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Un Techo para mi País: Building on Shaky Foundations

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*** Article originally published in Spanish with the title ‘Un Cheto Para mi Pais‘ in Revista Crisis ***

Corporate social responsibility is as easy to criticise as telling a cashier: “no, I don’t want to donate my change.” But behind the façade of philanthropy and marketing is a more complex universe: someone who had nothing now has something. What is this? An imposture that thrills both the recipient and the donor? ‘Un Techo para mi Pais’ (A Roof for my Country) is the global tutorial for patching things up with faulty patches. However, it doesn’t seem to be for nothing either.

'Un Techo' (photo: Sebastián Vricella)

‘Un Techo’ (photo: Sebastián Vricella)

Posh people building shitty houses. Can we call it this? Let’s see: what ‘Un Techo…’ builds in eight Argentine provinces and 19 Latin American countries is a wooden pine rectangle, three metres by six, hardly wider than a shipping container, without thermal insulation in the walls or the floor, without electricity, without a bathroom, without a kitchen, and with a final cost of $11,000, the price today of a ’91 model Fiat. In winter it’s cold, really cold, and it will be hot, really hot, in summer. To take a piss, you have to go outside; you cook where you can. Fifteen 30cm posts separate the floor from the mud: wind passes underneath, it enters the house. Here it is, the first trap of Techo, the semantics: to say “roof” implying that it is equivalent to housing, to a home, warmth, dignity, mate, stews, rights, and a life in your own home. As if ‘Techo’ – a roof – were itself a house.

There is, then, a so-called house and a deception – which we could call a “marketing trap 2.0”, “attractive campaign” or “naïve mantra”- behind which there is a hoard of young people between 18 and 30, students of business at UADE, psychology at UP, or engineering at El Salvador, all well-meaning and convinced in their goal: “We are seeking to eliminate poverty in Latin America.” That is what the 600 or so Argentine volunteers say when they get up on Saturday morning to throw themselves into manual work, to go and build in more than 90 neighbourhoods and settlements throughout the country, where they have been working since 2003. The same people who now reassess: “Yes, we know we build emergency housing, it’s not final, but we do community work and we want to have an influence in public policies and find definitive solutions for land ownership and services.” They are the people that decided that Techo- as it is now called for short- an NGO funded by big multinationals, will not talk about the structural causes of poverty: “We don’t look to point blame, we just get on with it,” they state. Nail some wood and patch up the system without questioning why. Ok.

Julio, a resident in the Los Quinchos neighbourhood in Florencio Varela, is about to enter for the first time the place where he will live with his four children, wife, and two grandchildren. He has no objections – why would he? Julio is an evangelist, verbose, does odd jobs, and is not thinking about what the State should be doing or not. Nor is he interested in discovering the hidden marks of symbolic violence or define if this qualifies as charity, as welfare, or whatever. Julio – who until recently lived under disjointed metal sheets, between pieces of brick held together by what must have been faith, and directly on the mud – is crying. He is crying a lot and knows if he cries a little more he won’t be able to speak. So he controls it to say something from the heart: “Thank you very much to the company and may god bless you.”

Everyone pauses. Zoom in on Julio. Big bang: thousands of ‘Julios’ thank the companies for being the closest they have ever been to having the constitutional right to live with dignity. And all thanks to Techo, which has the formula to connect those who have nothing and those who have everything, and to make it sufficiently attractive so that, in ten years, 40,000 volunteers have already participated in the construction of 6 million emergency homes. Once again the multinational has the best costume at the party – it looks good, and it can look at everyone and say: “Tada! You see? We can do business and, at the same time, be socially responsible.”

The beneficiary of a new house is interviewed by 'Techo' (photo: Sebastián Vricella)

The beneficiary of a new house is interviewed by ‘Techo’ (photo: Sebastián Vricella)

The organisation’s funding model is not limited to mass collections in the street with balloons, or individual donations via credit card, or the rounding up of change in supermarkets, or the wine tastings, golf tournaments, celebrity galas or the annual alliances with big companies. They have, as well, a star product inspired by the trend of corporate volunteering, which in itself is an expression that comes from an oxymoron that arose in mid 20th century Unites States: corporate philanthropy.

“In the plan ‘Build with your business’ we ask for money but also that they come and involve themselves and see the reality first hand,” explains Ana Ramírez, assistant director of fundraising at Techo in Buenos Aires. It works like this: the companies donate double the cost of the number of shacks they want – the money that is not used for houses goes to the general funding of the NGO – and they send their own employees to work on the construction. People from various hierarchies and areas go, and no previous knowledge is needed: the shacks are designed so that a Youtube tutorial and a weekend is enough. This is the deal chosen by, for example, General Electric, Santander Bank, