August 10, 2006

A Habitat Story

Another one from my turn at the SagaBlog:

Back in elementary school, I went to a small, private Montessori school in Bloomington, Indiana. Fourth through sixth graders all shared one classroom, with about thirty students in all. Moving into a huge public middle school afterwards was a difficult social adjustment, but Montessori was a great learning environment. One of my classmates, two years below me, was a girl named Kelsey. Her father was a professor at Indiana University (as was mine), and her mother was from Africa. Which would've been unremarkable except that this was 1994 and she was from Rwanda.

Estimates range from 800,000 to well over a million killed in the Rwandan Genocide, primarily ethnic Tutsi people at the hands of organized Hutu militias. From Wikipedia's article on the topic:
Ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors and those who refused to kill were often killed themselves. "Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself," said one Hutu, rationalizing an ambivalent mixture of regret, fear, and shame at being forced to kill Tutsis.

Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia members mostly killed their victims by chopping them up with machetes, although some army units used rifles. In some towns the victims were forcibly crammed into churches and school buildings, where Hutu extremist gangs massacred them.

Being all of eleven at the time, the full scope of this probably only vaguely registered with me at the time, but we were all definitely aware of it to some extent because Kelsey's mother was in the local paper (someone we knew was famous!) for her efforts to reunite with her family back in Rwanda. We had fundraisers at school to help her raise the money to travel to the refugee camps, searching for the scattered remnants of her family. I remember it took several trips, but she eventually was able to reunite with her mother. After some time — the details are blurry with time by now, but I think it must've taken over a year — she was finally able to secure a visa for her mother and her brother, who I believe were the only survivors in her family.

I first volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in high school; my school had a chapter and, on the suggestion of one of my favorite teachers, a sponsor of the club, a few friends of mine and I went out one Saturday to lend a hand on the house of a young woman named Jennifer. I don't remember exactly what I did that first time (I think I worked on the porch, and maybe some of the interior walls), but it was fun enough that when, later that year, the Unitarian Church that I attended at the time (that's another story) sponsored the construction of two houses out on the north side of town, I decided to go join them again. And whose house should I find myself raising the walls on my first Saturday morning there, but my old classmate Kelsey's uncle and the wife he met in the refugee camps of Rwanda some four or five years prior. And let me tell you, that was pretty cool.

Every weekend after, I dragged myself out of bed at 7:00 on a Saturday morning to drive out and take part in construction from start to near-finish: driving nails, putting up siding, drywalling, painting trim, running wiring all over the house with an old retired electrician my grandfather's age, and more. It was amazingly fun, and rewarding — and, as a teenager youth with your usual modicum of adolescent angst, also good for adding a little broader perspective to life. I continued my participation with Habitat on into college, where my constant involvement made it one of the defining aspects of my life at the time; it remains one of the things I miss most from home.

There is a Habitat for Humanity Japan affiliate, although it acts primarily as a coordinating and support service for groups taking Global Village trips to nearby countries in the Pacific. Volunteer organizations like Habitat are hard to find here in Japan; the word, ボランティア, is not native to the language and as I understand it normally carries connotations of group civic responsibility and shared sacrifice, like when my students are told to go out en masse to pick up trash along the roadside for an hour or so at school. That's good and important and all; our New Horizon third year textbooks have a unit on volunteerism, but there as well, the activities described are officially-sponsored (school groups with a partner family in Nepal — why oh why did they change it from Bangladesh this year??? I could've done a great lesson with that..) — not from grassroots.

There are a number of possible explanations for the relative absence of individual civic volunteerism in Japan. There are the obligatory references to Japan's "group culture", and the widespread influence of religious groups (Habitat, which is officially an ecumenical Christian organization, gets most of its volunteers and support from church groups, although everyone is welcome) in American social life, which Japan lacks. There's also the notion that these things are the responsibility of the government authorities, and not the general populace.

But there's also real legal impediments to the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In a 1999 article in the magazine Pacific Affairs entitled "Wither Japan's Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level", Robert J. Mason writes:
Perhaps the largest single obstacle facing NGOs is the difficulty of obtaining tax-exempt status. Indeed, 90 percent of all NGOs in Japan lack such status. To receive tax-exempt status, an NGO must be officially recognized by the government as a "public-interest corporation." Eligibility conditions for such status are not precisely specified by law, but what is generally required are either capital assets of about U.S.$ 2.5 million (¥300 million) or membership numbers beyond the reach of the vast majority of environmental organizations. What constitutes a sufficiently large membership base is decided by the ministry with which the NGO is affiliated. All public-interest corporations must be chartered by a government ministry, which will have a significant say regarding such matters as the group's activities and board membership. In short, the process is time-consuming and the requirements, while not clearly defined, can nonetheless be rigid and restrictive.

