New Orleans: A Developing Country in America?

“This isn’t America. New Orleans is like a developing country.”

In the four weeks I’ve lived in New Orleans, I’ve heard this statement from nearly ten different people. Glancing around at the Wal-Marts, the boutique frozen yogurt shops, the SUVs, and the stately houses on St. Charles Ave., it’s been hard for me believe the comparison. But the complaints about the city do parallel those I heard about and witnessed in Tanzania: there is rampant corruption. Nothing works the way it should. Everything happens slowly. The labrynthine bureaucracy slows progress. Change is slow to occur, or absent altogether. People are satisfied with the status quo. Poverty is persistent and pervasive. It’s not safe. The roads are awful and people are bad drivers. And I mean, really bad drivers.

I’ve witnessed some similarities myself: abandoned and dilapidated buildings are a common sight. Homeless people walk up and down the medians at stop lights, peering into windows that stay rolled-up, more often than not. It’s oppressively hot and there are a lot of mosquitoes (but at least they don’t carry Malaria). And don’t get me started on the pot holes. But the negative comparisons stop there. And then a flood of the positive. New Orleans is a place where relationships matter. People are friendly, welcoming, generous, and warm. They are talkative. It’s unbelievably easy to make friends. The music settles down deep in your chest and won’t let your feet stop moving or your body stop swaying. People dance. And they sing. And they eat, a lot. And they are, or at least seem to be, very happy. So maybe these two places, some 8,799 miles apart, really are alike.

The familiar joy in my soul is back. Sometimes I’ve struggled to communicate to people why I loved living in Tanzania so much, despite the many frustrations and inconveniences, the dangers and the fears. Maybe I should just tell them to come to New Orleans to get a little taste of what I mean when I say that the positives just outweigh the negatives, that sometimes a place can make you feel alive.

Another thing that New Orleans seems to have in common with Tanzania and the developing countries I’ve visited: it is a tourist destination, rich in culture and history, in local flavor and ritualized tradition. People travel long distances to see a place that resists change, that is unique, that in some ways defies modernity. Perhaps they recognize, subconsciously, that their lives elsewhere are safe and comfortable but somehow sterile, less striking, maybe even stale.

Maasai women. The Masaai have preserved much of their traditional culture despite colonialism in Tanzania.

I’ve been guilty in the past, I think, of idealizing poverty. I’ve always had the ability to leave. I’ve never experienced true need or institutionalized injustice or oppression. The odds have very rarely been against me. Where I have failed, I have had no one and nothing to blame but myself. But I have witnessed the resilience and courage of people who are called “less fortunate” than myself, and I do not believe that my admiration of their character has been misplaced. Maybe I am so impressed and moved by what goes on in the lives of the poor because it is with them that I’ve seen most clearly the triumph of the human spirit, the ability to overcome difficult circumstances with gratitude and persistence.

Somali rapper K’Naan recently wrote an editorial for the New York Times in which he called Somalia “a paradise of paradox,” a place of both breathtaking beauty and unspeakable pain. New Orleans, in its way, offers the same confounding combination of opposites inextricably linked. The scars of Katrina are still visible here, as “x-codes” spraypainted on houses by coast guard crews to show which dwellings had been checked for bodies, as credit scores destroyed when livelihoods were swept away, as the grey lines high on the sides of buildings that mark the floodwaters’ reach. But bright new buildings and businesses, rebuilt neighborhoods, and continued recovery efforts stand out against those darker backdrops.

The other day I walked in a Second Line, the famous New Orleans tradition of a bass brand parade. A second line usually follows a wedding or a funeral procession. I was told that a jazz funeral second line is a celebration of life; it lets the creator know how much a person was appreciated and loved. I was also told that second lines were a way for New Orleans “pleasure and social clubs” to advertise their life-insurance policies. “If you are one of us,” the spectacle would promise, “just look at what a party your funeral will be! We will celebrate you with style!” The music was infectious. Everyone danced together. Dancers twirled fringed and bejeweled parasols. Strangers embraced. Bodies became instruments of beats. But as we shimmied and bobbed down the road, my companions whispered about the violence that sometimes accompanies these joyful events. “A two-year-old was shot last year,” one person said. “And make sure you don’t fall behind the parade, because that’s where it gets dangerous.” We had to park strategically so that we wouldn’t walk certain irreputable blocks as we left the parade. I couldn’t separate my joy from my anxiety; a single river of adrenaline flowed through my body.

