Megan Marie Bridges

research in human rights, politics, science, and global health

Excerpt from Pro-Poor Tourism in Nicaragua

The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, titled Pro-Poor Tourism in Nicaragua, submitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology in December, 2016:

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Volcano boarders call it a day after an adventure-filled afternoon at Volcán Cerro Negro in León, Nicaragua (Bridges, 2017).

Nicaragua: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes reads the unofficial slogan of the small Central American country that lies sandwiched between Costa Rica to its south, and Honduras to its north. Its six million inhabitants indeed live in a land abounding in natural resources; its epithet comes from being home to 24 volcanoes and a plethora of freshwater ecosystems. It is these qualities that make Nicaragua a backpacker haven for many budget-conscious tourists who want to “trek off the beaten path” and explore a country that promises both leisure and adventure centered around Nicaragua’s many active volcanoes. In fact, tourism in Nicaragua has boomed in recent years. The number of tourist arrivals has increased from 281,000 in 1995 to 1.3 million in 2014. With leading publications ranging from the New York Times and CNN to the Huffington Post and Fox News urging their readership to visit Nicaragua before it is spoilt, the uptick in tourist arrivals comes as little surprise.

The tourism industry is plenty aware of Nicaragua’s allure, and is actively working to capture the imagination of visitors hoping to be wonderstruck by its awesome landscape despite the country’s substandard infrastructure and high rates of poverty. In fact, some might argue that many tourists visit Nicaragua not in spite of its underdevelopment, but because of it. Much to the ire of academics in development studies, a multitude of non-profit organizations and tour operators are making bank by offering high school and college students the opportunity to participate in the profitable economy of voluntourism; as its name suggests, voluntourism presents visitors with the hybrid opportunity to participate in both volunteer and tourist activities. That is, students and their families pay hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to live and work in Nicaragua’s rural communities for periods spanning from several days to several weeks in order to at best “make an impact” and at worst build their resumes. When they are not busy building houses or teaching dance at a local elementary school, they spend their free time hiking Volcán Mombacho or sledding down the graveled slopes of Volcán Cerro Negro. One must ask, however, how much of an impact is made when many of these voluntourists do not speak Spanish, are unskilled, and lack meaningful work experience. Some Nicaraguans fear that well-meaning tourists are not only unhelpful, but that they also threaten to outcompete qualified Nicaraguans working in industries reliant on manual labor, like construction, thus reducing the need for local employment.

In Summer 2016, I worked as a field leader for an American NGO that funds its operational costs almost entirely on foreign volunteers it hosts throughout the year. Its largest income providers are undergraduate students that travel to Nicaragua for ten weeks in the summer months to offer pro-bono small business consultations, perform eye exams in pop-up clinics, and conduct community needs surveys in rural, subsistence farming communities. These students pay over US$3,000 in program fees, and the group size varies yearly from between 20 students to 30 students. Most of the program participants were economics or engineering students in their first and second years of university, and the majority of students I supervised that summer lacked basic Spanish proficiency. Despite these shortfalls, students were expected to assume the work typically done by full-time, permanent staff members throughout the year in periods of just a few days in each community they visited. My coworkers—foreign and local alike—frowned upon this practice due to the low-quality service the students provided, and the inadequate survey responses they garnered due to their poor language skills. However, leadership insisted that the students were paying to gain this precise experience, and was reluctant to amend existing policy to incorporate what many staff members believed to be legitimate concerns.

