Reflections on development by a Japanese volunteer in Nicaragua
I came to Nicaragua in 2013 as a volunteer
with the Japan International Cooperation Agency
to work in the UCA’s research institute called Nitlapán,
advising small farmers and analyzing their production strategies.
I always tried to respect local points of view when giving my opinion
as something new often arises when several perspectives fuse together.
I believe we learn through sharing experiences, which is why I’m sharing mine.
There’s a saying that goes: “The apples always seem better in the neighbor’s orchard.” I soon realized that Nicaraguans have an idealized image of Japan because of its technology and traditional culture. We do have a high technological level and a culture we’re proud of but we also have serious problems: high suicide rates and depression, an aging population, conflicts with neighboring countries, etc.
As each country in the world is different and none is perfect, every country can learn something from the others. Seeing the neighbor’s “apples” as better is an illusion. Nicaragua has its own merits and resources and by using the riches Nature gave it and those of its people it could become a wonderful country. Furthermore, precisely because it’s small it can do things that other countries can’t: it can develop a new, unique model and showcase it to the world.
Belief in God When studying a country, we should never overlook culture. The Spanish Royal Academy’s prestigious dictionary defines culture as “the body of knowledge that enables someone to develop critical judgment” and “the entirety of lifestyles and customs, knowledge and level of artistic, scientific, and industrial levels, in an era, a social group, etc.” It’s thus no exaggeration to say that culture determines everything. It determines our everyday actions and, as a country’s reality is the accumulation of its people’s actions, culture also defines a country.
One of the great differences I found between Nicaraguan and Japanese culture is the belief in God. Like all Japanese, I was surprised to continually hear people saying “God willing,” “Thank God,” and “God wanted it that way,” or always answer the question “How are you?” with “I’m well, thank God.” For us health is something we ourselves have to take care of, not something decided by God. Likewise when “See you tomorrow!” is answered with “God willing”; for us tomorrow’s plans don’t depend on God.
A belief in God and attributing certain phenomena to Him isn’t negative and it’s true that we humans can’t control everything. The world is far more complex than we can imagine and to say everything depends on us is pure arrogance. Believing in God can bring peace and tranquility. In today’s unpredictable world we need to depend on somebody and when we’re afflicted or have troubles we need someone to save us.
While the suicide rate in Nicaragua is relatively low, in Japan it’s very high. Suicide is one of our great social problems. Japan is an industrialized country where nobody dies from hunger and social security guarantees that everyone has the basics to survive, even if they don’t have a job. Why do they kill themselves then? Perhaps because when they’re afflicted they don’t have anyone to save them. The traditional religion in Japan is Buddhism or Shinto but there are very few believers.
Believing in God and attributing what happens to God can be positive, but it can also be harmful. We can’t prevent an earthquake but we can mitigate its effects. We can’t eliminate the possibilities of suffering from diseases but we can drastically reduce them. Not everything depends on God. Although we humans can’t control all aspects of our lives, we can control many of them. For example, the poor aren’t poor because God wants it so. You can’t use God’s name as a pretext for not trying to escape poverty. We must trust in God but after having made every effort on our part.
The culture of saving My first task in Nicaragua was to study a cultural aspect: to compare the culture of saving in Japan and in Nicaragua based on the evidence that Japanese people save a lot and Nicaraguans don’t save.
People’s culture of saving affects their country’s economy. The considerable savings Japanese people keep in the banks contributed to the country’s economic development because it helped facilitate bank loans for new investments and this helped the economy to grow. Instead of dividing profits among the shareholders or increasing salaries, Japanese companies save a lot. They have more undistributed profits than foreign companies,
contributing to long-term stability and enabling investment in research and development so as to obtain the highest technology and be very competitive in the international market.
I made a small and thus admittedly imprecise survey: I asked some Nicaraguan and Japanese people this question: “If you were told that you could have $1,000 now or get more if you wait for a year, by how much would they have to increase that $1,000 for you to be willing to wait a year?” On average, the Nicaraguans said they would wait only if it went up to $1,500 while the Japanese said $1,100. Nicaraguans prefer to have a thousand dollars now, even if they could earn $1,400 within a year, which is 40% annual interest, extremely high compared to the interest banks offer. Nicaraguans prefer to have some money today, rather than more money tomorrow. Of course, this isn’t only about culture; it’s also about unmet needs, some of them quite basic.
The meaning of time Saving is about investing in the future, not spending money today in order to have it tomorrow. In order to analyze a country’s savings you need to investigate how people see time: past, present and future.
