term perspective, and immersion makes it concrete, gives it meaning, and opens up understanding.. Insertion is inducing a process (political struggle), while immersion is allowing oneself “to be taken” by the reality of “the other”. Insertion is perspective (theory) and immersion is path (method).Immersion makes the insertion concrete and gives it content, and it in turn provides meaning and perspective to the immersion.
Because of a mixture of the influence of the leadership of Nitlapan, sympathies with the revolution and pesonal commitment, a part of a group of young professionals in the first phase of Nitlapan did immersion and insertion. As a result Nitlapan contributed to the country with a peasant-farmer perspective that challenged the policies at the end of the 80s and the first half of the 90s, and worked on a concrete alternative like the micro finance institution known as the Local Development Fund (LDF), and provided proposals for change within the very being of the Universities – like the inaugural lecture of 1993 prepared by the President Gorostiaga and the leadership of the Nitlapan. It sought what their adjective at that time indicated: “alternative.” In that first phase a good part of its staff did this practice of immersion. There were two expressions that summarized this practice: “putting ourselves in the shoes of the poor families” and “throwing ourselves into the water without knowing how to swim.” The first expression indicated the need of locating ourselves in the situation of the families in order to try to understand them; in the second, the need of not waiting “to learn how to swim” outside of the “water”, that you have to just dare to do it. And how do you dare to do it? This is where a third expression fit well: “let the wind blow and take you where it wills.” This is a biblical phrase that repeated in our context, told us to allow the people to matter to us, let the reality of the people to take us. And combined with “allowing ourselves to be taken by the wind”, encouraged us to learn to the extent that we were working with the families, that led to the parable of “kicking the dog”, which we present in the attached box.
Over the years this situation changed, to such an extent that up until 2012 there was no immersion – and maybe no insertion either- in Nitlapan nor in the universities of Central America. When there is no immersion, the second, third and fourth expressions just mentioned do not make sense, they can be used in discourse but they are void of content. Not only is there no immersion, but nor is the insertion obvious: the sense of commitment of seeking something alternative, that it is “time to sow” has disappeared – in fact the very adjective “alternative” was left out and Nitlapan appeared as just the “Research and Development Institute”. In becoming aware of this situation, one of the directors, A. Ruíz, reflected: “Before we had a commitment and awareness of changing, we would go to the countryside and we would stay with the families, now the youth do not have that passion. Nitlapan has become a job. What has happened?”
A first response is that we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the other people, without first taking off the shoes we had on, so our understanding of the families was left truncated. A second response is that this begins to happen from before the professional joins Nitlapan, the universities are educating by making us take off our “shoes of the people”, and making us put on the shoes of “the know-it-all”. A third response an engineer provided: “what did I study for? Don´t tell me to learn from the people. I came from there and went to the university to learn!” A fourth response E. Fernández provided, co-founder of Nitlapan: “the youth that were part of the founding group have aged physically and mentally; this leadership is not doing immersion, which is why they are not inspiring anyone; in contrast, the first group of youth were inspired by the leadership of that time who did immersion.” A fifth response is that the logic of projects penetrated so deeply into Nitlapan that it made it abandon the thinking about the political, it de-politicized it, the immersion was devalued and insertion was replaced by international dependency, a logic that induces you to respond to donors instead of responding to the population who are seen as “beneficiaries”;if the logic is that you learn to swim outside the “water”, then why do immersion in the water? A sixth response A. Ruíz explained, “Nitlapan became an enterprise, it provided services, as a business we see clients, we look for clients where-ever they may be, without caring whether we are generating development or not, it is business, that is why the sense of forming, of generating ideas and of inspiring no longer fit.”A seventh response P. Marchetti expressed: “Credit made us get out of this; there was a moment when we said that we cannot work with the leaders, that was an option against immersion; and look now, we are trying to go back to those roots, because we see that the communal bank method with women is growing.” From these responses I deduce how an institution turns its purpose (changes in society, development) into means, and the means (bureaucracy that administers resources, culture of implementation, of doing planning) into the end, how we define the leaders and subjects as beneficiaries, and then as clients, and how we intellectuals are turning ourselves into technocrats, depoliticizing ourselves and making ourselves comfortable on the basis of distancing ourselves ever more from the population with whom we are working, and building walls between the families of the countryside and those of the city, and the intelligensia garrisoned in organizations.