One particularly egregious memory recalls orientation week. Senior staff members were instructed by their supervisor to train students in conducting community needs surveys in communities in which the organization has not worked in the past, and has no plans to work in the future. Each student was provided a slip of paper that included an introductory blurb about the organization that they were expected to read to each survey respondent. The blurb asked for the respondent’s contact information so organization staff would be able to notify respondents of their imminent return to that community in order to implement the project they described to them. Of course, this was all hypothetical. The respondents were unaware that what seemed like a genuine interaction was actually a training exercise, and became visibly emotional at the possibility that this organization would be able to meet the needs they expressed in the survey. This anecdote highlights the problem of many voluntourism programs that rely on program fees by “do-gooder” tourists to fund their operational costs year round. That is, they are oftentimes obliged to satisfy the interests of program participants before they can satisfy those of their intended project beneficiaries. In other words, these organizations profit by creating structured, resume-building programs for students by exploiting the lived hardships of impoverished Nicaraguans.

If communities do not always benefit from such projects, why do they collaborate with non-profit organizations at all? Part of the answer relates to the presence of an unequal power dynamic between NGOs and rural communities. This imbalance is based on differences in political and economic capital. Approximately 30 percent of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 per day, and nearly 50 percent of households in rural areas live in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as under $1.25 per day. Many of these communities lack health care, paved roads, and water access, and their children sometimes hike upwards of one hour each way to attend school. In communities facing such dire circumstances, NGOs present them with greater access to wealth, often times in the form of microfinance, infrastructure development, and donated goods. To further illustrate, one high-ranking official of a large international NGO in Nicaragua told me that many communities agreed to certain project proposals his organization offered, only later to admit that those projects were actually both unwanted and unhelpful. They confided in him months after those projects had terminated that they accepted the aid because they were afraid that if they had turned it down, the NGO would either decide to forgo future projects, or retract its ongoing projects in the community, however baseless and untrue. In sum, rural communities with little access to basic amenities sometimes accept aid for fear of retribution or neglect.

Many NGOs acknowledge that the power imbalances described above indeed negatively impact their ability to appropriately respond to community needs. In order to better serve communities, some organizations are addressing this impediment directly. They accomplish this by attempting to transfer power from organizations to communities by moving away from voluntourism-based projects towards ones based on economic empowerment. These organizations do not just donate things to communities, but they also actively work to ensure that communities are self-sustaining by providing them business training and increased access to markets. They ultimately aim to reduce reliance on non-profit actors by increasing communities’ economic and political capital. In this model, NGOs play a minimal, supportive role in the implementation and development of community-based projects. One such non-profit organization—and the focus of my ethnographic research—is the British charity Fuertes Juntos.

References Cited


Response to the Death of Fidel Castro

I usually reserve my blog for articles that are meticulously written and corroborated by less anecdotal evidence, and more textual evidence. However, given my hectic schedule, I wanted to share my immediate response to Fidel Castro’s death that I published earlier today on Facebook. When I have more time, I will publish a more comprehensive article.

Like many of my Facebook friends reacting to Fidel Castro’s death, I also have some opinions I would like to share, some of which are controversial.

As many of you know, I studied at the University of Havana in 2015, and was lucky enough to be there to witness the renewal of US-Cuba diplomatic relations on my final day in Cuba. Before traveling to the island nation, I was familiar with negative US sentiments towards Cuba and expected the worst upon my arrival. However, I was surprised by what I saw.

I will not deny that I lived a privileged life during the four months I spent in Cuba. All 60 Americans studying in Cuba resided in Vedado, Havana, just a 20-30 minute walk from the university in a neighborhood where the buildings showed signs of neglect, but remnants of their prior wealth and glory were still visible.

Living in Cuba, however, I was able to meet Cubans, and have honest conversations with them ranging from race relations to freedoms to political sentiments. My movement was also unrestricted, and I spent my free time walking for hours throughout Havana, exploring the urban landscape. I also took a public health course, and was able to tour a renal treatment facility in a public hospital.

I learned the following:

1) Cubans are highly educated. Many go to college. Yes, it is true that you must pledge allegiance to the revolutionary party to gain admission, but this rule isn’t widely enforced. I met several Cubans who spoke several languages, and were eager to engage in philosophical discourse. The discouraging bit: the unemployment rate is very high in Cuba, and many well-educated, highly-qualified people were unable to find work.