I observed that Nicaraguans live more in the present and the Japanese more in the future. Living for today discourages saving. It isn’t either good or bad for a culture to focus on today or on tomorrow, it’s just different, and I think one can learn from the other. I think the advantage of focusing on the future is greater economic development while focusing on the present favors people’s enjoyment and satisfaction. I also think the only purpose of having economic development is to enjoy life and live it with greater satisfaction. The purpose of a developed society is for its people to have the time and possibilities to enjoy that development and enjoy every day of their lives.
It’s important to learn from all cultures, getting to know their pros and cons; not to unreservedly applaud your own or that of others. In my time in Nicaragua I felt that Nicaraguans know how to enjoy today and the Japanese think more about the future. Albert Einstein said we have to learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow. The Japanese can learn from Nicaraguans how to live enjoying today and Nicaraguans can learn from the Japanese how to build hope in tomorrow.
Great inequality When I arrived in Managua I really didn’t like people’s unpunctuality. Nor did I like it that I always had to use a car, taxi or bus to go anywhere. Ever since the 1972 earthquake Managua hasn’t had a city center to walk about in; there aren’t communal areas for sharing and interacting with other people. Obviously, this is a result of the city’s post-earthquake urban planning, which I think shapes people’s thinking.
Nicaragua is among the world’s countries with the greatest income inequality, a reality that’s apparent everywhere and in everything. There are many causes for this inequality and one of its consequences is precisely urban planning. The physical areas where life takes place in Managua are largely divided by social class. All the poor neighborhoods have a wealthy neighborhood alongside. The people with money live in the good areas, have new vehicles, go to clean and tidy schools, universities and offices and shop in affluent shopping malls. They only see poverty through the windows of their cars. When areas are divided like this, society is also divided.
In Japanese cities the whole population shares most of the same areas and although there are areas where the wealthy live and others where the poor live, there are many areas where people from different social classes meet, because they all use the same transport and go the same way when they go to school and to work. Someone who earns $100,000 a year normally goes on the same train as any student.
The idea of the common good The US philosopher Michael Sandel says: “Democracy does not require perfect equality but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life because this is what teaches us to negotiate and to abide our differences. This is how we come to care for the common good.”
Many people have to share a common vision of society in order to build development and a first step is for the different social classes to meet, connect and communicate and then to talk, converse and try to understand each other. They say that the factor that led Japan to such a high economic level was national unity: many people making an effort and working hard, many people sharing a common vision of the country they wanted, many people who shared the same areas…
In the economic dynamic it’s logical and essential to have differences between the wealthy and the poor as a result of their different endeavors and jobs, because if someone doesn’t earn more even though they work more, nobody will work more or make greater efforts. But in Nicaragua it seems that the dichotomy between endeavor and earnings is structural and no one can overcome the differences through his or her job and effort alone. Because this division is structural, those who don’t have resources accept poverty as something natural. Those who do have them also see it as normal and because they only see poverty from afar they don’t think about its causes or seriously try to resolve them. Although they’re all Nicaraguans, they live in two very different worlds.
Development, or a unified society, can’t be achieved without promoting interchange between the different social classes, which fosters a mindset that understands, promotes and cherishes the common good. Only this interaction promotes healthy democracy.
Economic growth While in Nicaragua I heard several talks in which a chart was mentioned comparing the evolution of per-capita GDP in Nicaragua and South Korea in the last fifty years. In the mid-1970s Nicaragua’s per-capita GDP was greater than that of South Korea but today that ratio has been drastically inverted. In many talks I heard that Nicaragua has to learn from South Korea.
Certainly, Nicaragua can learn a lot from South Korea, especially from the economic point of view, because, like Japan, that country has successfully managed to increase its population’s standard of living. However, we question that per-capita GDP should be considered the criterion for a country’s development. There are other criteria. Currently, a country’s happiness index is being measured and Nicaragua comes out well above both Japan and South Korea.
We must also question economic growth as the criterion that best determines a society’s progress. Sooner or later countries will stop growing economically because the Earth’s natural resources are finite. Climate change is warning us about the damage done to Nature, and this damage isn’t reflected in the GDP. I don’t think Nicaragua should repeat or imitate the ways of the industrialized countries; what it should do is think out and create its own development model. The world today needs other development models and Nicaragua could provide an alternative one.
Business undertakings The research and development institute where I worked promotes entrepreneurship through financial and non-financial services. “Entrepreneurship” is a key word today in the development field. Many international organizations are trying to promote business undertakings all over the world.
The aim of entrepreneurship is to increase productivity and offer society a new value. According to a 2014 World Bank report, the problem with Latin America’s economy isn’t a lack of businesses; it’s lack of innovation. The document makes a point of the fact that new companies enter the Latin American economy in greater numbers than in other regions of the world yet produce fewer patents and invest less in research and development (R&D), which are the indicators of innovation and hence of greater productivity.
