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.

1 comment:

davesgonechina said...

Yo Chef:

I've been mining your China Africa links. Here's a string of new ones I've got: China in Africa: Worse than Apartheid?!