WORKING SESSION: ON THE EDGE–POVERTY ALONG THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER

By Justin DeWaele and Susie Kim
Staff Writers

On April 2, 2011, the second day of Clinton Global Initiative University, student participants and a panel of speakers gathered early in the morning to discuss issues pertinent to poverty alleviation, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border region, in a working session called “On the Edge: Poverty Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.” The event was mediated by David Shirk, associate professor of Political Science at the University of San Diego, and the panelists included Jose Reyes Ferriz, the former mayor of Ciudad Juarez; Ana Gabriela Perez, a Social Innovation Manager for the Urbi Desarollos Urbanos S.A. de C.V. organization; and Elisa Sabatani, the Executive Director of Via International.

Reyes Ferriz spoke about the limited opportunities for higher education in Ciudad Juarez and the implications this has for the community. Ferriz noted that Ciudad Juarez once had some of the worst school attendance and drop out rates in Mexico, but that the situation greatly improved under his leadership. In collaboration with the University of Arizona, Reyes Ferriz’s administration established the Preparatoria Central, a school now ranked as the fourth best high school in Mexico, for underprivileged and academically talented students.

The former mayor discussed other improvements that were made in Ciudad Juarez as a result of the 30 million dollars it received from Mexican President Calderon and the Inter-American Development Bank. The financial aid was given to the city with the aim of reducing poverty and youth violence. Under Ferriz’s leadership the money permitted the city to conduct a study on youth violence that revealed that most of the violence in Ciudad Juarez occurred in an area where there is only one high school and few job opportunities. Ferriz noted that the city built five high schools in that area following the publication of the report.

During a round of questions mediated by Shirk, former mayor Reyes Ferriz reiterated the need for economic development along the border region. He suggested that education that emphasizes in market skills and English would also bring great economic benefits to the area.

Ana Gabriella Perez, a recent graduate of the University of San Diego and the second member of the panel to speak, explained her involvement in Valle San Pedro, an ambitious housing project for low-income communities that involves the public, private, and non-profit sectors. This housing project, she shared, would create a whole new city and include housing, transportation, and jobs. Perez also emphasized the importance of an organized society like Valle San Pedro in promoting a sense of community ownership in projects.

Perez shared with the audience some pertinent advice regarding poverty alleviation and community work. College campuses, she said, provide numerous networking opportunities and are places where brilliant ideas can flourish. She encouraged the audience to have a positive outlook, determination for change, and propensity for innovation.

Elisa Sabatani, the Executive Director of Via International and the last panelist to speak, shared some of her experiences from her 36 years of working in social justice issues along the border. Sabatani described how she and her organization have approached community development by listening to the people and integrating their various needs. Some program opportunities include nutrition and ecology taught by and for women of the community, and microfinance for small home-based jobs that enable family members to better attend to children and to youth issues.

During the question and answer session, the audience raised questions regarding security, violence against women in Ciudad Juarez, issues of equity, and immigration reform. Before closing the plenary session, Professor Shirk highlighted the need to get rid of the “us-them” binary perpetuated by the border by invoking the notion “todos somos mexicanos ” (we are all Mexican).

After the plenary session, PROSPECT sat down with Professor Shirk, panel mediator, and Mary Klap, one of the Clinton Global Initiative commitment makers and a fourth year student at Swarthmore College.

PROSPECT: As you closed the plenary session, you talked about the binary between us and them. Could you please expand on that?
SHIRK: I think that it’s a natural human tendency to look at the world as an us-them dichotomy. We naturally fear what we do not know or understand. We love what we know, and we feel an affinity for what we know even if it’s not particularly good. I think the problem is a lack of cooperation across borders because of a lack of understanding and familiarity. One of the best things we could do is to break down those borders between us—literal and figurative—by venturing out to the ‘others.’ Once you know the other person, it’s not an us-them divide, it’s just ‘us.’ I think that it is about knowing.

PROSPECT: How can we address poverty alleviation in context of the economic exploitation committed by transnational corporations, free trade agreements like NAFTA, a militarized border, and especially in light of American corporations underpaying works often in appalling working conditions?
SHIRK: One of the unaddressed aspects of NAFTA is labor. The question of workers and worker’s rights and how we deal with demand for labor is totally unresolved. NAFTA made it possible for capital and for goods to cross borders very easily and for the people behind those interests to benefit. What we didn’t really deal with when we designed NAFTA is how to deal with the international demand and flows of labor, and in my own view what we’ve done by not addressing that is creating a black market for labor in the US for unprotected labor in Mexico. My sense is that free trade should mean free labor and protection of labor rights across national boundaries. The architecture of the global trading system we need to develop the capacity to allow for legal flows of labor across international borders and develop a set of standards that protect labor rights in the entire labor world.

PROSPECT: What were some of the most innovative ideas that you have heard today?
KLAP: We heard from the mayor and he talked about [Ciudad Juarez economics]. I’ve taken urban economics and economic development [courses] so it was a great way to see the implementation of those ideas. We got to talk a lot of the classic ideas that have been used, and it is good to see that they have worked in Juarez; like subsidizing transportation to schools in order to increase school attendance, as well as day care systems. It’s great to see those systems work. Ana Gabriela’s idea of creating system was truly an innovative idea, and it is great to see that it is being implemented from an ideal sense, that they are being able to build it from scratch and create these rules and regulations. Have a constructive community, have people get into it, and let it grow. It’s really great to see that. She was saying that in order to establish the rules and norms before people get there, we need a blank slate.

PROSPECT: Were there any issues in particular that you wished were discussed, especially because the topic was focused on the US-Mexico border?
KLAP: I’m part of the Global Health Forum at Swarthmore so I see that health in an integral part to alleviating poverty and creating healthy sustainable communities. So that was an issue I was personally interested in hearing discussed, I think the nature of time constraints makes it difficult. But looking at it, it’s great to see a holistic approach, looking at the economics, sociology, and politics. I think that even at the table we had so many different groups. We were working on different problems about poverty alleviation so the discussion there was actually really integrated.

PROSPECT: How does your commitment relate to poverty alleviation?
KLAP: We primarily deal with malaria. Malaria is one of those extremely detrimental diseases that have immediate physical effects and result in huge drain on the economy. People are incapacitated; they can’t go to work. They can’t support themselves, and they can’t support their families. And when a huge portion of the community is afflicted with malaria, that really stops the economy of the whole community. Being able to alleviate these health concerns is a very basic need of the community in order to let them work at the jobs they do have. If they are not healthy, they cannot work. Their economy—even [the little that constitutes] what is there—cannot work.

Photo Courtesy of pmoroni

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