These facts have become institutionalized, they are now givens (taken for granted), so natural that not even the international allies that do immersion are able to awaken us: Antwerp University has been an ally of Nitlapan – UCA for 25 years, and every two years Belgian students come from that university to do immersion in the country, a fact that Nitlapan as well as other institutions of the UCA help them with, but they do not get infected. What type of alliance is this that is not able to be contagious with the most prized part of education that immersion is? Maybe this is due to the fact that Antwerp University and other Universities do immersion, but without political insertion – even though immersion in itself has great formative value – and maybe because the leaders and teachers from both institutions (Antwerp, Nitlapan-UCA) do not do the immersion under the idea that “immersion is for the students, not for the professors, directors, presidents.”
Yes, immersion is learning. To learn from people we provide ourselves with instruments that facilitate understanding the people, observing, listening and asking – without questions there are no answers, the wisdom is in knowing how to ask. This is the dimension of understanding. There will be no change of anything if we are not able to confront the dimension of understanding, and one of the most stimulating ways to do so is immersion. The more we cross over to the other sidewalk, the better we will understand the social apartheid and their paths to development. In doing it we will be able to learn, like one who observes, moves closer, and dares to ask, like in the next parable about the “milk producers limit.” (see Box).
This immersion, even though it is a monumental challenge and something that we should be a part of, needs to be two-way: that youth and community leaders have the possibility of immersion in the homes of presidents, directors, technicians, facilitators, administrators, researchers and development promoters. Why not for a week? This two way street will allow us to understand one another, will lead us to not just understand the paths to development, but to be part of it, to close the distance between intellectuals and rural-urban actors, but above all to lead us to work for development alternatives– and with that we are already into insertion.
4. The writing, what makes us think
W. Armstrong, manager of Aldea Global (coffee and tuber export organization, that works with cooperatives and producers organized into groups), explained that one of the great problems is the “oral culture” of the peasant families, and therefore the importance of the “written culture”. He is refering to coffee: “the producers complain about the weight, but because they don´t write down each step, they forget; we have a format for noting down each step, at the moment of receiving the parchment coffee, at the moment of transporting that coffee, at the moment of turning it in to the dry mill, each day that the coffee goes out to the patio for drying…” If the processes are written, and there are complaints, you can see where the problems are, while there is no way of following up on what is just oral. What happens with coffee and the tensions that emerge because of the absence of the “written culture” happens in other contexts, processes and organizations. The technicians, facilitators, researchers, professors, directors, deans, Presidents, development promoters…when they talk with the rural and urban families, with the students or with their staff, they are not accustomed to take notes, and with that they are communicating that there is nothing to learn from their counterparts, and if they gather data as an obligation of their work (e.g. technicians who record data on the organic coffee for the coffee certifiers, facilitators who fill out forms with farm assessments) they do not process it, they do not analyze it at the end of their day, and they do not reflect on it with the families where they gathered that data. And if we pressure them to write, some respond, “only secretaries write!”
Where does such an institutionalized oral culture come from, capable of being a wall to thought and learning? This oral culture has been maintained for centuries! History tells us that one of the elements of the domination of the Spaniards over the indigenous peoples was writing. The indigenous could not explain how the pieces of paper were able to “talk” over long distances, about how a message could be sent through the little pieces of paper. From there comes the expression in Spanish in our times that “papers talk.” In spite of the fact that they “talk”, the sons and daughters of that indigenous culture and of mestizo families for centuries have not developed this written culture. Even today, though more people have studied less is written down. Why don’t we write? Because we are not reflecting on our notes, because we are not taking notes, because we think that there’s nothing to learn from the families that we are talking with. That is why notes aren’t taken. Let’s remember: “if you aska question, you are going to show that you don’t know,” so the more you study, the more you have to appear that you know, so you can´t take notes. Here is the tragedy that leads us to ignorance in the midst of the 21st century!