Enterprises need financial services, among the best known of which are micro-financing institutions, whose main aim is to provide seed funding to entrepreneurs so they can start up new businesses. The goal of the “business incubation program” in which I worked is to finance ventures and recuperate its seed funding with interest from the loan.
If the importance of an enterprise isn’t the business itself but rather its productivity, some authors argue that job creation is a better way to increase it, because if productivity doesn’t increase then poverty won’t decrease. This doesn’t mean it’s useless to promote business undertakings. When women in particular start a business it contributes to their empowerment and social welfare by improving their families’ lives.
Those without jobs tend to waste their time doing nothing. This is a social loss. When many people are unemployed the country loses a lot of development opportunities. One solution is to promote enterprises for the purpose of empowering people and motivating them to improve their lives. The premise behind this idea is that those who have jobs are often exploited by their bosses. In rural areas those who don’t have land work for those who do, and not always under fair conditions, while those who have land tend to work more efficiently and with more motivation.
Entrepreneurs While all this is generally true, not everyone is an entrepreneur. When I interviewed some unemployed women in a community of León, one of them told me: “You’re from Japan, right? Well, what I want is for a Japanese company to come here and give me a job.” She didn’t say “I want them to fund me to start a business.” They’d rather have a job than micro-financing.
Not everyone is an entrepreneur or wants to become one. Some prefer to work for someone else. This depends on personality. If we accept that this is true we can develop the skills of those who want to be entrepreneurs and publicize that there’s seed funding to start up a business, but I don’t think we should get people excited about the idea that being entrepreneurs will automatically make them successful, because it could just result in them becoming over-indebted. Micro-financing works well if those who receive the loan have enough motivation and ability to manage their businesses. If not, over-indebtedness will only worsen their situation. We’ve already seen that in Nicaragua people think more about today than the future and this way of thinking promotes an overly optimistic image of how the debts will be paid off. We also already know that over-indebtedness isn’t negative only for the clients, but also for the financiers and the country’s economy.
The main thing is to find good entrepreneurs with aspirations, abilities and motivation. If we invest in them they will generate jobs. It’s important to distinguish between potential entrepreneurs and potential workers because they’re not always the same.
Innovation Just like the word “entrepreneurship,” the word “innovation” is frequently used when talking about the economy and business. But when we say “innovation is needed” we’re not really saying anything. Innovation can occur in a company’s administration, organization, operations, services, logistics, etc.
Japanese companies have the edge in service innovation; this is the area in which they always innovate. Customer service in Japan is better than perfect. Trains arrive at the station without a moment’s delay; McDonalds serves hamburgers in thirty seconds; waiters are extremely courteous… This service excellence is rooted in Japanese culture. But Japanese companies aren’t so good at marketing and sales, even when their technology is the best. We notice that new product creation almost always takes place in the United States, while the Asian countries are almost always where these innovative new products are modified and improved. Smart phones, tablets, search engines and other technological novelties are always conceived in the United States but then South Korea or Japan creates something that’s an improvement on the original.
Each country has its pros and cons in the area of innovation. In which areas can innovation be promoted in Nicaragua given its people’s culture? Promoting innovation is finding the comparative advantage of a country and intensely investing in it.
Added value What is economic development? In theory, it’s the sum of the added value generated in a country in a year. Added value has to be focused on in order to achieve economic development and this requires innovation. Observing economic activity in Nicaragua, I found it isn’t managing to add to the value of its products.
I found orange juice in the supermarkets, packaged in Costa Rica by a company that buys oranges in Nicaragua. They buy the oranges cheap, process them in their factory and export nicely packaged orange juice back to Nicaragua for Nicaraguans to buy. The Costa Ricans put on the added value by taking advantage of a Nicaraguan natural resource and Nicaraguan consumers.
One day I visited an egg-laying chicken farm. “The hens reproduce, right, so where are the chickens?” I asked. “We buy chickens from Costa Rica… They’ve got good quality laying hens over there,” they replied. When I asked if they couldn’t raise quality laying hens in Nicaragua, they told me that the incubation system wasn’t good here. Why isn’t some Nicaraguan company providing national farms with good quality laying hens? The Costa Rican company is taking advantage of cheap labor and the Nicaraguan market to sell its chickens. Costa Rica’s more advanced technology is adding value, keeping more profits, while the Nicaraguans plant and harvest oranges and fatten chickens...
To generate added value you must invest in R&D and have patience and a long-term perspective. The Japanese philosopher Sontoku Ninomiya said: “Economy without morality is a crime and morality without economy is an illusion.” In order to improve society we need to develop its economy and understand that the essence of economic development is in the value added. The key is to optimize Nicaragua’s resources and the way to do that is to find Nicaragua’s comparative advantages and turn them into added value.