2) Cuba has managed to provide some of the best health care in the world, despite its limited resources following the US embargo. It has primary health care facilities on nearly every other block, and its pharmacies offer medication at a symbolic price of just a few cents. Rolling black outs make it difficult to preform routine check ups, and cancer treatment is still underdeveloped. However, Cubans are relatively healthy in relation to their GDP/capita. As my public health professor used to say, “Cuba is a third world country that suffers from first-world diseases.”

3) Cuba prides itself on providing humanitarian aid across the world. During the Angolan civil war, Cuba deployed school teachers and doctors (and, yes, military relief). During Hurricane Katrina, Cuba offered medical aid to New Orleans through its Henry Reeve Brigade, but the United States rejected its offer. During the ebola crisis in 2015, Cuba was one of the first countries to send thousands of doctors, nurses, and researchers to Africa.

It is true that Cuban physicians are paid Cuban salaries while on mission (approx. $30/month). This is an undeniably exploitative practice, but it is also important to understand why Cubans decide to become doctors in the first place. To be a doctor in Cuba is to be a revolutionary–it is rooted in socialist ideology. It is considered the maximum service you can provide to your country.

4) Cuba does have state-controlled press. Its newspaper, radio, and television networks are run by the government. The TV does not play advertisements during commercial breaks, but propaganda that often times centers around public health and equality campaigns. The right to assembly is also non-existent; it can land you in jail. High-speed internet in homes was illegal, and internet access in general was limited to two hotels in Havana that charged exorbitant prices for one hour of service. I’ve heard things are luckily changing. Despite these limitations, people were extraordinarily willing to talk privately about their opinions, and associate with foreigners.

I happened to live in Cuba in 2015, years after Raúl Castro took the mantle of presidency from his brother. Raúl Castro differed from his brother in that he supported the growth of small businesses, and was willing to open the economy to outside forces. This might also cloud my judgement of Cuba. The Cuba I witnessed was one that made huge strides in human rights regarding health care and education, but still had long ways to go in terms of achieving other freedoms Americans cherish.

Honestly, though, Americans have freedom to speech, assembly, and press, but many Americans–especially low-income Americans and racial minorities–are excluded from accessing basic health care and high-quality education. Even in the US, people are politically marginalized and precluded from attaining certain rights and freedoms the government claims to provide universally (btw health care is not a human right in the US).

My last thought on the topic: I absolutely acknowledge the criticisms many people have against Cuba–and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in particular–but I urge anyone reading this to take a more critical stance and understand the complexities that surround the Cuban condition. Cuba’s poverty is a legacy of colonialism and foreign intervention from Spain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, and many of its oppressive practices against its citizens were reactions to US-led coups occurring throughout Latin America at the time. Nothing is all good or all bad; what made Cuba shocking was that it overtly practiced human rights violations… but let’s not pretend that that doesn’t happen in the United States in the guise of systemic oppression.

TLDR; Please read the book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Julia E. Sweig.

Subject: NICA Bill

September 26, 2016

The President of the USA
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

My name is Megan Bridges, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania expected to graduate in December 2016. During the last four years, I have had the opportunity to travel extensively and form long-lasting ties with those I have met abroad. For example, I have studied at the University of Havana in Cuba; in fact, I was at the Malecón on the historic date of December 17, 2014 when you announced renewed diplomatic relations. I have also lived on-and-off in Nicaragua for nearly eleven months, and I hope to return there in January in search of full-time, non-profit work.

It is due to my experience in Nicaragua that I write to you today to express my deep concern regarding the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA). It was unanimously passed in Congress on September 21st, and it proposes to oppose loans at international financial institutions for Nicaragua unless the government holds democratic elections on November 6th. The bill’s popularity among emboldened U.S. representatives comes as no surprise given the United States’ protracted history of backroom deals, military force, and oppressive policies that have long come to define Western Hemispheric relations.