Again, why are we not able to write? I am not so interested in the technical reasons like “learning to write”, but beyond that. Without insertion we lack a sense of commitment, and without immersion we are left with discourse, and not having either we do not have the passion for writing (organizing new ideas) to be able to then go back to speak with our counterparts and to talk with ourselves – be self-reflective and to “think by talking.” Observing our colleagues I realize that we do not get up early desperately seeking to write (think), we get out of bed with the peace of mind that we have goals, formats to fill out, courses to teach and that we repeat that for years, and our desperation is that the days go by slowly and we want to get back home and sit down in front of the television god. We criticize the producers for being “harvesters” instead of being producers, of not getting up early to study their coffee field and their cattle, while we who call ourselves intellectuals are worse – we don´t even take a book to read in our backpacks.
How can we write? E. Yojcom, co-author of the book “The dream of the North in Yalambojoch,” written along with R. Fallas SJ, guides us. She tells how Fallas, her teacher, pushed her to write: “The insistance of the teacher with his student etched in me his beautiful words, ´but not just with the tape recorder, but with your memory, and write, write like crazy.´ This is what the young man did who left us the Popol Wuj, like crazy he wrote down all the poems, and there was no electric then, much less computers…” Writing like crazy! She did it because she was immersed and inserted in the returned indigenous families. And in our case it could be following the chain of asking, listening, taking notes, at the end of the day analyzing the notes (“ruminating”), and writing – writing like crazy, but remembering Tolstoy, who at the end of a long letter wrote: “forgive me for writing you such a long letter, but it’s because I didn’t have time.” It is that chain of thinking that rejects the mentality of the large estate owners that see humanity as patrons (thinkers) and workers (“ignorant”, without thought).
In writing the tacit becomes explicit. I have seen this with the territorial coordinators of Nitlapan, who when they explain their own process followed in their family, in the university, and in each task that they have had in Nitlapan, discover their own learning, what they know, but was silenced, they discover their own gold mine in identifying their own steps. Literally they are surprised to see on paper (or a power point slide) how much they know about their reality, fleeing from it toward imported ideas in order to avoid looking at the mine of ideas that they have within them- and at times they are so surprised that they say “I feel lost!” They are surprised because “the ignorant” evaporates, and with it the comfortableness of the appearance that “I only know that I know”, and they realize that thinking is uncomfortable and uncertain, because “I only know that I don´t know anything.” When they begin to write they discover that they can do it. A.J. García, a Nitlapan technician, said, “I feel happy…before it never occured to me and I had no idea about how to express it, while writing, I thought about the young man who wrote the Popol Wuj, and so I wrote like crazy!”
Writing allows us to discover ourselves, it is thinking, and thinking is reflecting closely connected to social practice, or as Marx would say, thinking is praxis – it is political action to make the existing practice explicit and conscious. Writing is close to insertion because in writing one is persuaded. Writing requires, obviously, reading. As J. Bastiaensen would suggest: first you have to read, secondly you have to read, and thirdly… you have to read!
“After the change in government in 1990, came reconciliation; demobilized fighters from both sides showed up in Río Blanco full of their pain and resentment, they had so many differences that in order for them to talk face to face we even had a round table made” remembered E. Fernández, who as part of the PRODERBO project was part of the team that helped the demobilized fighters with their reinsertion. This is dialogue, from the Greek dia-logos (dia=through, and logos= the word), free flow of ideas in groups, part of recognizing the existence of the other person, it revolves around the word and creates collective thinking in the face of challenges. Dialogue can happen between two or more people with the only agreement to be in disagreement, no one imposes their thinking, all contribute to building a context of thought, more than finding solutions it is delving into the genesis (or problematic) of each thought, learning to think collectively: “when the roots of the thought are observed, that same thought is improved” (Bohm, 1995) ;in this context it is not important to get to either a decision nor a plan, each participant understands what he/she has to do (Senge, 2011).
