I am quite proud that I can read the entire newspaper now in Spanish. It does mean that my vocabulary includes a breadth of words relating to crime, drugs, and jail, and also quite a few relating to commerce and development.
The World Bank recently published figures about global poverty in 2008. The newspaper entitled the story referring to a drop in global poverty. This drop between from 2005 to 2008 was attributed to China´s economic development. But think about the numbers in this improvement: more than a fifth of the world´s population lived in extreme poverty in 2008 (on less than US$1.25 per day). One billion, two hundred and ninety million people in extreme poverty. And almost half – well, 43% – of people in the world lived in poverty, on less than US$2 per day.
I find these numbers horrifying.
The children here selling cloth and bracelets and keyrings suddenly represent hundreds of millions of hungry, disheveled children. There are hundreds of millions feeling that tension when yet another tourist says, ´no, thanks´to their offer of a thread bracelet for US$1, okay, 50 cents, okay, 10 cents…. I am thinking of a girl of about eight last night who kept sneaking looks over her shoulder and whispering outrageously low prices for her clumsy bracelets. And the older woman with few upper teeth (who may in fact be younger than I), holding up a handwoven scarf and calling out a price of just over two US dollars. Somehow, it has become much more real to me that there are not just dozens or a few hundred of malnourished people, but millions who are more desperate than I could ever imagine. And the numbers highlight how increased commerce will not help every person. After all, how many cotton thread bracelets does the world need?
This thought trip keeps returning to commerce as a difficult hinge point. Markets are truly ancient, and in fact we need to trade for our different needs. Many in the Global North recognize that there is has gotten out of hand, whether the symptoms is having dozens of handbags or hundreds of shoes, or having those enormously overstuffed refrigerators so common in North America, containing more food than the family can eat before it gets mealworms or rots. Trade is ancient. In school, I learned about the Phoenicians thousands (about 5000) of years ago trading timber and other goods. And archaeological sites frequently turn up seashells inland and ceramic pots far from where they were made.
To make something to sell seems obvious for those in need of money. Quite a number of projects here in Guatemala focus on helping women weavers, for example, find markets. I once sold painted flowerpots in the Galway market (so odd to find one in the house of someone who had no idea I made them!). I hope some of my pots are being enjoyed by those who bought them. Ceramics are useful, but photographs are a luxury item and yet essential income by the photographer. But this trade so easily slides into overconsumption. The wonderful cotton patchwork quilts for sale here are not essential to the tourist who will bring them to their temperate homes. They won´t be warm enough in winter, or cool enough in summer. They are a luxury for the buyer – and essential for the seller. This commerce requires that there are buyers who have disposable income to buy extra quilts, some new photographs, a meal in a restaurant. And clumsy thread bracelets which may never be worn but will bring even 10 US cents of income to the thin, desperate girl trying to convince a tourist to buy one.