A Short Stay in Nicaragua

In 2010, I visited both Costa Rica and Nicaragua as part of a volunteer organisation based in London, England. Leaving a worried mother and father at home I embarked on a three month trip that, little did I know, would be the best three months of my life so far. I was assigned to a project based in La Vanilla, a small village on the outskirts of Achuapa, Estelí, where about ten families resided. I lived with a family of eight in a two-room corrugated iron hut. Living amongst the locals was the best way to do it as I learned a lot about their struggles, their successes and their general everyday activities. It seemed to me that the main problem was with education or the lack of access to it. The school there was made up of three rooms, with one acting as a lunch / music hall and the other two as classrooms. What stood out was how the textbooks, that supposedly taught English, were incorrect and thus, the students were not learning anything of value. A second issue lay in the fact that they had no consistent teacher. The family I lived with told me that it was a touch and go situation as to whether a teacher would turn up for school that day. After more questioning I learned that teachers are not held in high regard in Nicaragua, much like other countries. The average wage for a teacher in Nicaragua is well below that of a market worker and in actual fact Nicaraguan teachers are amongst the worst paid professionals in Nicaragua. Indeed, they are amongst the worst paid workers in Central America.
Recently, a Nicaraguan economist by the name of Adolfo Acevedo, who is a independent research professional, said that,

“The glass ceiling for the quality of education is the quality of teachers. And there is no way to attract better and more qualified teachers to the profession if people can earn twice as much doing just about any other job.”

Indeed, this statement may be on the right lines as it is obvious that if teachers continue to be among the lowest paid workers then the supply of teachers as well as the demand for teaching jobs will decrease. Leaving Nicaraguan education in a state of disrepair. In order to alleviate this problem, the issue that must first be addressed is the lack of funding for teachers. The average wage must increase, attracting a better-educated group of teachers that have the capabilities to teach young Nicaraguans and to be able to sustain a lifestyle that will sufficiently support them. When the Sandinista government first came to power, they claimed free education for all. President Ortega went as far as to say that education will be a "priority for his administration" and deployed a nationwide literacy campaign. Although the past government may have caused the problem of a lack of funding for education in Nicaragua but it appears that the new government has done nothing to change this. Indeed, the situation has been called "stagnant" as the issue of underfunding continues to be a problem. In a developing nation such as Nicaragua, where funding for education is difficult due to other national expenses, it will be critical to ensure that the appropriate funding is directed to teachers training and increase salaries in order to ensure quality education for all.

Author: Maddie Owen (Pangea Proxima Intern) 

A Lesson in Development from Makuleke, South Africa

Development is only successful if those living there can sustain it. A single project that just ends when someone leaves, improves some part of a person’s standard of living, but it can go no farther than what was accomplished during that time. When I think of development, I think of providing the locals with the tools they need to improve their own lives for years to come. This may be anything from teaching them construction, to how to start and run a business, to giving them the ability to think and act in a way that might deviate from tradition.
The experience of development that has opened my eyes is in Makuleke, a rural village in South Africa. Life there revolves around basic necessities, where food, water, and energy are still hard to come by. There is a 70% unemployment rate in the village, with many adults moving to Johannesburg to find work. They send some money back to family in the village to provide some income. The problem is that the income from Johannesburg has not created jobs in the village, keeping it in a cycle of unemployment and poverty.
There is also the lack of adequately educated people living in the village. The local high school is known as the “serial killer of learners.” This is due to the teachers not showing up at school often and when they do, they are drunk or talk about their families. This is very detrimental because the students do not have the resources to teach themselves. Only around 30% of students earn a high school diploma.
That means very few have the opportunity to go to a university. Those that go to university do not return to the village because there are no jobs for them. This means that those that can actually make a positive difference in the lives of the villagers do not have (or take) that opportunity, creating a ‘brain drain.’ If all of those that acquired skills to assist their village leave, the village is stuck in its cycle of poverty. Growth and development is not sustainable when there is no one there that can participate or lead it.
A non-profit I worked with in the village, “Sharing To Learn”, is attempting to change that. They have established libraries to provide the youth, as well as the adults, with information and knowledge. With this acquired knowledge, the villagers will be more able to participate in improving their own lives. This creates a sustainable method of providing the knowledge and skills necessary for development. The libraries are run by locals, allowing for the continuation of the program without an outsider being there all the time.
The only element of the program that could improve on the sustainability of it is covering the cost of keeping the libraries running, which is small but still requires outside help. This issue with sustainability is small compared to most programs and may be solved over time, since this program is relatively new.