De Bono (1999) ) distinguishes between western argumentative thinking, Plato´s dialectic of opposing two rational discourses to arrive at the truth, where the idea that prevails is the decision that gets adopted, and eastern thinking of seeking data and data until the decision emerges with clarity – like a puzzle of a thousand pieces, where it is enough to find some key pieces to be able to imagine the image it depicts.
Understanding different forms of dialogue, it is important to develop spaces for conversation within organizations, between organizations, inside the communities and between communities and the organizations. Generating spaces for dialogue through the exchange of thought can help us to find people who inspire us and make the collective space itself a source of inspiration. Recall the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” So insertion without immersion is empty, immersion without insertion is blind, the two without writing turn into “prison talk”, and the three without group dialogue lack collective social transformation. These four elements constitute metanoia: learning that emancipates and transforms, and that builds visionary organizations.
By way of conclusion
The great Cuban geographer, A. Nuñez, recommended that you should always take 3 things with you: a notebook, a pen and a camera. Each conversation and observation is an event in our lives, and an event can be full of meaning. For that reason we need to develop the culture of writing (and of reading), as a way of thinking. This thinking is nourished by the “two way” immersion. And both respond to the insertion which is the meaning of the political aspect of territorial development, of the social and technological changes that we are seeking to promote, of the forms of alliances that we want to work on. Insertion provides us the perspective, immersion the content, writing the thinking, and dialogue the word in movement. Can there be territorial development without these four elements? The resounding answer is NO. The territories are global/local spaces in movement, political arenas where diverse interests and perspectives, as local as they are transnational, are in contention, routes and trajectories prevail and emerge depending on the correlation of forces that are achieved in each moment and specific context.
These powerful tectonic plates are capable of moving our realities, of shaking the wall that separates the producer families and the strata of professionals, of making uncomfortable the “culture of teaching” that turns its back on its source of learning, of challenging ourselves about our own “extensive” culture (fleeing from our own learning) as intellectuals, of re-defining our counterparts from being beneficiaries and clients to being an actor that is a collective subject and that makes decisions, and of transforming ourselves as society as well as institutions. All this could lead us to confront the paradox of “more educated people but less thinking”, given that our competitive advantages are precisely in the reading we get by incorporating the angles of the actors, and in this way make the Universities recover their purpose of forming people capable of transforming their realities.
This process, nevertheless, requires certain conditions which organizations can provide: showing a leadership that preaches with its practice – immersion, insertion, writing and dialogue. That is, presidents and directors should ask themselves what is their insertion, their immersion and their publications, to then respond to the question about why they are in university institutions, what type of institutions they are leading, and for what type of societies. On this basis we could rethink our alliances between universities of Central America and those of the US and Europe, precisely through strengthening insertion, the culture of writing and immersion.
 M. Lester, director of the Winds of Peace Foundation in Nicaragua, asked me to reflect on a concept paper of WPF that is seeking an alliance with US universities for formation. This awoke in me a topic that I had been thinking about for some time during my visits to territories with the territorial coordinators of Nitlapan-UCA, with youth innovators in El Cua, San Juan del Río Coco and La Dalia, and from reflecting with leaders of coffee cooperatives in the central northern area of the country.
 The name of the Institute in the beginning included the word “alternative”. Probably in the mid 90s that word disappeared. It is worth mentioning it, because Nitlapan started with the idea of seeking a type of development that was not conventional, nor the “imported” models, but an “alternative” one.
 The distinction made between Licentiate or Engineering (learning tools and applying them), masters degree (level of expertise in an area, which is being a master in a certain area) and Phd-doctorate (contributing with new knowledge) probably tends to get diluted, so that the masters is like a licentiate and a doctorate like a masters degree. This discussion is also present in Europe where they are working to homogenize the quality of the different degrees, a process in which, for example, the doctorates in Spain are considered low level, and in spite of so many years of progress, apparently still have not been able to reach the same level.
 Gorostiaga, X., 1993, La Nueva Generación Centroamericana, la UCA hacia el 2000. Lección Inaugural 1993. Managua: UCA
 Gorostiaga (1993:30) “Today in Latin America the dominant Neoliberal model brings with it a project for society and the University. In this project, the University should serve “the demands of the market” without state interference, “academic nor ethical.” The “demands of the market” result in a merchantilization of the university product at the service of the large enterprises, and a privatization of the university in favor of the more privileged classes. In such a project, the university character disappears and the University becomes a branch of the wealthy companies that require professionals for their operations. What would we say now in these times?
