I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia last week to visit several projects working to improve the lives of poor residents. Bolivia is a landlocked nation home to about 10 million people and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It ranks 111th on the Human Development Index out of 179 countries. Nearly two-thirds of the population live below the national poverty line.
The limited images of Bolivia presented in the myopic U.S. media usually have to do with coca production or the anti-Gringo rhetoric of President Evo Morales. Spending time and talking with residents who subsist on less than $2 a day (accounting for 42% of the Bolivian population), I was reminded of the great passion and dedication that surges from the human spirit in the face of seemingly impenetrable obstacles.
Despite a weak educational system and lack of strong economic opportunities, the people I met were working incredibly hard to improve their livelihoods. They were taking advantage of the only option they had, selling goods or services in the informal market. The informal sector – i.e. the “gray” economy outside any formal governmental regulation –makes up an astounding 70% of the Bolivian economy, the highest proportion in a study of 110 countries by the World Bank (for comparison sake, even in Los Angeles, which has a high level of street vending and other similar activities, the informal sector is just 15% of the jobs). These people sell diverse goods such as agricultural products they grow or purchase, food and snacks, and clothes. One enterprising teenager was even providing internet access for a fee to classmates. As one person working with these entrepreneurs told me, “if it can be sold, it will be in Bolivia.”
Having spent lots of time in Ecuador, I saw many similarities between the two Andean nations, such as a large indigenous population that is largely marginalized, regional disputes between the highland area and the more affluent lowland area, and a general likeness in language and customs. One difference I noticed, however, was that indigenous and mestizo people seem to be more integrated in Bolivia. In my experience in Ecuador, indigenous groups are more separate from other groups, both in where and how they live. Groups I met with in Bolivia included both indigenous and mestizos seemed to interact more naturally. Perhaps it has to do with the high level of urbanization in Bolivia; people have been forced to live and work together for a long period of time.
No matter the subtle differences between developing nations, or the more stark disparities between developed and developing ones, I was struck again by an overriding concern that transcends boundaries and cultures. When asked about their dreams and why they work so hard, these new Bolivian friends invariably pointed to their children and the next generation. One woman I met who had only several years of formal schooling proudly pointed to her kids who had finished high school and even gone on to university as proof that her hours of sacrifice were worth it.
I asked an economist I met about how the global crisis is affecting the Bolivian economy, and he said they haven’t felt a severe shock yet but that he expects that they will begin to during the latter half of 2009 and into 2010. Millions of Bolivians have immigrated to the U.S. and Europe over recent years. With economies in the developed world in crisis, remittances back to places like Bolivia are down, and there is a suspicion that people will be migrating back to their country of origin if their work prospects in the north continue to recede. In countries already in crisis like Bolivia, this would likely overwhelm an already fragile economy. We in the U.S. are concerned about how the current crisis is affecting our way of life; but we can’t forget how in this increasingly globalized economy it affects the billions in the developing world.
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