The main issue with sustainability in Makuleke village revolves around creating an environment that gives the educated local residents job opportunities in the village, eliminating the ‘brain drain.’ This would allow the locals to improve their own lives, and in turn, those of all the villagers. There is much potential in the locals to be the ‘engine of progress,’ but they need help in developing the tools that allow them to do so. I have found that the best way to influence successful development is to help people help themselves. You just have to give them the chance to do so.

Author: Danielle Hoffer (Pangea Proxima Intern)

Sustainability Spotlight: Hawai‘i

Have you ever popped a balloon? Not with a pin, but with your breath? The skin gets thinner and thinner as the air fills up the small area. Soon enough the pressure is too great for the finite amount of space and the skin ruptures in one split second, totally destroying the balloon.
I'm not really here to write about balloons of course, it a loose analogy for living on an island. I’m from the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, born and raised. Within a short span of twenty years I've seen the population boom, traffic get worse, and the beaches get a bit more crowded.  The air in the balloon represents the social growth and the balloon itself represents the structure and the stability of the island. If we aren’t careful the “balloon” might burst.
The Hawai’i 2050 sustainability plan, put in motion by the City and County of Honolulu and the Hawai’i 2050 Sustainability Task Force in 2008, gives a detailed plan on how Hawai’i is trying to preserve our island for future generations.  This “people’s plan” is a community-based blueprint for a sustainable Hawai’i. You can read the full plan here, but the five main goals of this plan are to preserve:
  • A Way of Life – Living sustainably is part of our daily practice in Hawai‘i.
  •  The Economy – Our diversified and globally competitive economy enables us to meaningfully live, work and play in Hawai‘i.
  • Environment and Natural Resources – Our natural resources are responsibly and respectfully used, replenished and preserved for future generations.
  • Community and Social Well-Being – Our community is strong, healthy, vibrant and nurturing, providing safety nets for those in need.
  • Kanaka Maoli and Island Values – Our Kanaka Maoli and island cultures and values are thriving and perpetuated.

As this is one of the most comprehensive and inclusive planning processes in our state’s history, you can tell how important it is for Hawai’i to become sustainable and set a new path for self-efficiency, responsibility, conservation, and protection. We need to respect and live within the natural resources and limits of our islands.
John Locke, a 17th century philosopher, believed in tabula rasa (Latin for blank slate), as do I. This theory states that knowledge comes from experience and perception. The future belongs to our youth, keiki in Hawaiian, and we need to train them in a way that we can live off and with the land. Education of sustainability can be started not just at home, but in schools too. It can never be too young to learn the benefits of locally grown food, recycling, water conservation, and making “green” choices.
George R. Ariyoshi, Governor 1973-1986 and supporter of Hawaii 2050, in his State-of-the-State Address, January 23, 1978 is quoted: “We share an awesome responsibility, you and I, a responsibility that transcends this time and this place. Direction comes only from an awareness of future problems and future needs and a willingness to step forward and address that future – as difficult and as overwhelming as that may sometimes be.” These words ring true, even to this day. Everyone can do their part, as every little bit helps in a task as daunting as this.
Although I am far away from home for now, I still try to follow the example set by those back in Hawai’i. Living in California has given me great opportunities to work with like-minded people that share the common interest of making the world a better place. Together by doing our part we can spread the motivation and change seen in Hawai’i and apply it here in California, or wherever we may go. Remember: responsibility, conservation, and education begins with you, why wait to make a change? 
Author: Kristin Hughes (Pangea Proxima Intern)

I Hate When Teachers Are Right

As an American, I have been told from a very early age that education is the key to success as an individual.  I was told millions of times by teachers that reading is fundamental, education is power, the key to your success is through education, blah blah blah.  I, as a skeptic, didn’t really believe this.  Hard work, I said, was the key to success.  As I got older I found that the answer to being a successful adult is…well, it’s both.

One funny thing I have learned on this planet for my short time:  Entire nations usually have the characteristics of their people.  If you think about this fact, you’ll see that every nation takes on the personality of the people that reside within the borders.  Now, this is likely an overblown and broad generalization, of course.  But, it makes sense…just think about it.

