February 16, 2011

Why is Honduras so poor?

I know why Honduras is so poor.

Don't be looking for any deep answers about Spanish colonization, US banana company and Canadian mining company exploitation or the atrocious educational system. I'm going to give you some answers about why, right now, today, because of bureaucratic idiocy, incompetence, and carelessness why Hondurans can't get ahead, from actual true stories.

The answer is paperwork.

1. Careless bureaucratic clerks make errors on birth certificates, preventing children from going to school and later on from getting jobs. The only remedy is often a journey to other parts of the country which poor people can't afford and/or hiring an attorney to do battle with the government, which poor people also cannot afford.

Example 1: one child was not allowed to attend public school until he was 10 years old because of an error in his date of birth. Though he was obviously head and shoulders taller than the other children, it was not permitted by the school authorities, because documentation is king and common sense and human decency will never enter into the equation. Imagine how this child's ego was affected by going to class with kids four years younger than himself.

Example 2: another child whose parents died did not have a birth certificate. His extremely poor grandparents were told that they couldn't get one for him and he was not allowed to attend school, period. He took to a life of theivery by age 9.

Example 3: an 18-year-old boy could not get full time work for more than a year because he couldn't get his birth certificate and thus could not get his ID card, and thus could not get a job. He was occasionally able to find what is called "informal" employment in which he was often severely underpaid or just flat out cheated out of his pay completely. What can he do? He can't even file a labor complaint without an ID card.

2. If a transferring student doesn't have a piece of paper showing that he graduated from a grade, he not only won't be able to enter the next grade, he won't be able to enter school at all. (By the way, this is the same certification that striking teacher unions threaten to withhold from the students every year.)

Example: Arexy's son completed 4th grade in Tocoa and was not permitted to enter school AT ALL in La Ceiba because for whatever reason, he didn't have that paper. You might think that one school might contact the other for verification, but no, it's not the policy. You might think that they could put him in one class or the other and wait a couple of weeks for the certificate, but no, it's not the policy. He'll start school two or three weeks behind the other students. Many parents would just give up and not send him to school at all.

3. Bureaucratic clerks "forget" to put the official stamp on the back of high school diplomas, preventing Hondurans from getting jobs for which that is a requirement — unless they, too, hire an attorney to battle the issue with the Department of Education in Tegucigalpa. The local school records mean nothing. The educators pass out the worthless graduation certificates to entire classes with no feeling of responsibility or even thought on the part of the local education bureaucrats to check and correct the problem in advance. Later they are quick to say that it wasn't their fault and that the correction can only be made by an attorney in Tegucigalpa.

4. Incompetent bureaucratic clerks frequently mispell or type the wrong name on ID cards. They don't check their work and in fact are mortally insulted if you should even suggest that it might be a good idea to do so before the card is printed. ID cards are needed for everything in Honduras. Without one, you can't get a job, open a bank account or access a previously opened bank account, get a driver's license, utilize government services or benefits, and a myriad of other things. You can even be picked up by the police just for not carrying one.

No matter that your birth certificate shows the correct name, once the mistake is made, it can take numerous frustrating trips to government offices, again the hiring of an attorney, and literally decades to force the government to correct your name.

In two examples that I personally know, the persons were forced for more than a decade to use a name that wasn't theirs because it was easier than getting a corrected ID card! But imagine the problems this creates if the correction is ever made or there is a situation where both the birth certificate and ID card are required.

5. University "graduates" from at least one school (UTH) are made to wait a year to a year and a half to submit their monograph because it isn't convenient for the administrators. Without the approved monograph, the students cannot officially graduate or receive their diploma. Without the official stamped and signed diploma, no one will hire them in their field, so you find engineers with 4-5 years of university training working in the drive-thru window at Dunkin Donuts! Those are the lucky ones. Most can't find a job at all.

6. Universities sometimes lose a student's academic records. Guess what the solution to that is? Simple enough for them to say: Pay for and take the classes all over again.

7. And if number 5 isn't enough, some clerk will discover — after the student has been accepted at the university, paid for and completed four years of classes, and waited a year to submit their monograph — that the magic sticker is missing from their high school diploma so they can't graduate from the university, even though this same high school diploma was accepted as satisfactory 5 years earlier when the student entered the university. Go back to number 3, hire an attorney, and hope that it won't take another six months or year or longer to get the sticker, because in the meantime, your family could get pretty hungry.

All these trips to government offices can require many days of lost work, going from this office to that office, standing in line, only to be told that there is no paper or no ink for the printer, "come back next week or next month," or that the only person authorized to sign the document is on vacation, or to find that the employees are on strike. In Arexy's case, if she didn't have someone in Tocoa to help her, her only choice would be to take off work, take all of her kids out of school and take a bus trip to Tocoa, where the chances of her getting the certificate in one day are slim to none.

Birth certificates and ID cards used to be free. Now it costs L.200 to "reposition" them (i.e., correct or reissue) which is going to compound this problem among the poor in the future. For some, paying L.200 for a document can mean the difference between their family going hungry for 2-3 days or not. Which would you choose?

To make matters worse, way too many of these incompetent politically appointed clerks revel in their power over the poor and uneducated. "No se puede." (You can't!) is said with such assurance and finality that many humble people, trained from birth to never question persons of authority, just walk out with their heads down and shoulders sagging, feeling powerless and doomed. Some are so poor that the idea of hiring an attorney to help them is about as farfetched as buying a villa on Roatan.
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