Like other developing countries I have been to, Guatemala seems to have two parallel worlds.
It’s green and lush yet has suffered huge amounts of deforestation. The people are smiling, welcoming and friendly yet the second most common cause of death in 2011 according to worldlifeexpectancy.com was violence! Second in the world! It feels safe as we travel about yet until recently there were frequent bus jackings. A local art gallery owner told us how the population had put a stop to this. When travelling by bus, you simply carried a small can of kerosene. If anyone attempted to hijack a bus they were overcome by the passengers and lynched.
Mayan mothers carry their babies on their backs until they can walk and this seems to lead to well-adjusted, well-behaved infants but the infant mortality rate is 25.5 per 1000 (in the UK it’s 4) according to indexmundi.com
We have read and heard about government and multinational policies that do nothing to help the situation. We were told that there are 8 to 12 families that have political control and that corruption is rife from the local level up. There is no money for education or health. Poor families have to buy books, uniforms and equipment for school and this often prevents children completing their education. While we were in Pana the mother of one of the office workers was taken ill with stomach pains. The health centre in Pana has been closed due to lack of funds so she was taken to hospital in a town about half an hour away. The hospital also lacks funds and expertise and was unable to provide a diagnosis but told the family to prepare for her death. She died within the week. There will be no postmortem.
International policies encouraging Guatemala to grow maize for export to be used as biofuels while importing maize for food have also not helped.
There is no shortage of individuals and organisations who recognise the problems of Guatemala and who are trying to help. There are literally thousands of NGOs here with tens of thousands of volunteers covering everything from dog rescue to organic farming, from reproductive education to fair trade cooperatives. Some of these like Plan, Care and Save the Children , operate large scale projects; others, like Maya Traditions, where we worked, are much smaller. We met a Canadian woman who had come with a group of medical specialists who had carried out cataract operations, tooth extractions, hernia operations and other procedures on people living in remote villages with no access to health care. We have concluded that in order to contribute effectively as a volunteer you need to have specialist skills, and to make a long-term commitment. Sadly, our own contribution was minimal.
Our other, more far-reaching, conclusion is that while all these NGOs can make a difference in the lives of individual Guatemalans what is really needed for a lasting impact is the will nationally and internationally to make policy changes. Fair elections with proper recognition for the indigenous people and their languages; investment in health and education for all; improved security; policy change on access to reproductive control; regulation of child labour. While some NGOs do actively put pressure on the government to improve in these and other areas (diahorreal diseases are the third biggest killer and malnutrition the eighth) international governments and corporations need to act as well and we need to vote and act to communicate to our own policy makers and corporations how we feel about these policies in Guatemala and other developing countries.