So, as I was thinking about literacy the other day, I was curious about how well people read around the world.  Why was I pondering this, you ask?  I do not know.  Curiosity, I suppose.  Boredom, most likely. But, I digress.  When I have a question that keeps nagging at the back of my brain, I do one thing…I consult the Internet.  I decided that I wanted to see for myself if there was a connection of how well we read to the relative success of our nation.  While looking at the statistics, from various sources, it appears that there is a severe correlation between overall literacy rates for citizens and the economic status of a country. Overall, if the people of a particular nation read fairly well then that nation will have a better chance to achieve world prominence…or at least relevance.

For example, there are a number of nations with literacy rates of less than thirty percent.  Keep in mind, literacy rates are often defined as a person aged 15 or older that can read or write.  Just telling you that for clarity.  Anyway, Niger (29%), South Sudan (27%), Afghanistan (28%), and Burkina Faso (21%) are all nations that fall into the category of, what I like to call, life-threatening literacy poverty.  As we know, or can easily find out, each of these nations has little political power, resources have been dwindled to nearly nothing, and each has very little wealth, either personal or political. These countries are poor.  Well, these countries are beyond poor.  They passed poor ten bus stops ago.  These nations are into territory of poverty that your average American cannot fathom.

Basically folks, if your people can’t read then your nation will suffer economically and politically.

So, what can we do?  Get people to read!  Yeah I know, it’s easier said than done in most cases.  Also, there are often cultural norms that prevent a lone proselytizer of literacy (like myself) from walking into Riyadh and saying “I will teach anyone to read if you want to learn”.  The powers that be may not want that to happen.  In many nations, even if higher literacy rates are a good thing, overall, a higher percentage of citizens who read well may prove problematic to incumbent power bases.  So, in many instances getting the people of the world to read can be an uphill battle.

But, this is a battle worth fighting.

I always hated when my teachers were right.  Reading is fundamental.  Education is power.  And, dang it, the key to success IS through education. 

*For an excellent example of what can be done to change world literacy rates, check out the work that the organization, Room To Read is doing in some of the poorest nations around the world.  Just amazing work, these people do.   

Author: Josh Mincey (Pangea Proxima International Consultant- Distance Learning Specialist)

Rethinking Development: Empowerment of the Community

The other day, I was having a conversation with someone about the goals of Pangea Proxima and, more generally, about development work.  This person suggested to me that I consider introducing clinical trials to impoverished rural areas of the countries that I may work in.  The rationale was that clinical trials were a method of supplying people with medical assessments and medications that they would not have access to otherwise.  As well-intentioned as this perspective may be, I couldn’t help but be surprised that the larger implications regarding ethical practices and sustainability weren’t immediately understood as well. 
Children of Butajira, Ethiopia

I joined Pangea Proxima as a consultant because I believe in work that is thoughtful in its development as well as respectful of human dignity regardless of location or socioeconomic status of the people benefiting from the project.  The goal is always to develop projects that have staying power, that community members have ownership over, that elicit pride.  A clinical trial, while potentially providing healthcare to the selected participants, is time-limited and for a select few.  Sustainable projects should ideally have a long-lasting impact and be available to all.  In addition, I don’t believe that using a person’s inability to access healthcare as an avenue to test medical practices or medications is morally acceptable.  So this leads me to my question of... why?  Why would someone who I believe to be generally ethical suggest a project idea that I believe is a great departure from the direction that development work should be heading?
Mural in Hawassa, Ethiopia

I think the answer to this question lies in the distance that people can place between those living in wealthy countries as opposed to people living in low-income, and therefore low-resource, countries.  There is a tendency to try to fix the problem of poverty by throwing solutions at it, in the form of money or donations, when these may not ultimately be a solution at all.  Feeding a person for a day may mean that their stomach is full today, but empty again tomorrow; the underlying issue that caused the hunger remains.  I believe that educating and empowering an individual or a community is 100 times more effective in promoting development than donating food or clothing is.  Increasing skills in sustainable farming or building practices not only provides lasting food and shelter, it maintains the dignity of the project participants. 

There is a movement in the international development world that is shifting away from the previous paradigm of wealthy countries donating money and an agenda for poor countries to implement.  The shift is toward the empowerment of people in low-income countries to find and implement solutions for their own countries because they are, quite obviously, the people who know their land best.  I believe that the most successful and ethical projects that require outside funding or support are the ones that truly harness and empower the voices of the target population.  Pangea Proxima is attempting to do just this by building local capacity, employing local people in projects, getting ideas from local people and consulting with the community every step of the way.  I believe that this is the direction that development work needs to head in in order to maintain integrity, and for this reason I am very proud to join the Pangea Proxima team.

