Surprise, surprise: We’re moving again!!

29 08 2010

Since Tim has been away for work a lot recently, I’ve had—as you may have noticed—much more time to update the blog. Today’s big news is that we’re moving again on Wednesday! Although we really love our current apartment and our roommate has buena onda, we just can’t continue paying so much every month in rent. We’d much rather downgrade so we can save some money for a couple of big trips we have planned (more on those another day).

So, on the first we will be packing up our suitcases and heading to a new place. The new apartment, on the first floor of a small complex, is located in the center of everything, right off of Avenida 7. It’s a little further from my office, but much closer to all of the main plazas and the bus station. We will have three roommates (two men and one woman) and a couple of cats. Of the many, many apartments we’ve looked at since we got here, it’s definitely in our top three; not to mention that it’s about 40% cheaper than what we’re paying now and still completely furnished and move-in ready, a rarity here.

Finding a place to live here has been a somewhat complicated process. In Argentina, contracts generally last two years. We’ve been told this a pretty easy rule to circumvent; however, there are other complications also holding us back. For example, in addition to proving that you have stable work, tenants are also required to provide a garantía, which seems to be an asset related to real estate. If you don’t have a garantía, you can have a cosigner. We clearly have neither of these here. Furthermore, we have no “documents.” Like many yankis in Argentina, we’re technically “permatourists,” meaning that we live in the country on a tourist visa, being sure to renew them or leave the country every three months. Add in the fact that most places ask for three to four months’ rent up front and a hefty commission, and the formal system becomes 100 percent inaccessible for us.

There are other options though. A common one for students is to live in a pensión. A pensión is completely furnished and is designed to be rented temporarily. Perfect for us, right? Well, no. They are usually really old buildings with a minimum of two, but frequently more, students per bedroom. They’re loud, often filled with drama and messy as can be. A pensión is more or less the equivalent of a dorm here, where the universities do not house students themselves. We visited several of these before deciding that we just could not live in one.

The last option then becomes finding a roommate, someone who wants to share costs. You won’t find these advertised in the newspaper and although one or two websites do exist (that’s how we found our current apartment), it seems that most everyone finds a roommate by word-of-mouth. Someone knows someone who knows someone who’s looking to rent out a room in their place. That’s how it happened for us this time around. As you can imagine, this method requires, well, knowing people, which takes some time after moving to a new place.

It’s for all of these reasons that we were willing to pay more than an average months’ rent when we found our current apartment two months ago (that, and because it’s gorgeous!). As a newby, and particularly as a foreigner, you can’t really afford to be picky. In the end, though, Tim and I are both really glad that we eventually found a new place that will be more affordable and, hopefully, just as pleasant. Look for pictures and updates soon!


Observations on Civil Society

26 08 2010

One of the reasons I was most excited to work with FSD in Argentina was to learn more about civil society here. (I know, between this and the last post on the economy, my love for all things GSPIA is really showing…) Based entirely on my own experiences, these are my observations so far:

Two Waves of Civil Society Growth

As far as I can tell, there were two events in recent Argentine history that spurred booms in civil society growth: the dictatorship and the 2001 crisis.

Out of the dictatorship, a huge number of human rights organizations were born. Arguably the most famous civil society group in Argentina, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo is made up of women whose children “disappeared” in the late 70s and early 80s. Similarly, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo has recovered more than 90 children who were forcibly adopted after being “disappeared” or born in captivity. But these two organizations are not alone in their pursuits. It seems like there is an endless supply of human rights organizations, particularly in and around Buenos Aires. Some of these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) want to bring justice to the military leaders who committed human rights violations, some work to create an environment where such atrocities can’t happen again and others yet have committed to the broader ideals of human rights on a global scale.

It seems that Argentina saw another boom in civil society associations after the 2001 crisis. This time the organizations were created to help people meet their basic needs. One type of organization that has its roots in the crisis is a comedor, a community center where meals and academic support are provided to community children. Also born from the crisis were hogares, or shelters, cooperatives and, to some extent, microfinance organizations.

Of course, not all civil society associations came out of these two times and not all fall into the categories I’ve listed here. For example, the work of our partner organizations in and around La Plata is quite varied: empowering adults with physical and mental disabilities, counseling teenage girls with eating disorders, promoting environmentally-friendly public policy, providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation for young people, etc.

And when we look at civil society as a whole, and not just the formally-registered nonprofit organizations, the picture becomes more complex and the sector becomes even more active. Argentina sees a fair amount of informal associations, and, like in most Latin American countries, people are very involved in protests and demonstrations.