By comparison, registering an non-profit in the United States is a matter of filing a couple of forms with the IRS, which looks them over to ensure that the organization matches at least one of the large list of existing categories of charity — a process which usually only takes a couple months at most, and which is not meant to allow government or bureacucratic control of the groups. (In the UK, there's a Charity Comission, which as near as I can tell does pretty much the same thing; Canadians, Aussies, and Kiwis will have to give me a hint as to how your system works here.)

So, why are my students freezing away in dilapidated old buildings while the bureaucrats at the city hall stay warm and cozy? One possible answer is the equally underdeveloped state of Japan's volunteer organizations. A democratic government that truly represents the needs and concerns of its citizenry depends on civil society groups — churches, environmental groups, and other volunteer organizations where people associate together based on shared interests and goals — to transmit the concerns of the people to the authorities outside of the election cycle, as well as to hold them to them when it comes time to vote. So not only am I having an awesome good time when I volunteer with Habitat — I'm doing my part to keep democracy strong at the same time. And they usually have free donuts in the mornings too!

Taiwan and South Korea achieved peaceful transitions to democratic governance in the 1980s after small local religious and environmental organizations banded together to create a national movement capable of articulating a demand for reform and accountability of the government to the populace. The Chinese Communist Party — with good reason — fears just such movement today. And Karatsu — well, I'll be waiting.

Got more time to kill? Check out this site, which offers a longer article on NGOs in Japan and offers more comparisons to how they operate versus those in the U.S. For other articles I've come across relating to the broader topic of civil society, check out my shared bookmarks on the subject.

August 09, 2006


I originally wrote this post for the Saga JET communal blog, based on some thoughts that I've been turning over in my head for a while here. I'm not sure if they've really been fully expressed here, but it's a start. The post is reproduced below.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I'm not always sure about the degree to which my presence as an ALT here in Saga really makes a major difference in the lives and learning of my young students. I think that it might be doing something, perhaps in subtler ways than I can easily discern, but even with that thought it's not clear how much of it is directly connected to me, as opposed to any other friendly gaijin plunked down in my spot. I do think, though, that my being here has definitely had an effect on me, which I suppose is at least something.

Smack in the center of the sweltering Saga summer (say that five times fast), it may require a powerful stretch of the imagination, but if you'll recall it was only six or seven months ago that we were all sitting around, shivering in the biting Siberian-tinged air, tethered to the warm envelopment of the kotatsu. That is assuming we were at home; in the half-century old concrete hulks that serve as schools here in Karatsu, there was no respite. Except that, as a teacher, I could get away with wearing a heavy jacket, and retreat between classes to hover over the space heater in the shokuinshitsu to thaw my hands; unless they could think of an excuse to come visit a teacher for a few minutes, my poor sailor-suited students had no such escape.

I think it was probably the unreasonableness of teachers who would yell at students who dared to put on gloves or scarves in the frigid classrooms that was the most maddening aspect of it all, but almost equally galling was the thought that here I was, in one of the richest nations in the world, and they can't even manage to heat their children's schools! Aside from the basic issue of social priorities, the cold also had clear and demonstrable effects on the students' ability to learn and function — namely, they were too busy shivering to be bothered. It did give me an opportunity to teach the words "central heating" and "insulation", but that didn't really do much to solve the problem.

One day I expressed some of this frustration to one of my JTEs; her sympathetic response was "Yes, that's true... but Japan has no oil." At the time I think I was pretty dismissive of this idea: they appear to have enough energy to keep the city hall and the goddamn 7-11's warm, so I think there might be a little more to it than that. I still think that's the case — and tomorrow I'm going to make an effort to explain why I think these priorities might become distorted in the Japanese system —but I have to admit that her comment has stuck with me and, in a way, made me reconsider — or at least reassess — some of my assumptions.