 Remember fordism and taylorism, where the managers “think” and the rest “operate”; businesses where there is a small group of experts that use their heads and plan, while the great masses, separated from the experts, use their hands to execute the plan; in a certain context of mass production and consumption this model was successful. But in a society of greater competition like that experienced starting in the decade of the 80s it was no longer appropriate: Toyota with the post fordist “flexible specialization” tore fordism to pieces. See Best (1990), The New Competition. Institutions of industrial restructuring. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
 I am grateful to D. Kaimowitz in helping me to understand the differences in perspective between the Coast and the Pacific and the historical roots that it has.
 Notice that this is similar to the theory of modernization – an academically dead theory but underlying many donor policies – where the European countries and the US see themselves as developed and see the rest of the countries as under-developed; in other words, many from the North see us as their past, and they, our future, that they have already seen and there is nothing more to learn; or missions (consultants) who arrive and their approach is looking for problems without a minimal effort in having a historical perspective and identifying the changes. And now in terms of the Coast, the country of the Pacific tends to see itself as “the developed ones”.
 S. García, anthropologist and scholar of the Caribbean Coast, observing this fact, said: “One day Coke was doing a survey, and they told me they would pay me for 10 minutes of my time to respond to their survey; what they are doing on the Coast is something similar; Coca Cola pays because it is in their interest, while one would assume that research seeks to contribute to the communities, or no?” One would assume so!
 The criticism of Nitlapan being “the people of the Prado” happens in the territories where we go, but in those territories they do not even see the deans, directors and presidents of the University. The paradox is that the more “responsibility” one has, the more distance there is with the student body (“the fish”) and their territories (“the water”), it is like in religion that confuses Church with the building, and believing that they are going to church to seek God and end up praying in the temples and chapels.
 Marchetti, P., 1985. Dos pasos atrás y dos y medio adelante: Reflexiones sobre la política agraria, comercial y militar de la EPS. Managua: Comisión de Defensa y Producción, FSLN
 In asking in a workshop about what events in their lives had really changed them, A. Delgado, a development promoter of Nitlapan, told his experience: “I went out to teach to read and write in 1981, and I lived with a family in the countryside; I could not understand how those people could live, they were so poor, so poor…” That experience changed his life forever. See also references to these experiences in: S. Ramírez, 1999, Adios muchachos, una memoria de la Revolución Sandinista, Mexico: Aguilar.
 Senge, P., 1990, The fifth discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization. EEUU: Doubleday
 Eyben, R. (2004), Immersions for Policy and Personal Change, in IDS Policy Briefing 22.
 Different reflections from the 80s in terms of immersion converged around the fact that the Sandinista Revolution did not accept the concept of the immersion of the technicians, that prevailed in the Cuban and Soviet visions of “teaching” from the top down, and the classism of the Sandinistas that came from the oligarchy. J. Bonilla, a Sandinista from the decade of the 80s who collaborated with the Supreme Electoral Council in 1989, remembered the night that the Sandinistas lost the elections: “there were youth from rich families who were Sandinistas, and in seeing that we lost the elections, angrily exclaimed, “Those ignorant peasants, we taught them to read, we brought them vacinnations, we harvested their coffee, and they pay us back by voting against us, ingrates! On hearing that I realized that we had gone out together to do literacy work and vacinnate, but we had such different mentalities. That is where I woke up.”
 We understand the reality of the other person by sharing their life, talking, and at the same time interpreting their words in the place where they are. So, first you have to “let yourself be taken” by the world of that family, then interpret the words and what we are observing, and then reflect jointly about those interpretations. This is how content is given to the perspective that is now insertion, which gives meaning to the alliance that is being constructed. For example, what did the peasant family from San Ignacio-Matiguas mean to say, which was quoted on page 4 (last paragraph), in observing the change in Nitlapan? Responding to this question is interpreting those words in the context of the one saying it: Why did he say what he said?