In 2015, however, you demonstrated to the international community that you would be the president to change all that. You dropped a bombshell that December when you agreed to renew relations with Cuba, in so doing providing an end in sight to the embargo that has caused unimaginable suffering vis-à-vis health disparities, economic fragility, and abject poverty. Your decision provoked respect—even among some of your critics—for it showed us a man willing to make unpopular decisions in order to advance a more free, just, and collaborative world. It also showed an America willing to embrace political plurality. It was commendable.

The NICA bill, however, threatens to dismantle the legacy you have not only created for yourself, but also for the country at large, in Latin America. As they say, it feels like every time we take one step forward, we take two steps back. The NICA bill harkens back to regressive Cold War policies that aimed to impose U.S. values, labeled under the guise of “liberty” and “democracy,” onto the countries of Latin America in order to promote U.S. commercial interests. Nicaragua, the original banana republic, has faced its share of U.S. meddling, from Marine occupation to support of the brutal Somoza dictatorship. Most recently, the U.S. backed a deadly military campaign known as the Contra Wars, which alone killed as many as 50,000 Nicaraguans.

If the NICA bill were to be signed into law, it would have catastrophic consequences for the country of just over six million people, as well as represent a modern incarnation of the United States’ disgraceful history towards Nicaragua. At its worst, the bill could send Nicaragua into economic free fall, propelling it onto a similar trajectory to that of its ally Venezuela. Currently, Nicaragua receives $250 million from international lending institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Development Bank, which it uses to fund infrastructure development to improve living conditions for its people. If this funding flow into Nicaragua were to be interrupted, we could bare witness to a human rights tragedy in a country where the GDP per capita was floating just above US $1,800 in 2015.

Furthermore, the NICA bill is coercive, and thus threatens to infringe on the sovereignty of millions of Nicaraguans. According to a poll conducted by M&R Consultants, 82.2% of Nicaraguans support an Ortega presidency. While actions taken by President Ortega within the last year are alarming—such as the country’s acquisition of 50 T-72 tanks from Russia, the expulsion of 28 congressmen from government, and the nomination of the president’s wife for Vice President—it is far too early in the game to tell how Nicaragua’s political situation will develop. At the moment, President Ortega’s disregard for traditional democratic processes has led mainly to political apathy among eligible voters. Nicaraguans are a strong and tireless people that when confronted with tyranny stand in unison for what they believe is fair and right. They sacrificed everything when they fought against the Somoza regime and won. Trust me, Mr. President; Nicaraguans are well capable of defending their own interests if they ever decide they’ve had enough. And if they wish to remain under Ortega leadership, then so be it.

Amidst all the facts and figures, I also have a personal plea to make. Nicaragua is my home away from home. Like you, I was raised in a single parent household, and my mom has always struggled to make ends meet. Since I began college, circumstance has forced my mom out of our childhood home, and she has had to rely on the kindness of family to provide her shelter. Although I joke around with acquaintances that we’re nomads, my heart grows heavy each time I remember that I have no home to return to on holiday. I was at my most vulnerable when I first traveled to Nicaragua, and there I was welcomed and embraced by my Nicaraguan coworkers, housemates, and, soon after, friends… I even fell in love. In Nicaragua, I have found a home I can always return to, and a makeshift family in which our bonds run stronger than blood. The thought alone of people I love facing unfathomable economic hardship due to the passage of the NICA bill is simply unbearable.

Although the NICA bill still needs to be passed in the Senate before it makes its way to the Oval Office, I hope that this letter has appealed to your sensibilities and has compelled you to veto the bill if and when it lands on your desk. While this is not my battle to be fought, it is my duty as an American to speak out against what I deem unjust. I strongly believe that an economic sanction is not a solution unless your intention is to inflict undue harm onto innocent civilians. Proponents of the NICA bill appear to be suffering from a lapse of historical amnesia regarding past U.S. foreign policy decisions towards Latin America. Instead of worrying about defending democracy abroad, let’s worry about defending it stateside. We can begin by election reform, abolishing the super delegate system, and opposing a volatile Trump presidency.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope you reach the only acceptable decision; to sign the NICA bill into law would not only be morally reprehensible, but it would also serve as a major setback to improved Western Hemispheric relations established under your presidency.