International cooperation In Japan, before coming to Nicaragua, I had no occasion to interact with international organizations or international cooperation agencies. In Nicaragua I’ve had many opportunities to meet with those working in the cooperation field. United Nations organizations, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, international NGOs like World Vision, Care and Oxfam International, and bilateral cooperation agencies such as USAID or Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) play a very important role here.
Certainly, international cooperation is necessary. Japan received a lot of international cooperation after World War II. Without it my country wouldn’t have been able to recover so quickly from the disaster of war.
Working in Nicaragua I’ve often seen cooperation’s negative aspects. Cooperation can undermine local people’s healthy motivation to progress. I was the translator for an honorary Japanese consul on his Nicaraguan tour and I could see how we were approached by many people asking for a donation during any visit or at the end of a talk. I felt it was a way of taking advantage of someone they considered powerful or wealthy. Foreign aid can block a country’s capabilities. International cooperation should support, playing a subsidiary role, but can’t be the engine of a country’s development. The mindset of many people in Nicaragua seems very dependent on cooperation.
The needed assessmentAnother problem I’ve observed is that many of Nicaragua’s better educated people work for international cooperation because it pays better. I fear there will be no development if the national institutions don’t attract the best human resources. I think the cooperation agencies have to prioritize strengthening Nicaragua’s human resources and avoid fostering a mindset of dependency.
I also think they must establish criteria to measure how cooperation projects have helped improve national human resources. Cooperation projects seem to lack a long-term assessment system. I think the results of all projects should be measured by quantitative and qualitative assessment a year after completion and again five years later.
Albert Einstein said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” The role of international cooperation should be that: to educate. Those being educated must assess the teachers to see if the education they’ve received has really helped them or not. The final exam should be seen as a measure not so much of the students as whether the teacher has really managed to infuse them with what’s important. There are many educational methods: classes, guest lecturers, debates, homework and personal tutorials… In all of them the central aim of education is the students’ growth and not the teachers’ satisfaction.
DevelopmentDuring my work in Nicaragua I heard the word “develop” every day all day long. I feel that the more we say the word the more we forget its original meaning.
Some people consider development to be synonymous with modernization. Others think it’s to encourage GDP growth. Others imagine it means achieving a high standard of living. One day, a friend told me that the verb “develop” comes from the Old French desveloper and has two parts: des meaning “undo” and veloper meaning “wrap”: hence developing means breaking free. I saw this idea as a key to rethinking the meaning of development: conceiving it as a process of removing the constraints that impede a country from progressing.
From this perspective a developed society is one where the people live at their own pace and in their own way, with self-esteem and confidence. Amartya Sen, the famous Indian economist and philosopher, reconstructed the definition of development when he promulgated that it should focus on the “capabilities” each person has to convert his/her rights into real freedoms.
If development is removing whatever impedes a country’s progress based on its cultural essence and capabilities, we first have to define what that essence is and those capabilities are. And to do that the first thing to consider is where the country wants to get to and what the government, families, companies and individuals can contribute...
In this the Nicaraguan government’s responsibility is to deal with and overcome the structural dichotomy separating some social classes from others. It has to build its own economic model without imitating that of other countries. The work of families, as the main school of life, is to educate children in interaction with people from all walks of life, teaching them that we can change and improve, that there’s no predetermined destiny. It falls to the companies to focus on promoting added value and Nicaragua’s comparative advantages. In this scheme, international cooperation must understand that its role is subsidiary, to educate and to establish valid criteria to measure the benefits its own projects leave.
Nicaragua’s children I learned many things in Nicaragua. On one of my last days I traveled to León and on the highway, at about ten at night, I came upon a boy selling handicrafts his mother had made. I asked him what time he had started to sell. He told me at seven in the morning. Fifteen hours under the blazing sun… He told me his head hurt, that he felt he was going to faint. He hadn’t sold anything. The quality of the handicrafts was minimal and it was obvious that nobody wanted to buy them. I bought a bottle of water and gave it to him. He thanked me and began to cry. I cried too.
I could have given him money, which would have made him happy at that moment. But I didn’t because that wouldn’t have resolved his problem; he himself has to resolve it. I told him: “Look, you’ve got to study and not sell something that’s not selling. Or you have to see how to improve these handicrafts so they will sell well.” I said goodbye to him without knowing if what I did was for the best.
Despite all the money that comes to Nicaragua from international cooperation there are many children like him. How can we help them? In order for there not to be any more children like him, I’ll keep working in the field of international cooperation. I want to help people make their lives better. It’s my commitment.
Taiki Namiki was a volunteer in Nicaragua with JICA. He studied sustainable development at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.