 Marchetti, P. y Maldidier, C., 1996, El Campesino-Finquero y el potencial económico del campesinado nicaragüense. Managua: Nitlapan-UCA.
 This is similar to the parable of the “mental cup”. Our mind is like a cup full of tea, that when you continue to pour more tea into it, nothing more goes into the cup, because it is full. In other words, to add more tea you first have to empty something out of the cup. The same thing happens with our minds, to learn first you have to un-learn old “demons” (approaches and ideologies) that have made their nests in our minds.
 D. Kaimowitz expands on this point: “with the electoral defeat and the collapse of the [Berlin] wall and the growing neoliberal hegemony, the vision that you studied in order to earn more and have more status was even more widely accepted. If knowledge was not compatible with maintaining the status, then what must be sacrificed was the former, not the latter. Social mystique and commitment was…a dead letter – what really had legitimacy was where you had your house, what car you drove and what restaurants you ate in.”
 Within the Institute this logic is expressed in this way: one area gets external resources, then if there is a demand to train staff from another area, there is resistance: “my salary I got with such and such an agency, why am I going to subsidize (train) other people in the Institute?” Others say, “I already got my salary negotiating a project with such and such an agency, the only thing that the directors of Nitlapan have to do is formalize it.”
We visited the community of Matumbak in Rosita, arriving in the community we talked with a Mayangna family, and in a few minutes they asked us, “this is an interview, how much are you going to pay us?” C. Maldidier responded, “if you are going to charge me for responding, then I am going to charge you for asking, asking questions is harder than responding.” We laughed, talked, learned and no one charged anyone anything. While studying English in Saint Louis, Missouri, I heard an interview on television, and in order to get me to pay more attention to it, a US priest told me that the journalist that was doing the interview was one of the best in the US. The journalist asked the expert in the mythology of different cultures if he believed in God. The person interviewed turned the question back on him, “and do you believe in God?” The journalist responded, “I believe in the question, the question that leads me to learn, and that opens the path for me to things about life that I do not know.”
 Providing the way to do immersion is beyond this text. But we make our own the route that Eyben (2004) proposes of moving from having the reflective experience to the exchange, from there in dialogue to the evaluation of the experience, and from there to conclude in changes, which in turn feed into the experience.
 Or as M. Lester, WPF Director in Nicaragua says, “I think by talking, and then, yes, I think by writing.” (March 2013).
 Bohm, D. (1995) Unfolding memory. EEUU: Foundation House.
 Senge, P. (2011), La quinta disciplina en la práctica. Estrategias y herramientas para construir la organización abierta al aprendizaje. Argentina: Granica SA
 De Bono, E. (1999) Seis Sombreros para Pensar. Argentina: Granica SA
 It is not an alliance with NGOs, because then, as Faune said in a workshop in February 2013, “if a network of NGOs is created, what actors can enter there? What network is that? That isn´t anything!”
It turns out that the Tibetan New Year was celebrated yesterday, and none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama was present in the Twin Cities to celebrate the occasion. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for advocating “peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect….” He also spoke in the opening plenary session of this year’s Peace Prize Forum (an event that is supported once again by Winds of Peace Foundation). His message on Saturday morning included a reflection on the complex conditions of our world and the potential impacts we each have through our own personal influences. The message may have seemed too simplistic for many in the audience, who perhaps expected solutions far more detailed and involved than personal commitment. But in his offering of that view, I was struck by its direct endorsement of what WPF has come to refer to as its “synergy center.” (See the January 31, 2014 WPF blog, “The Difficult Work of Bridges.)
Really? The Dalai Lama weighing in on a synergy center in NIcaragua? Indirectly, yes. Read on.
At one point in the question and answer session following his remarks, the Dalai Lama was asked for three things that young people might do to bring about a more just and peaceful mindset to the world’s problems. His Holiness chuckled a bit at the question, perhaps because it sounded a bit like a request for a “top ten” list. But he gave his response with gentle gravity. “Change begins first in your own heart, and in the values you carry,” he offered. “Become aware. Amend what you find there first, and it will impact those around you, in your family. And soon, other families will feel the change, as well. And then the transformation can carry into the communities and the world.” In other words, international movements always begin with the seed of feeling in someone’s heart; nothing more is needed, and nothing less is required.