Megan Bridges


Against Universal Human Rights

The following article was also featured in The Spectrum:

In what was presumably a cold, Parisian winter in 1948, representatives of the United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in an effort to establish and protect fundamental human rights globally. As a consequence of porous borders and increased migration, it is certainly politically useful to institute a set of human rights like those listed in the UDHR that transcend modern-day geopolitical arrangements. However, the implication that human beings innately lay claim to certain inalienable, nonnegotiable rights is contentious. So, we must ask ourselves, do universal human rights exist? And, moreover, what are the consequences of enforcing them?

Bear with me as I lay some of the groundwork that will allow us to begin finding answers to these questions.

Cultural relativists argue that rights are social constructs. In the seminal text Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben, a distinction is drawn between what Agamben refers to as “bare life” and the “political body.” Bare life refers to human beings as mere biological organisms not belonging to any particular social or political category. The political body, however, is a human being recognized as belonging to a state, most commonly by means of citizenship. He goes on to write, “In the system of the nation-state, the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state.” Agamben argues that stateless human beings are reduced to mere bare bodies, stripped of the so-called “inalienable” rights normally superimposed onto political bodies by the state. That is, you would be fooled to think that human beings are born with rights on the sole pretext of their humanity; we are given rights by governments so long as they recognize us, and these rights—extrapolating from Marxism—are guided by cultural values shared by the bourgeoisie at a particular time and place in history.

Once you accept Agamben’s argument, it becomes clear that the UDHR does not promote a universal set of human rights, but instead a decidedly Western take on them. For instance, the drafting committee had little representation from outside of Europe and the United States. Among its ranks were the Member States of China, France, Lebanon, and the United States, followed shortly after by Australia, Chile, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom; those representatives from the East had been educated in stateside colleges. Furthermore, several of the rights outlined in the UDHR are clearly Eurocentric, such as the rights to nationality and property, which are ironically post-colonial artifacts throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Let me be clear before I move forward: while I consider myself to be a cultural relativist, I do not follow moral relativism. That is, I recognize that human rights are social constructs insofar as each culture has its own set of moral codes that its members have either tacitly or overtly agreed upon. However, as someone socialized in the West, I adhere to the moral traditions of my culture, and personally agree with many of the rights drafted in the UDHR. Whether the West has the authority to claim that their rights are universal and impose them onto other societies, however, is another beast entirely, and is something I continue to grapple with internally.

Now that I established that human rights are not a necessary and universal condition of humanity, but are in fact imagined by states (and, to be clear, powerful states under Western hegemony), I want to briefly explore the possible political consequences of imposing these rights onto foreign communities through policy measures—and strictly enforcing them. Let us consider for instance two highly controversial examples of what are widely perceived as infringements on human rights: child labor and female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision.

Regarding the former, in 1990, 20 United Nations Member States ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention recognized the basic human rights of every child, including the “right to protection from economic exploitation (Article 32) and the right to education (Article 28).” I recently returned to Penn after spending nearly eight months working in rural Nicaragua, where it is not uncommon to see children engaged in agricultural labor, animal husbandry, and, more recently, tourism. Is their work dangerous? Absolutely. Children as young as six or seven mount horses, wield machetes, and herd cattle, often times unsupervised. Furthermore, older children spend their weekdays tending to the farm, and can only attend school on Saturdays. Their labor, however, is necessary for the economic survival of their families; to not work would be a privilege. In cases such as this, the solution is not to outright ban child labor as this could result in grave financial consequences. As opposed to taking a strictly human rights approach, political actors and civil society instead ought to create economic alternatives that disincentive child labor so as to make it a zero-sum game.

