This week

We’re at that time of year where everyone’s coughing and sneezing and if you haven’t already got the black death it’s only a matter of time before someone gives it to you. Argentinian colds seem to be particularly evil, or maybe our puny little English defense systems just haven’t developed the appropriate antibodies yet.
Hazel and bikeThis baby has a lot to answer for, I had to take my bike in to the shop this week, and have my beloved racing-handlebars swopped for some upright ones because I can’t reach down to the brakes any more, which was starting to feel like a bit of a safety hazard for doing business with Cordoban drivers! So now I’m in “granny-sit up and beg” mode, but at least it means I can keep cycling for a while longer, hadn’t anticipated that consequence to my increasing fatness. I’ve also just bought a pair of dungarees, after completely running out of clothes that fit me.

I’ve got a side-project on at the moment trying to organise a wheelchair for a little boy in San Marcos, not directly connected with the children’s home, but a family of limited resources and a lot of kids, one of whom has cerebral palsy. He’s seven years old and his mum has to carry him around everywhere. She’s been trying to get a chair officially through their local services for ages, but Argentina is based on who you know, and who they know, and if you don’t have the right people then the “official” channels are arduous, bureaucratic, and often lead to dead ends anyway. A friend of mine managed to wrangle a wheelchair for someone else a few months ago in Cordoba, so I’m trying to go through the same sources and I think we’ve now got a basic “yes” in principle. I had to go back and see the family this week and weigh the kid, take a full-length photograph of him, and a photocopy of his certificate of disability etc etc, but it’s looking hopeful.

Stuff moves slowly here, and there’s no joining up between services. In the hospital where we visit, there’s a guy there at the moment who’s had his leg amputated, but no-one’s actioned anything on him getting a prosthesis. Apparently the patient’s supposed to take responsibility for organising it, except that he’s currently in hospital having had his leg chopped off… and round and round we go. I guess it’s not a great deal different to the UK; on paper we have “equal entitlement”, but in real life, the rich and articulate are able to access services, and no-one else really exists unless they chance upon an advocate with the right contacts who can argue for them.

Power to the bike

Some truly heartwarming sights from this weekend. Yesterday we saw two “cycling proficiency” type childrens’ events going on in Cordoba. About a dozen 8-10 year olds in each group, all with their shiny bikes, cycle helmets, and little orange vests, were being guided through the traffic on the main roads in the centre of Cordoba. Today as we were going through another town of Arroya, we found that they were having a “bike day”. Hundreds of people of all ages and sizes, with bikes equally of all ages and sizes, were converging on small patch of concrete in the sunshine. Maybe I am jumping to premature conclusions, but if this is the first evidence of government promoting a resurgence in cycling then I’m all for it.
Back in the UK, I find the following on the news:
“About 700 cyclists in various states of undress have cycled through central London in another leg of the World Naked Bike Ride in naked protest against oil dependency. The ride draws attention to the elegant simplicity of the bicycle, and celebrates the power and individuality of our bodies. It’s ‘as bare as you dare’ so full nudity is not required”.

Power to the bike. I think it is great stuff and I’ll say so to anyone who’s listening, and probably to quite a lot of people who aren’t.

Here bikes are the toys of the rich, and the transport of the poor. There is a big divide between the kids of the less affluent who walk and bike to school, and kids of the more affluent who are driven from door to door. Road accident statistics in Argentina are particularly shocking, at around 7,500 deaths a year. What is interesting is who these statistics include. For example, the poor kids who walk to school barely feature. The slightly less-poor kids who bike to school also barely feature. So who are the 7,500? By far the biggest group are young drivers and their passengers. The affluent kids who spent their childhood on the back seat, move to the front seat and kill each other. Ironically, the attempt at protection results in kids being denied the opportunity to develop the very skills that might have saved them. Wrapping kids in tin boxes is only at best a short-term safety feature, whereas allowing them to take graded risks in the short-term produces better odds for long term survival.

For a few years, I’ve been doing informal research on “why people drive their kids around”. Apart from the “safety” fallacy, see above, there are two other main reasons. One is the “99 lemmings” discourse; “everyone else does it, and I don’t want my kids to feel different”. This is an interesting hierarchy of priorities. Not hurting a child’s feelings becomes more important than the life-skills that might actually lead to their long-term survival. Little wonder we lack the ability to consider such wider details as frying the planet.

The second reason is that we have uncritically sold out to a secularised work-ethic which says that the highest ideal is to aspire to do as many things as possible. So driving ones kids becomes the tool that enables them to achieve their six extra curricular activities before tea. And again, no-one seems to find it unusual that the kid’s extra flute lesson occupies a higher priority than their long term survival skills, or ensuring that there is a planet worth surviving in. We live in strange times.

When I was a teen, and the older folk around me were doing the “youth of today” script, I used to find myself thinking “well so far my generation has not been in government, or started a war, or produced a serial killer”. I also used to think that as I left my youth behind, I would inevitably find myself understanding and identifying with the attitudes being expressed by those adults. In fact today I am even more convinced that it is just not valid to hold kids responsible for the outcomes of decisions taken by the so-called adults around them. So here we are, on the cusp of parenthood ourselves, wondering what uncritical attitudes we in our turn are going to foist upon our own off-spring. Fry planet fry.