Civil Society Challenges

There are two primary challenges we have faced recently when working with our partner organizations: the voluntary nature of the sector and the negative impact of the national subsidy program.

First, the NGO sector differs from that of the US because almost all NGO workers are volunteers. From the executive directors and founders to the part-time student helpers, almost everyone works for free. The implication of this is, of course, that most people have “real” jobs that pay their bills and take priority. NGOs here tend to keep shorter hours because of this and scheduled meetings and events often get cancelled at the last minute (although, this is clearly not unique to Argentina). This also means that the interns who come sometimes feel as though they aren’t working enough hours, which can be remedied with out-of-office work like research or lesson planning or by allowing the intern to work part-time in another organization. Regardless, it can be difficult to get the commitment and dedication required of staff members in these fields because there is no salary attached the work that people are doing. There are certainly people who will work from sunup to sundown with no pay if they are doing something they are passionate about, but many people aren’t in a financial position to do that even if they had the motivation.

On top of this challenge, the national subsidy program also has a negative impact on the work of some nonprofits in the area. First of all, the history of clientelism and the decentralized nature of subsidy distribution have allowed some of our former partner organizations to become politicized to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Furthermore, the average Argentine has access to a fairly significant amount of social welfare funding. This presents a challenge for our partner organizations trying to catalyze local entrepreneurship through the development of cooperatives or the disbursement of microcredit. Oftentimes, it is primarily the immigrants living in these communities who involve themselves in these initiatives because they do not have access to the same government assistance as Argentines. Even in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve seen several cooperatives struggle because its members do not need to work to survive and because they have grown up in a system in which their parents and their grandparents have lived on subsidies. Many of these people also lack a formal education, further complicating the picture.

It will be interesting to see how my understanding of civil society evolves over the rest of my time here. It seems as though the biggest question facing us is this: How can we better equip ourselves to help organizations and interns secure consistent commitment on the part of both the local staff and the beneficiaries? If we can make progress in this area, our development efforts will be even more effective and more sustainable as we move forward.


The future of the Argentine economy

23 08 2010

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I attended a seminar on the Argentine economy entitled “La economía argentina en un mundo a dos velocidades.” It was a brief lecture at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires led by Andrés Borenstein, an Economic Officer in the British Embassy in Argentina. A self-proclaimed optimist about the future of Argentina, Borenstein began the event by introducing the current state of the country. As the world begins to either pick itself up out of a global recession or, depending on your viewpoint, brace itself for the dreaded double-dip, where does Argentina fall?

The recession, which was truly devastating in many places, has until this point only had a moderate impact on much of Latin America, including Argentina. One reason for this is that Argentina has a fairly closed economy, leaving it less vulnerable to economic shocks. However, Borenstein pointed to many other reasons that Argentina has been able to survive this economic downturn, including a sufficient amount in reserves, well-regulated banks, flexible exchange rates, low debt and the freedom to implement anti-cyclical policy. (This last one is something I wish he would have expanded on…) Because of these factors, Argentina, a country with a history of economic turbulence, has been able to avoid a crisis that it would not have likely been able to avoid in the past.

In fact, Argentina has actually seen growth in recent fiscal periods. But what is propelling the country’s growth? Some of the answers to this question are predictable across any range of successful countries: expansive fiscal and monetary policy, for example. Others, however, are specific to current social and political events. For instance, Argentina has a special relationship with Brazil, which serves as a constant source of demand for Argentine products.

Furthermore, Argentina is a country with an extensive natural resource base. Although these resources have long provided energy and food to the people living in and around Argentina, currently the demand for two of Argentina’s most abundant products, corn and soy, is soaring, making the fields of the countryside even more valuable from an economic perspective. Although agricultural production can vary significantly from year to year, Argentina saw a good harvest last year, helping to pad the effects of a possible recession. “La cosecha nos salvó otra vez (The harvest saved us again),” Borenstein exclaimed.

Additionally, Borenstein cited as a catalyst of growth, a national program that provides subsidies to families for each child they have. Presumably, this gives families the opportunity to consume at higher levels, thus benefiting the economy.

Based on these important growth elements, the economist believes that Argentina’s economy could prosper in the upcoming months and years. Other reasons he claimed Argentina could advance include its low levels of debt, its large skilled labor force and shrinking levels of poverty. Also, Argentina does not suffer from the debilitating social conflicts that several other developing and emerging societies face.