The formula offered by the Dalai Lama is as plain and painful as any admonition could be, filled with promise, power and enough personal, internal confrontation to make us shiver. Instead of suggesting a “do” list, he invited us to look inside ourselves, where no one else can be blamed or credited, where the obstacles to peace are of our own making. Simple advice, grueling work.
Awareness, reflection, and transforming ourselves first: His Holiness might have been reading from one of the brochures offered by The Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College or from the mission of WPF. For thirty years, CGE (and WPF) has been facilitating the transformational, personal journeys of thousands of students and adult learners, as participants first gained new awareness of other people’s realities, then came to terms with the reasons for those realities and finally reflected on their own feelings about those realities. The doors to self-examination and transformation have been open wide for decades.
At the same time, WPF established a wide network of development partnerships, creating a wealth of information and contacts which have been complementary to the experiential process described above. The two entities have served each other well in cultivating the very introspection the Dalai Lama encourages.
Thus, the synergy center idea actually takes the Dalai Lama’s notion of self-examination and expands it. The concept brings together rising personal awareness and potential outlets for actions to impact communities and even an entire country through further learning. Access to the synergy center could bring directly into classrooms and our hearts a wide variety of people and input whose voices are not usually heard. The practical experience of people working in every discipline in Nicaragua, including the challenges they are confronting from their location in the global reality, can enrich research and teaching, and also people’s active engagement with these same issues. This type of international grassroots access can make for a more global experience in the personal development of students, travelers and everyday pilgrims who simply seek to know and understand our world a bit better. In a sense, it can enhance both the invitation to awareness as well as access to action.
Well, the Dalai Lama never actually mentioned the synergy center in his comments on Saturday; maybe I did use some poetic license to read into his wisdom. But the resonance between his invitation to personal change and the history of transformational experiences in Nicaragua is unmistakable. And I think the Dalai Lama might agree that this initiative is just the sort of seed planted in the heart to make a world of difference….
In January, I spent a week in the high heat of Managua, Nicaragua, where the daytime temperatures are routinely at 90+ degrees Fahrenheit; simply, there is no escape from the humid heat, even in air conditioning. Last week, I returned from a time on Madeline Island on Lake Superior. There, the evening temperatures reached -40 degrees Fahrenheit, with windchill factors of -60; simply, there is no escape from the cold at such depths, even when sitting in front of a wood stove. I suspect I must have been approaching the full range of ambient temperature extremes at which the human creature can survive.
Here in the north, people can be cold to the point where they don’t even recognize each other! It’s hard to see or acknowledge someone when peering out from the relative warmth and comfort of an insulated cocoon. We’d actually rather not stop to discourse anyway: we all sound as though we are actually speaking a different language when muttering from behind frigid faces. It’s different in the south. The discomforts that are felt there have nothing to do with cold, but rather stem from perpetual hot air which suffocates even the heartiest Nicaraguans eventually.
Temperatures aren’t the only extremes I’ve experienced. My January visit to Nicaragua included a conversation with Vanessa Castro Cardenal, vocal and energetic advocate for educating the youth of Nicaragua. (See my blog at this site, “Reading Between the Lines,” dated February 17.) Her fervent hope is to place a book in the hand of every Nicaraguan child in the hope of cultivating a love for reading, and a capacity beyond a third grade level. Literally days later, meeting with several representatives from the Jesuit University community was like being on a different planet. Hearing the aspirations strategized from within that community made me wistful for my youth! How I would cherish a second chance to embrace the holistic health of such an education as they envision, as would so many in Nicaragua.
In January I “moonlighted” by working on some private employment contracts that contained language providing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual compensation and incentives. And then within days, I found myself updating my own often-cited statistics concerning average Nicaraguan pay: $2.50 per day, up from previous years at $2.00 daily. The disparity of those two realities was reinforced last week while watching the Sochi Olympics. I learned that staging the games in Russia incurred a $51 billion price tag, in a country where the average pay might be $20 a day. Inequity is apparently universal, without national boundaries.