Introducing “Bean” Frost

baby scanI know, this is one of those “I believe it’s a baby because you tell me it is” sort of grainy black and white pics, which if we’re honest looks quite a lot like a bean, but really could be just about anything. This particular bean is ours, taken this morning. Almost definitely male, he is currently at four and a half months, with all limbs and vital organs in residence. This picture is his face, on the grounds that it is probably the one he will be the least embarrassed by when he’s fifteen.

Is Argentina a “Third World Country”?

First a disclaimer. “Third World Country” is in quote marks, because it’s a derogatory term not of my choosing. However, it is the term in most common usage in Argentina, and it is also probably the most relevant to the content that I’m writing in this instance.
I’ve been writing this blog entry for months, so I thought I should just bite the bullet and put it up, even though I’m not really happy with it yet. Think of it as a work in progress. It comes as a result of many conversations that I have had on the idea that “Argentina is a third world country”. I would like to explain why Argentina is not a third world country, and to explore some of the issues around these beliefs.

According to the United Nations
According to the United Nations, Argentina is one of the richest countries in the world. This is calculated using the Human development index which can be found in the United Nations development programme’s Human Development Report 2006. The Human Development Index is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, well being, and child-welfare. Countries are ranked according to their position in the world where 1 is the highest, currently Norway with an HDI of 0.965, and 177 is the lowest, currently Niger with an HDI of 0.311. As well as an individual rank, countries are also grouped into three broad categories according to high, medium, and low human development.

In 2006 Argentina was ranked 36th in the world with an HDI of 0.863, making it the highest ranked country in Latin America. It is categorised under the high level of human development, along with Chile (HDI 0.859), and Uruguay (0.851), the three Latino countries represented in the highest group. To give an idea in global terms, these countries can be seen on a par with many Eastern European countries, a couple of Gulf states, and several islands in the Caribbean.

According to Paul Samuelson
United-Statesian economist Paul Samuelson proposed a five-category economic model to include the three traditional categories of first, second and third world, plus Japan and Argentina as separate entities on the grounds that neither fitted into any of the three groups. He later revised this theory to four categories; essentially, the rich, the poor, Japan, Argentina, on the grounds that “rich” and “poor” were easy enough to define, but nobody could explain why a country with as few resources as Japan could be so economically successful, nor, conversely, why a country as rich as Argentina could consistently make such a mess of its economy. This tells us that Argentina’s economic past and present, while complex, don’t belong in a “third world” box.

According to Marcos Aguinis
In “el atroz encantó de ser argentinos”, Cordoban essayist Aguinis explores the paradoxes that have shaped the culture and economy of Argentina over the last hundred years or so. The very name Argentina comes from the Latin for “silver”, and a hundred years ago Argentina was the seventh richest economy in the world. However even at that time, paradoxes were observed and commented on by outsiders. Aguinis quotes Mexican comic Mario Moreno as saying “Argentina is comprised of millions of inhabitants who want to bankrupt it, although they haven’t yet succeeded”, and French administrator Gastón Jeze in “The public finances of the Argentinian republic”, concluded that “there exists a profound and radical contrast between the economic prosperity, and the disorder of the public finances”.

According to Freire
Grass roots educator Paulo Freire is best known for his work among the oppressed in Brazil of the early 1960’s. However, it was his later experience in Harvard, USA which changed his opinions considerably. Here Freire discovered that issues of poverty – in both material and human forms; repression, exclusion and powerlessness, exist in very diverse communities: the ‘third world’ exists within the ‘first world’ and the struggle for liberation in both is essentially the same. Although the UK and the USA are considered to be ‘successful’ economies by established standards, both also display wide disparities of wealth and opportunity. Thus from Freire’s experience in the USA he extended his definition of the Third World from a geographical to a political concept. In Freire’s language therefore, a “Third World Country” would be a false concept, since the Third World relates to the person’s experience of exclusion, rather than their current location.

According to Hollywood
Argentina comes off quite badly when compared with Hollywood. In Hollywood everyone is tall, good looking, rich, has straight teeth, and never goes to the toilet or gets sick. Naturally the facts are slightly different. The diversity of experience which surprised Freire in the 1960’s is little different in many respects today. In the USA there are over 46 million US citizens without medical insurance (Kaiser Commission Jan 2007) and uninsured children in the USA who are admitted to hospital are twice as likely to die as their insured counterparts (Families USA, March 2007). That means that there are more people in the USA without access to adequate health care than the total population of Argentina. Likewise I have had various discussions with people here who are adamant that there cannot possibly be any homelessness in the UK. The reality is that Shelter works with 170,000 homeless and vulnerably housed people every year in the UK. We of “The West” have a lot to answer for in terms of the images that we peddle of ourselves.

“How do you explain why Argentina’s public services aren’t any better if we are not a Third World Country?” Because however badly Argentina seems to be doing, at this moment there are nearly two hundred other countries who are faring worse, and the thirty or so who appear to be doing better aren’t as perfect as their Hollywood image suggests either.

Welcome to the real world
The other side of the coin is that the reason why the Hollywood image peddles so successfully is because people want to buy it. If someone else has managed to be tall, good looking, rich, with straight teeth and never need to go to the toilet, then maybe I can too. If I perceive myself to be poor and you to be rich, then you hold the solution to my problems. If I have none of the answers and you have all of the answers, then all I need is access to your answers. Accepting that I am richer than I think I am, and that you are less perfect than I think you are, means accepting the possibility that there might not be any answers after all, for any of us, and thus living with the reality that this world could never be as God intended it to be, and that Christ really is our only hope. And that’s a brave decision.