Of course, not everyone is optimistic about the Argentine economy. A few fundamental economic pieces are not currently in place. Investment levels have been low and capital flight has been high. Inflation too is remarkably high, hovering around 20 percent, while most other Latin American countries (Venezuela not included) see levels closer to 3-7%. Moreover, there’s a large proportion of the population working in the informal market. Plus, the general public has very little confidence in the government, meaning that the moment the exchange rate begins to move, everyone immediately tries to sell their pesos.

These problems should not be ignored. However, in the opinion of Borenstein, they are unlikely to prevent further growth. He claimed that inflation, for instance, while high, is under control and that low investment rates are 1.) more the fault of Western economies than of Argentina and 2.) would possibly increase as Argentina’s economy continues to hold steady.

Based on conversations I had with a couple of Argentines following the seminar, I would also add that the inaccessibility of credit is a barrier for growth in Argentina. Because people generally do not have access to credit to buy a house, for example, or start a business, they spend their income on things like MP3 players, cell phones and other gadgets. For many, high consumption is a way to prove they have risen out of the 2001 crisis, but this money could instead be invested in their homes and their communities to create wealth and grow the economy.

Looking at all the evidence, it’s hard to predict where Argentina’s economy will be in a few years. In order to succeed, the inflation rate needs to fall and well-regulated credit markets need to be opened. Corruption and a lack of accountability are issues that will need to be dealt with to secure foreign direct investment, eliminate capital flight and encourage citizens to trust the system so they do not rush to sell their pesos as soon as the market begins to fluctuate. But, Argentina has an expansive list of material and human resources at its disposal. And, as Borenstein said, “Es más fácil solucionar un problema institucional que un problema de falta de recursos (It’s easier to solve institutional problems than to fix a lack of resources).”


It’s been a while…

16 08 2010

Life has definitely been picking up the pace in the last few weeks. I was in the south of the province all of last week for training for a new English immersion camp job, work has been hectic for Katie this week, and Anne Marie is in town to visit this week. The girls left Friday to a yoga camp for the long weekend, and our roommate is in Buenos Aires with some friends, leaving me here to bake bread and make soup.

On Wednesday, the three of us hopped on a ferry and crossed the Rio for Uruguay. We just stayed for the night in a cheap hostel after Katie found a great promotion with the boat company: donate a toy to kids in the hospital, get a ridiculously cheap round-trip ticket. Not a bad deal. The boat ride only takes about an hour from Buenos Aires to the small city of Colonia, Uruguay. The city is, well, colonial, with 17th-century cobblestone streets and an old Portuguese fort. There are some great shops with unique clothes and intricate wood carvings. There are also the cheesiest of tourist traps, selling purple quartz, key chains, etc. We had a nice night in Colonia, but it’s a pretty slow town and one day was plenty to see it all.

More soon.


Bits and pieces of news

2 08 2010

Just a couple small things to report.

A few weeks ago, my first group of interns left. For their going away celebration, we all went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D and had tacos at our apartment. The weekend they took off, I went with the new group of interns on their midterm retreat to small town called Chascomus. Unfortunately, we had pretty terrible weather so we spent most of the time in the cabin playing cards and watching movies. It was relaxing, although not particularly exciting.

In fact, “relaxing, although not particularly exciting” is a great way to describe the past few weeks. Everything has been going really well, but there haven’t been any new adventures to speak of. I’ve continued in my quest to find both a volunteer opportunity and a yoga class. Still no luck with either. However, I feel very optimistic that both will work out shortly. Classes at the university start this week too, so I may stop by there and see if there is anything interesting I can sit it in on. Tomorrow evening I am attending a lecture in Buenos Aires entitled, La economía Argentina en un mundo a dos velocidades.

Tim decided to stop taking his Spanish classes, in part because he has found another job on top of private tutoring and substituting at the institute. He interviewed for a counselor position for an English language immersion camp, and got hired in as a coordinator. He left yesterday for a small town in the southern part of the province where he will have four days of training followed by a three day camp. After this week, he will get to pick how many/what camps to attend, which will give him the flexibility he needs to be able to continue with his other jobs and travel with me on weekends. I’m sure he will have a lot to say about it when he gets back on Sunday.

Finally, we have decided to go back to Michigan in December to spend Christmas with our families. Although it will be sad to leave the warm weather when it finally arrives, it will certainly be worth it to see everyone and enjoy the comforts of the US for a couple of weeks.