I was born into an era of American supremacy. Although I was alive for its last few years, I have no memory of the Cold War, and my formative young adult years during the 1990s were ones where the American model appeared to be ascendant and essentially unchallenged. By virtue of my birth I have been extremely lucky in the opportunities available to me — the JET program's shared requirement of a college degree means we have all been extremely lucky, relative to the majority of the rest of the world today. In raising me I think my parents made a real effort (one I hope I'm able to emulate, some day) to ensure that I would be aware of and grateful for these gifts, and I've tried to do my part for others less fortunate, to date principally through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity during my four years at college. But surrounded by the social and physical infrastructure of the world superpower — clean water, cheap energy, good schools — it's hard not to take some of it for granted. The Japanese don't have abundant natural energy reserves, or a globe-spanning navy capable of stabilizing shipping lanes, or the world's biggest economy. The United States does, and while it doesn't explain the whole story about why my students are expected to suck it up and deal with freezing, uninsulated, unheated schools, I think it might well have more to do with it than I initially recognized. And if this is coming from the world's second-richest economy (even if we are living in one of its poorest sub-divisions), what about the rest of the world?

The implications of this are challenging. One of — if not the — best things I've done in my life has been my work with Habitat for Humanity. While I recognize that the elimination of substandard, poverty housing across the globe (as Habitat aims to do) is a goal far greater than anything I'll ever be able to achieve, I know that I have personally contributed my sweat and money and effort towards build an affordable home for over fifty families across the United States. However small the scale, that has made an undeniable impact for those families, helping them achieve a baseline of stability and opportunity, and I'm grateful for the chance to have been a part of it. (Building a house is, incidentally, also tons of fun.) But my experience in Japan, and on my trip to Bangladesh this past Golden Week on a Habitat Global Village trip, has shown me the great degree to which poverty can be relative. I don't think it diminishes the real need of poor Americans, but this gap between the U.S. standard of living and that of other countries may mean I have to reassess my assumptions. What constitutes a "simple, decent" home in the United States is drastically different from one in Haluaghat, Bangladesh, and one in Japan.

What's difficult about this is the accompanying notion that the world cannot, in fact, afford for all of its peoples to enjoy the standard of living that I as an upper-middle class American was born into thinking as "fair". And not just unaffordable in terms of monetary economics but also the natural resources that build and fuel that economy. To take an extreme example, China has been developing at full tilt for the last couple decades, the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party largely dependent on continued economic success, and it still has huge masses of rural poor in its center waiting for their turn. Personal automobile ownership — a symbol of the American Dream if there ever was one — is growing, which is liable to raise demand for energy even further. China's growing hunger for energy reserves has driven up prices worldwide. All this development has had horrific environmental consequences, poisoning China's rivers, stripping its mountainsides, and polluting its air — and ours. An attempt by the whole world to bring their standards of living up to those of America, barring some miraculous discovery of cheap, clean energy, would probably have seriously negative consequences for the future.

America got there first — but can anyone else join us?

August 08, 2006

Open Source

Radio Open Source has just done a show based on a topic I suggested a month or two back. The issue is China's rise: how is its growing energy resource consumption shaping its presence in developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, and what implications that has for U.S. foreign policy. The conversation takes a number of interesting tacks beyond my initial topic proposal, and features commentary from Thomas Barnett and others.

This was my comment on the show:

I wasn't able to listen to the show live (time zone differences pretty much rule that out) but I've heard it now. Very interesting discussion, ranging over quite a broad range (I wrote a senior term paper on the Uyghurs, so they're a bit of an interest of mine as well). Glad to see I was able to squeak in my question before it went to air.

For me the two most interesting points raised during the program were Thomas Barnett's suggestion that given China's mercantalist program of relatively shallow, extractive relations with countries in L.America, Africa, and the M.East, and their limited ability to spawn broader economic development, they will increasingly be seen in those countries as the negative face of globalization. A number of the China/Africa articles I've collected in my bookmarks suggest such reactions are already beginning, particularly in cases where cheap imported Chinese labor is supplanting locals.

Equally important I thought was John Pomfret's response to my question, where he suggested that the Chinese global ruleset (to use a Barnett-esque turn of phrase) was essentially undefined, outside the basic bottom-line business of business. I would subscribe to Dr. Barnett's later comment, where he says that we have come to the conclusion that dictatorships are not viable long-term solutions for development; that's actually part of the reason why a rival "Beijing Consensus" cocerns me, since I think a country with as many unaddressed internal weaknesses as China (whose long- or even mid-term stability I am unassured of) is not a particularly good model for world-wide emulation, at least as long as it retains its current autocratic and form.

Suggestions for August are open, so if you'd like to see Christopher Lydon and his future guests tackle another topic of interest to you, do drop them a note.