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Introducing Wonky Thoughts

Italy Edition

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It's no use trying to stop my brain entirely from looking at the world through a policy lens while on this adventure. So instead of fighting it, I'll attempt to nurture it with the occasional "wonky thoughts" entry. I hope readers chime in with their experiences, thoughts, and of course corrections along the way. That said, I can't imagine a better first wonky post than one from Italy.

Italy's changing demographics have been written about ad nauseam. Among the reasons, broadly speaking are immigration from people fleeing poverty, low Italian birth rates and the economic crisis that has effected much of Europe's Mediterranean countries. But an underlying component that is now even more glaringly obvious to me is the role of organized crime that fuels the immigration piece. Of course, everyone knows the mafia and its influence on business, but I underestimated its role in the world economy.

During dinner with a friend from work when they lived in New York City, Dan and his wife Elisa, who moved to Rome a couple of years ago, Elisa recommended Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia (a best selling book and now mini series) after I had mentioned the obvious increase in the African and Chinese population that was shocking to me since my last visit here in 2006.

Reading the book written by Roberto Saviano, a journalist from Southern Italy, it is part thrilling autobiography and part lesson in economics of organized crime, (the business model is too complicated for me wrap my head around) I realized that the mafia is the glue between the rise of immigration in Italy and access to cheaper fashionable consumer goods for not only Europe by the U.S. The Africans hawking cheap Gucci and Prada bags on the streets of Rome and Florence made by Chinese workers help fuel this demand.


Certainly, the factories of Tuscany and Naples that make the clothes and leather goods were difficult to work in when mostly skilled Italians labored in them. But if history is any guide, I can only imagine the awful working conditions endured by these recent immigrants. I've always peered at the goods being sold on Canal Street in Manhattan with more than average skepticism. But now, I presume there is a similar, if not the exact same, business model taking place in Italy and parts of the United States. If you read the book, the beginning is particularly a page turner, I suspect you'll never look at buying clothes the same way again.

Posted by BettinaNYC 14:11 Archived in Italy Tagged thoughts wonky Comments (0)

Wonky thoughts: Bad NGO. Bad!

From Nicaragua, when good intentions go wrong

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Latrines, the only viable option for the rural community near La Mariposa, on the right. Donated toilets that require water are unused on the left.

The staff of La Mariposa, aside from having fabulous teachers also have an array of people behind the scenes that help support the surrounding communities in more subtle ways. For example, like when a non-governmental organization (that will remain nameless) bought materials and built bathrooms for the nearby Panama community. Panama, sitting under Volcano Masaya, is one of the poorest communities in Nicaragua. There are most likely many reason for this but that side of the volcano is enveloped by noxious fumes (that eat through most building materials) and other than pineapples, not much else can be grown there. Also, here's the kicker for any conversation about development, there is no running water.

All of this makes Panama a great place to provide much needed assistance. So, while building toilets in a desperately poor, rural Central American community sounds like a lovely idea worthy of a group's annual report, building them where there is no water supply and monster eating fumes, turns out simply to be a waste. Staff from La Mariposa remedied the problem by building latrines. Water is so rare, a fellow student Joshua who has volunteered at the school for the past three summers, told us during lunch one day that kids ran out of class during a rainstorm to shower.

Fellow student (and proud Texan) Markey gives the durable concrete slide a try outside a school in Panama. The fumes for the volcano would eat through a metal slide.

Posted by BettinaNYC 09:56 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged wonky Comments (0)

Wonky thoughts: Dueling Canals

China, Russia, Nicaragua want to go mano a mano with the US and Panama

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Today's People's Climate Change march in New York City seems like the perfect time for a wonky post about how challenging building a canal can be to environmental justice.

During my last days at La Mariposa in Nicaragua, officials announced the route of a proposed canal that would rival the Panama Canal. There is hardly anyone I spoke to during my time in Nicaragua that thinks the canal will be the economic engine it is promised to be.


One of the more interesting conversations I had while at language school, (and I had many!) was with another student from the UK getting a degree in environmental engineering. The priority of the proposed canal, we discussed, has less to do with creating jobs for Nicaraguans, but more about various countries coming together to challenge the stature of the United States in world affairs. Financial backing for the canal is coming mainly from Chinese and Russian business interests. There's nothing like watching a shift in global politics happen right before your eyes, we said.

From my perspective, two things stand out about the proposal as reasons why the canal would do little to lift Nicaraguans out of poverty. First, as I understand it, there are no job guarantees for Nicaraguans until 50 years after the canal is built. And in Colon, Panama where I stayed for a week (just north of the city and home to one of the world's largest free trade zones) near the canal, I saw banners demanding fairness for local jobs and land issues. Not surprisingly, there were riots there a couple of years ago when the Panamanian government wanted to sell state-owned property to private companies that currently rent in the zone. I am unsure how residents feel about a new canal currently being built in the area to handle larger ships.

Second, any development that would cut through the vast, beautiful mountains of Nicaragua and in particular Lago Nicaragua certainly destroying Isla de Ometepe's lush environment and agriculture, should be a non-starter. With a delayed, now flood prone rainy season, poor Nicaraguans are disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change (see this article "Hunger threatens Central America" Hambre acheca Centroamerica http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2014/09/13/activos/211886?movil). This in addition to a huge jump in bean prices earlier this year, means more pain for a country with a serious food security problem. (Sorry for the long link, but articles that help explain the bean crisis are here: http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/search?q1=content_en_le:%22red+beans%22&q2=mattersInCountry_es_le:%22Nicaragua%22) A complex mix of climate change and politics are causing the problem.

And then there's the impact a canal could have on the ocean.

If the trash-filled waters around Panama City are any indication of how the ocean will be treated with new ship traffic, I can't imagine what it will mean for the ocean, a source of food and earth's well-being to be frank. Sure, people litter everywhere but in my opinion when the powers-that-be create a commercial engine without regard for the environment, businesses and citizens won't care either.

Photos can't convey the odor.

The Panamanians celebrated the 100 anniversary of the Panama Canal while I was there. Granted, it's hard not to marvel at the engineering and history associated with the project. But I hope folks in Nicaragua are doing research on when "benefits" for its impoverished communities may materialize since more than 100 years seems the standard.

Posted by BettinaNYC 18:42 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged panama canal nicaragua thoughts wonky Comments (0)

Wonky thoughts: Panama City's Casco Viejo

Out with the viejo, in with the new.

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I had an amazing time walking around Casco Viejo and I couldn't help but think how this kind of development would play out in New York City. It is one of the oldest parts of Panama City and the area, a UNESCO heritage site, is in the midst of major shifts in building use and population. Casco Viejo was built initially in the 1500's and then rebuilt in the late 1600's after a pirate-destroying era. Today, the contrast in buildings is surreal. There is no doubt gentrification is occurring here, thanks to what has been reported as "forced displacement" of residents: http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/151.

The photos below are a sample of the amazing contrast of conditions in the neighborhood.


Posted by BettinaNYC 07:26 Archived in Panama Tagged urban city panama viejo thoughts casco gentrification wonky planning. Comments (0)

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