While musing out loud about such wide disparities, an acquaintance suggested that the world has always been this way, both in terms of the divergent natural habitats found on earth as well as in the differences we encounter as its inhabitants. It was offered up as an explanation of sorts, but I took it as a condemnation. For while there may be little we can do to moderate the hot and cold temperatures of the air, we certainly control both the warmth and the coolness radiated out from ourselves. While students will never reach perfect parity with one another in their capacities to learn, we surely owe each the opportunity to achieve that which they can. And while each of us are owed the full fruits of our labor, it can never be at the expense of other lives.
We seem to have allowed ourselves the latitude to remain cold in the heat of the human struggle, a posture that feels a bit extreme….
The uphill struggles of many in Nicaragua have been well-chronicled both here and in countless other reflections written by visitors to that country. The reality of need is evident not only in statistics (such as percentage of people earning less than $2.50 a day, second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, etc.), but also in the endless stream of mission, outreach and development agency people visible on flights in and out of the country every single day. Nicaragua is a worthy and close-by neighborhood for the exercise of our largesse. But the needs evidenced in Nicaragua are not likely to be eased by short-term and sometimes short-sighted North American efforts. There exists a more systemic and underlying difficulty.
Education. Or rather, the insufficiency of it, both in terms of quantity and quality. Now, we’re all fond of stating the obvious when it comes to education, that as a society the more of it we have the better our long-term prospects for the future become. We compare our educational outcomes with those in other countries, we gnash our teeth when math and science scores seem to fall further behind other nations, and we wonder aloud whether the cost of a college education is worth the investment vocationally. These are all reasonable concerns to have, and we acknowledge them continuously. But in Nicaragua, the level of urgency and need for education improvement is on another plane altogether. And without substantive interventions, the outlook is not good. This is a country where most kids don’t last beyond the third grade. Where teachers all too often have no training for the classroom. Where the compensation for teachers is less than half the average monthly need for cost of living. Where even the first lady of the land has described the education performance as, “mediocre.” Clearly, the scope of both the need and the impact is well-known across society. Despite all the sources of assistance and other forms of aid coming into Nicaragua, its developmental outlook can never be hopeful without address of its education shortfall.
The plight seems pretty dire on the face of it, and that’s why our visit a couple of weeks ago with Vanessa Castro was so uplifting. She’s a well-educated educator: a PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked with the World Bank, IADB, UNESCO, and CIASES . And her passion is education of Nicaragua’s kids, especially through reading development.
On a national level, Vanessa and others are trying to motivate children with a campaign to encourage reading with greater speed and comprehension. Underwritten by several sponsoring organizations, the campaign consists of a contest accepting first-grade classes from all around the country that wish to participate. Any class with a teacher who is full-time and present in class can compete at the school, municipal, and departmental level to reach the finals. 80% of each class must pass the requirements, which include reading an average of at least 25 words per minute and answering 80% of the comprehension questions correctly. The success rates are improving as the number of schools and participants increases, and the excitement is evident in Vanessa’s face as she tells stories of small successes. “Offering awards is just the means to the end of raising these children’s reading fluency to acceptable international standards. We need community motivation, parent participation, and teacher training to spur the children towards these goals.”
Those goals constitute a big part of why WPF has added education as one of its main focal points for assistance. The Foundation’s activities undertaken over the past three years are varied and widespread across public and private organizations, but all with the aim to lift Nicaragua’s children through enhanced education. For example, with WPF involvement the reading literacy program purchased more than 12,000 books last year for placement in primary schools, often constituting the only books available to students in those schools. Some 8,000 children were served by the effort, a mere fraction of the need but nonetheless an important number of kids exposed to new, engaging stories, and a love for reading.
There are lots of ways that organizations like WPF might seek to make a difference in the lives and futures of Nicaraguans, to be sure. But even a cursory assessment of their greatest needs underscores the reality that, reading between the lines, education is the basis of future hope….