In the latter example, efforts to unilaterally prohibit FGM in practicing communities ignore the importance of this ritual among its adherents. The practice—while perceived as horrifically cruel to many—is considered a necessary step in making women of girls. Historically, FGM was more than the sole act of female circumcision. It in fact entailed an elaborate ritual that included taking girls to the water post-circumcision to cleanse them so they could return home reborn as women. Now, however, FGM is increasingly performed in medical clinics with licensed physicians using anesthetics, who often choose to make superficial cuts on the clitoris as opposed to removing it completely. Oddly, a shift has occurred in modern-day FGM in which its principal concern is the act of circumcision, not the ritual surrounding it (perhaps a shift in the other direction ought to occur). Nevertheless, FGM maintains its intense cultural significance. A girl who does not undergo FGM is perceived as promiscuous and unmarriageable, and she is consequently socially marginalized. This can have long-term economic effects, such as poverty due to limited opportunities for social upward mobility. Given the circumstances, the easy fix is not to ban FGM—at least not yet. Before such a ban can take place, a cultural shift in values needs to occur so that uncircumcised girls do not endure any of the negative social and economic repercussions they currently face.

By providing the examples above, my aim is not to justify what we Westerners perceive as human rights grievances, but to shed light on how we might effectively resolve them. When working with local officials under the framework provided by the UDHR (which, whether you like it or not, is the document that guides many international development projects today), political and non-profit actors need to understand the cultural context and economic circumstances that give rise to certain “unethical” practices. Enacting a ban or other magic-bullet approach is not necessarily the panacea international organizations are in search of or even need. Instead, policymakers’ resources might be better directed towards devising alternative solutions that lie outside the realm of human rights to tackle these issues from a more culturally appropriate angle.

Works Cited

Finding Home

It’s incredible when you’ve lived in one place long enough that sounds and aromas once unfamiliar to you no longer draw your attention. Cars mounted with loud speakers drive past–paid advertisers announcing where to buy discounted produce, or the best steak in the city. Once they seemed so loud that conversations had to take a recess, unable to compete with the deep and indecipherable clamor of the broadcaster’s voice. Now, my lips continue to move, my voice unwavering mid sentence as they leisurely pass by.

Boom. Crackle. Fireworks are shot into the air. They make a long and arduous stretch for the stars, amounting to an unimpressive finish as a red flicker quickly dissipates into smoke. The city of Leon always finds reasons to celebrate, and churches are no exception. Morning mass, fireworks. Evening mass, fireworks. Religious holidays, more fireworks. The neighborhood dogs get startled, and begin to bark madly. I don’t even turn my head to awe at the spectacle.

Not to forget the sirens that sound daily at 7am and 12pm. They sound more like alarm calls warning of impending doom than reminders that, You should really be at work by now, and, Wow, look at the hour! I guess it’s about time you take your lunch break, you busy bee.

There’s also that scent that is so distinctly Leon. A fellow volunteer on his second stint in Nicaragua exclaimed with the recognizable tinge of nostalgia in his voice, “That’s the smell of Leon,” as we entered city limits after a day of work in the countryside. Another volunteer let out a hardy laugh, “No, that’s the smell of garbage.” The harsh smell of sewage and litter have given way to the mouth-watering aroma of asado, barbecue cooked by kind, plump street vendors near the Mercado Central. The smell is coupled by the women’s sweet, almost-maternal voices, “Amor, venga,” beckoning me to sit at one of their clothed tables and indulge my gustatory senses.

Even catcalls fail to make me cower. The adios that once made my insides wither is now simply another adios, another tiny man on a bicycle with little self control bursting at the seams with confidence. Sometimes they even make me chuckle. Nice try, buddy, as I stride past their hungry eyes, darting across my body.

Leon has character, and it no doubt takes some time getting used to. But I think I’ve found home.

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