Author: Marina Marcus (Pangea Proxima International Consultant- Global Health Specialist)

The Benevolent Octopus: Using Distance Learning To Reach All Students

For the first hundred thousand years of human existence, the schooling of children was completed in ways that were practical to the function of the society.  Meaning, kids learned from elders who learned from their elders and so on.  The skills acquired were entirely practical: how to sow and harvest a crop, which seasons were best for planting, and how to accurately track an animal, kill it, then skin the sucker.  Learning was for real-life events and situations and would often be done with individual instruction between expert and student.

Of course, modern society has seen a shift in both subject matter taught to children (relevant information, just not as practical) and the delivery method of teaching.  Where learning used to be individualized, modern teachers are tasked with the education of, very often, hundreds of young minds throughout a day of schooling.  The one-to-one instruction of ancient times is a pipe dream in the minds of today’s teachers.  Also, technology has been running through education like wildfire, causing policymakers to take notice and evaluate how the use of technology could help advance the future of education. These technological methods are the future of our world’s education, as evidenced by the use of internet-based class formats by a majority of American universities and many others, worldwide. 

I think we need to ask ourselves: Why should we utilize Internet based education in our schools, anyway?  That answer should be fairly obvious.  To gain access to experts in certain fields (subject matter experts, or SME’s) one may have to expand their method of learning and look outside of their classroom at their school.  This is normally due to the distance from the expert to the student.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have a teacher who is proficient in the language of Swahili, for example.  But, with internet-based teaching modalities that teacher of Swahili can spread their knowledge to learners over the entire globe.  No longer are students limited to the SME’s that are available locally.  Experts around the world can be utilized to improve the lives of people thousands of miles from their home. 

Children of Atlanta, Georgia, USA
So, modern education has evolved into what I like to call a “benevolent octopus”.  Education in this century and beyond will involve instructors of various nationalities and cultures spreading what they know to students worldwide.  It is conceivable that a student could, through the magic of the Internet and computer technology, have a Calculus instructor based in Pakistan, and English instructor located in Canada, a Biology instructor located in Honduras, and an Art instructor based in New York City.  Students of the world today could have the best possible instructors in every field right at their fingertips and on the screens of their televisions, computers, and smart phones.  The goal of education is to better the lives of the learner and to impart knowledge from the best possible sources.  The benevolent octopus could do deliver the overall goal of education.

The benevolent octopus of online collaboration and learning is one that would allow students to reach out with many different “arms” to the information that they need to improve their lives.  There would still be a place for on-site teachers, of course.  The instructors on-site, or physically with their classes, would be critical in the functioning of schooling through the virtual world.  The on-site teachers would act as tutors, problem solvers, assistants, as well as teaching a few classes of their own, face-to-face.  However, an added benefit would be that on-site teachers would no longer have to be “generalists”.  They too, could be experts in their field. 

Of course, there is a question of the costs of outfitting schools, communities, and individual homes with the equipment needed to take part in such cutting edge educational experiences.  Yes, there is an up-front cost.  There’s just no way around that fact.  But, once the cost-prohibitive factors of equipment and infrastructure are in place, the cost per child of internet-based education is very reasonable.  In a later blog post, I will tackle the issue of cost, so stay-tuned.

Internet based education can benefit our children in ways unknown in past generation.  The access that today’s students have to teachers in distance lands, peers with cultures very unlike their own, and resources from around the world is astounding.  We just need to figure out a way to get each child their own benevolent octopus so they can reach out to the world and get the education that they need.

That, for us, is the challenge.

Author: Josh Mincey (Pangea Proxima International Consultant- Distance Learning Specialist)

Costa Rica: Making strides with GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

   In February 2012, Pangea Proxima met with Alan Ramirez, the manager of the GIS department of INEC, at his office to discuss Costa Rica’s situation with GIS. INEC (Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censos) is the national institute which conducts the country’s census every ten years.