As I drove away from the Second Line, I thought of a poem by Langston Hughes called “Let America Be America Again.” He articulates the persistent paradox of America, saying:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

[…]

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

[…]

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

[…]

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

In a way, I see New Orleans as what America could be. It is a place that is aware that it is in constant flux. Those in the present take stock of a rich past and promising future, while holding an open conversation about the inherent risk and great potential of diversity. The heterogeneity of New Orleans, it’s mottled history of Spaniards and Frenchmen, Canadians and freed Slaves, native people and pioneering colonialists, has left a legacy of both conflict and enduring vitality. American culture has reaped the benefits of New Orleans’ beautiful, hybrid traditions. And yes, there is a certain uncomfortable paradox at the realization that the jazz and blues traditions that led to Rock ‘n’ Roll only existed because of the cultural resilience of enslaved Africans. That the enigmatic Mardi Gras Indians marched in their elaborate masked costumes during Mardi Gras celebrations because this was the only time blacks were allowed to “parade without a permit.” That the famous ‘po’ boy’ sandwiches were so named because poor people could only afford a simple meal of fried meat on a plain bun. But it’s a tribute to New Orleans that the people here have stubbornly and repeatedly turned darkness into light. And into very delicious food.

What all this thinking about New Orleans as a “developing country” has led me to (re)consider is the very language we use to talk about development. We’re all familiar with the concepts of the “developed world” versus the “developing world.” This paradigm of thought suggests a very real phenomenon: the belief that there aretwo distinct worlds on one spinning planet. And if there are these two worlds, then the concerns of the one half must be quite different than those of the other half. In fact, individuals in the other world must be very nearly aliens. The racist justifications of slavery and genocide make more sense if we split the earth in two. You might say these are concerns of the past, but the economic exploitation made common and acceptable by the corporate globalized system have replaced old forms of oppression. The work of Kiva, I would argue, is to fight the poverty created by unequal local and global systems and to empower all individuals to participate meaningfully in the market.

So, in our terminology we have divided countries and societies (which consist of people, of course) into those we consider “developed” or “developing.” And at this point, the English major in me, perpetually fascinated by language, interjects. These words themselves, what do they suggest? And how do they shape our society? First of all, we only have to look at campaigns for aid and charity to see that those in the developing world are often portrayed as passive victims. Compare this to the “free” people of the West, empowered by their choices, first measured by their ability to choose leaders, religions, and lifestyles, but increasingly guaged by the breadth of their consumer choices. “Buying power” as freedom. But at what point does commodification become it’s own particular type of cage? When we measure value in terms of what we possess rather than how we act and what we are able to do for others, what is lost? By promoting microfinance, sharing the personal stories of Kiva borrowers, and connecting Lenders and Borrowers with these stories, Kiva reminds us that people matter more than profits and that making a living is about more than money. When I ask Kiva borrowers how they have used and will use the additional profits gained from their loans, rarely do they mention wanting to buy more things. They talk about providing education and healthcare for their children, better food for their families, and more opportunities for their communities.

So if the United States is a developed country, then why does Kiva have a presence here? Once a country is considered “developed” (modernized, industrialized, democratized, capitalized), then people want to wipe their hands, pat each other on the back, and say the work is done. Institutionalized greed and inequality are given the leeway to exist, because we become convinced we have achieved development and reached an endpoint. The action is completed. Stasis reached. Shouldn’t we be satisfied? By bringing Kiva City to the United States, Kiva has made a brave statement about what development means and who can benefit from it.

What I have been getting at from the beginning is that maybe New Orleans should be proud of being compared to a “developing country.” Maybe the words we have chosen to describe the project of development should be changed to reflect the fact that all countries are developing. What is alluring about the classification of the “developing country” is that the label reminds us that society is always a work in progress. Until some utopian civilization is achieved, no country can be truly developed. As long as their is homelessness, poverty, inequal access to credit, healthcare and education, a wage gap between genders, etc., then yes, we are still developing.

Many of the people I’ve met in New Orleans came to volunteer after the storm, intending to stay for a few months, but ended up making the city their home. Even after Katrina killed 1,835 people, destroyed 275,000 homes and 400,000 jobs, caused $81 billion in property damage, and forced the evacuation of 80% of the New Orleans population, over 140,000 have returned to rebuild. All of the Kiva borrowers with whom I’ve spoken left New Orleans for a while, but each one affirms the same thing: “I always knew I’d come back to New Orleans. There’s no other place like it on earth.” I’ve never seen so many people identify with and love their city with such fervent passion, with such abounding joy, and with such commitment to making it better. I thank them for their hard work and optimism.

Rebecca Corey was a Kiva Fellow in the 9th class with Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd. in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Now, she’s back for round two, helping Kiva to launch Kiva New Orleans, the second Kiva City. To learn more about how to bring Kiva to your city, go here. To read about ASI Federal Credit Union, Kiva’s financial partner in New Orleans, go here. You can also follow Kiva New Orleans on facebook, join the Kiva New Orleans lending team, or make a loan to one of their wonderful clients.

This blog was originally posted on Oct. 14, 2011 on the Kiva Fellows Blog: http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/2011/10/14/new-orleans-a-developing-country-in-america/

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2 responses to “New Orleans: A Developing Country in America?

  1. Rebecca, this is wonderfully evocative of New Orleans. You bring a unique perspective from your time in Tanzania. I particularly like your deconstruction of what the term “developing” means. Thank you for sharing with us the passion you feel for your new city.

  2. The food and culture in New Orleans were amazing. Amelia was born in Slidell, across the lake. I haven’t been back since Katrina. Enjoy and be careful!

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