Glimpses of Optimism in Guatemala

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Guatemala, Optimism, Asociacion Puente, Wakami, MILKnCOOKIES, Sheva.com, CICIG

(Courtesy Shannon O’Neil)

The news and statistics from Guatemala are anything but reassuring. More than half the nation’s sixteen million citizens live in poverty. Worse, almost one in two children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, which affects not just their immediate well-being but also limits their physical and intellectual potential for the rest of their lives.

Violence is rampant. Guatemala City ranks among the most dangerous cities in the world and the national homicide rate, of 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, is bested by just four countries worldwide. Women especially are vulnerable, not just on the street but inside their homes, as domestic violence and femicide rates are also among the worst in the world. Few receive justice, with prosecution rates averaging just 2 percent of all crimes.

Federal actions to take on these challenges have been largely absent or ineffective. And small islands of progress, such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed independent body that has prosecuted several serious criminal cases, have been undermined. Even if the political will existed, with tax collection at just 11 percent of GDP—the lowest in Latin America—the government lacks the resources to do much.

Despite the dire national outlook, after a recent trip I left with some glimpses of optimism—mainly from both local and private sector efforts to break the vicious cycles of poverty and negative dynamics more generally. These organizations and business are changing the lives of at least some individuals, families, and communities.

Trying to take on the debilitating effects of malnutrition is Asociación Puente. The non-profit works directly with pregnant women and young mothers to help ensure better food and nutrition at the vital early stages of life. They also help women start micro-enterprises, to generate the basic income needed to continue putting (nutritious) food on the table.  Founded by former Guatemalan first lady Wendy de Berger and Edna Lima de Morales, the organization has reached over 2,000 families so far.

Another is Sheva.com. Started by Marisabel Ruiz, it works to remove at least one of the barriers to girls’ education—puberty. In so many villages Guatemala girls can’t afford sanitary pads. Once they start to menstruate, they miss one out of every four weeks of school, falling permanently behind their classmates and their potential. For each purchase at their U.S. based company, they donate products to girls in need, helping them stay in school.

Also in the social entrepreneurship mode is Wakami, an organization started by Maria Pacheco. Originally visiting poor rural communities as a trained biologist, village women kept telling Pacheco what they needed most was jobs. And so Wakami began, harnessing the weaving skills so many women already had but differentiating their products through more modern designs (as opposed to the beautiful but endlessly repeated weavings sold in Guatemala’s local markets). Today, the for-profit business employs nearly five hundred artisans by selling its jewelry in twenty-four countries—including a collaboration with Ann Taylor Loft in the United States.

On technology’s cutting edge is MILKnCOOKIES, an interactive communications agency founded by Karla Ruiz Cofiño. Working with clients worldwide to design and build websites, apps and social media strategies, the company leaps up the skill ladder. Competing with technology and app developers globally, it provides not only high paying jobs for those already skilled but also training, presenting at least a handful of fellow citizens a profitable alternative to migration.

Each shared what their organizations have found matters to make a difference. One is focusing on women. Studies worldwide show that money given or earned by women is more likely to be spent on children’s food, health, and education. These organizations find similar patterns in their towns, with kids eating better, staying in school longer, and dreaming of a different future than that of their parents when their mothers’ income rises.

Another lesson is incorporating men. By providing training and opportunities to everyone in a village, resistance to women’s financial gains lessen. In a society that often restricts a woman and wife’s physical realm to the home, Asociación Puente found that offering workshops and classes to the whole town literally opened the door for women’s involvement. And in a telling discussion with Matilde Garcia, a founder of one of Wakami’s workshops, she related how she employs her husband as her accountant to gain his buy in, though she was quick to share that she is the one that controls the business’ bank accounts.

These efforts do help—mattering greatly to those involved by changing individual, family, and community lives. The question remains though can countries such as Guatemala scale these and dozens of other small businesses, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations to change the direction of the nation. Visiting and talking with these women makes you believe that it might in fact be possible.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.