   Alan talked about the nation’s latest census report (2011) which was just completed and how the data is currently being examined. Also INEC, under Alan’s guidance, has just recently completed the process of digitizing all of the cities, towns and streets throughout Costa Rica. This development will not be noticed by most Ticos (Costa Ricans) initially, but it sets the stage for advancement of the nation’s economy, business, health, education and environmental conservation which will be far-reaching and will eventually affect every citizen in some form. Those people up to meet the challenge and ready to take advantage of the opportunity presented will be able to examine spatial patterns occurring among the population and achieve success by planning accordingly. Concerning growing the economy, business people will be able to examine the demographics across regions and target their audience effectively. They will know where to best start a new business or distribute their products after examining variables such as incomes and densities of populations. The government will have the ability to improve access to health and education  by building new facilities after examining spatial patterns of population demographics, densities, education levels, and health topics. The government and NGOS may also start working on curbing important negative social issues such as poverty by targeting specific areas down to the block level and creating “hot spots”, which pinpoint the areas facing the highest social risks. The government and NGOs will also be able to help conserve the nation’s pristine environment and large biodiversity by examining historical records with a new spatial perspective. This new factor could produce such positive effects as helping to preserve some of the world’s endangered species.
A GIS thematic map of Costa Rica using the "hot spots" technique
Older hand drawn maps
  In the past, all of the official Costa Rican census maps were hand-drawn, which were very time-consuming and were not effective when it came to examining census data because the collected information could not be imported automatically. Speaking from an economical stand-point, in the short term, the cheaper option to produce census maps may be the traditional manual approach, especially in countries that have low costs of labor. However, from society’s point of view, it will be efficient and economically effective to initially invest more on the front-end in a digital method because the long-term benefits are far greater when it comes to planning for the future. In the case of the GIS, the largest investment must be made at the beginning. This means that expenditures in the early stages of a project, are incurred while the tangible benefits perhaps only materialize well into the project cycle. An initial large investment on the front end will translate to lower costs of maintenance, updating and sustainable benefits in the long-term. Long-term benefits are much higher because the process creates a multi-purpose digital database. 

   The proposal for modernization of the census mapping unit breaks with the traditional schemes and aligns with the most innovative trends in the production of geostatistical data. This methodology is also in full convergence with the main tenets of the United Nations in cartography for census reports. The tenets reflect the recommendations of the expert group meetings and includes the conclusions of the regional workshops on GIS and census mapping. The meetings of the experts stressed the need for countries to consider the use of census geographic programs as a continuous process and not merely as a sequence of operations of mapping and dissemination. It was emphasized that the manual should demonstrate that the use and application of contemporary geospatial technologies is beneficial in all stages of population and housing censuses. The manual also prevents ways in which various technologies improve the efficiency in the preparation stages, census, census processing and dissemination of its results.

Here are some other important recent developments in Costa Rica concerning their GIS census mapping efforts:
    The digitization process
  • Input of orthophotos (aerial photograph geometrically corrected such that the scale is uniform) in 85% of the country  
  • 2009: All modern processes of digital mapping became operational
  • Development of mapping facilities and the purchase of necessary equipment and technology
  • Costa Rican geographers at work digitizing the nation's cities, towns and roadways
  • Recruitment and training of 100 people to digitally map the entire nation 
  • The MGU (Minimum Geostatistical Unit) was updated. The MGU covers a geographical area, of variable size. Urban Area = one block; Rural Area= town, village, hamlet.
  • Mapping of the following:
o   Rivers: Represents the national water network updated to 2010
o   Localities: Settlements, neighborhoods, villages, Center, city, indigenous community, condominium, precarious, village, urbanization and residential.
o   References: They represent the locations of places of interest, they are shops, schools, churches, squares, parks, which are useful for the census.
o   Limits: Represents the limit geostatistical or the administrative political boundary.
o   Public works and roads: streets, sidewalks, threshing-boards, malls, railway lines, power transmission lines, bridges, gates, pedestrian crossings, etc.

Additional GIS Census Projects in Costa Rica happening in the near future will include:
  • Improvement of cartographic layers
  • Permanent cartographic update in the field
  • Publish the Catalog of Territorial Integration
  • Design of printed maps and in .pdf format
  • Creation of thematic maps with variables and indicators of the 2011 Census
  • Site for interactive queries via the web
  • Mapping for new sampling frames on the basis of the mapping of the 2011 Census
   Early this coming summer (2012), Pangea Proxima will be working with the Minister of Education in Costa Rica to help place accurate location markers on the 29% of their 5,000 schools which are located in extremely rural areas (mountains, forests and jungles).
Costa Rican planners examining maps
Strides in mapping technology will help the nation use the science behind studying spatial patterns in helping to further the cause of creating greater access to health and education. This work in turn will lead to a healthier and higher quality of life decreasing extreme poverty.

To read more about the Costa Rica 2011 Census click on the following link:

Costa Rican census workers collecting data
Hand-held GPS device used to gather data for digital maps