Pay It Forward

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2008

Hinning Bolaños, Sarah Chynoweth and Davida Johns have three things in common: 1. They all have roots in our area; 2. They are the bearers of a grand United States tradition that gave the world the Marshall Plan, Quaker aid and the Peace Corps; and 3. They are trying to fill a hug gap our federal government has left.

Let’s first go to points 1 and 2.

Fellow citizens Bolaños, Johns and Chynoweth are trying hard to show the world that people in the United States do care. Here’s how:

Bolaños is new to the aid business, and he has a very critical take on politics in his native Nicaragua in general and the new left-leaning government in particular. That’s hardly surprising; the Sarasota resident is the offspring of a proud family of Miskito indigenous leaders who picked up arms against the government during the U.S.-sponsored Contra wars in the 1980s.

Bolaños, who lives in Sarasota and studies political science at the University of South Florida, sprang into action last fall after Hurricane Felix barreled into his native North Atlantic Autonomous Region. The storm killed at least 110, flooded large swaths of low-lying land and destroyed buildings and roads, affecting more than 180,000 people. The story he tells is about survival and despair in the periphery of the periphery. He is outraged over the plight of his Miskito people. Although the new government of Nicaragua—the second-poorest country in this hemisphere—got fairly positive ratings for its disaster response from international NGOs, Bolaños says the inhabitants along the thinly populated east coast have been largely left to their own devices. Worse, he says, a large chunk of the international relief supplies was pilfered in Nicaragua and never reached any hurricane victims.

Nevertheless, he and fellow Miskitos living in the United States last fall started Mipala Inc. The Sarasota-based nonprofit wants to coordinate and channel relief to Nicaragua’s North Atlantic region, and, in the longer term, preserve Miskito culture and foster economic development.

Davida Johns’ Pronica also works with Nicaragua, but her organization has a different tack, and an almost 20-year history. Johns, the stateside coordinator of the St. Petersburg-based group, which is under the care of a Quaker organization, raises funds to support a handful of locally run grassroots projects for children and women in Nicaragua. They include a shelter for street children, a beauty school that provides prostitutes other means to make a living, and healthcare programs for pregnant women.

And then there’s New College grad Sarah Chynoweth, who now works as a program manager for the New York-based Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Chynoweth knows firsthand about the desperation of war refugees. Over the past two years, she’s traveled to North Africa and the Middle East to interview Sudanese refugees in Darfur and Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Her task is to give recommendations to larger international relief agencies on how to best help women and children refugees. (Chynoweth’s advice boils down to simple things: Provide cooking fuel and utensils, fuel-efficient stoves, low-cost diaphragms for contraception, and rape victim kits with a handful of well-selected pills.)

International relief organizations, first and foremost those of the United Nations, are the main caretakers of those refugees. And some are apparently heeding Chynoweth’s call. On May 13 and 14, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will hold a consultation in Seattle, together with Chynoweth’s organization and the Gates Foundation, among others. The meeting is a chance for companies and entrepreneurs to parade their products before agency executives.

But funding is still missing. The United Nations last fall pledged $83 million for relief services to the 4.6 million Iraqi war refugees who fled to neighboring countries such as Iran, Jordan and Syria (the second-largest exodus since World War II). But as of February, U.N. member nations had only funded 2 percent of that pledge, according to Chynoweth. The U.S. Congress, for that matter, has not approved any funding for the Iraqi refugee relief effort in this year’s budget. There is a chance of getting it into the supplemental budget this spring, Chynoweth said in February.

Which brings me to point No. 3—the increasing absence of our federal government. The need in the world is as big as ever, and privately funded NGOs, while fulfilling very meaningful tasks, can’t even begin to cover it. And trade and investment are certainly necessary for the long-term needs of any country. But business can’t cover the basic needs of survival either.

Let me throw out a few numbers:

According to nongovernmental organization statistics compiled by alternative-news Web site ZNET, public and private U.S. first-response aid immediately after Hurricane Felix hit Nicaragua in September 2007 ranked only fourth, with the No. 1 and No. 2 spots going to Venezuela and Cuba.

This is indicative of a bigger trend. Anyone remember the massive reconstruction aid the United States granted Europe after World War II? Well, the $110 billion in Venezuelan-Cuban aid programs pledged to other nations are about to reach the size of the Marshall Plan, inflation-adjusted. The USAID budget for Latin America and the Caribbean for 2007 (around $700 million) looks like chump change in comparison. Even when you pitch in private charity and the development programs of the U.S.-steered World Bank and Interamerican Development Bank, the Venezuelans are outdoing us. What’s more, although Caracas strongly encourages aid recipients to emulate its policies, they attach fewer strings than we do.

Venezuela and Cuba are not just competing for souls “down there.” They actually turned the tables, offering help “up here” after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans (rejected by the Bush administration), and providing heating subsidies to low-income Americans in Chicago, Boston and New York (operational, and ignored by the Bush administration).

It might be smart if the next administration in Washington takes a different tack.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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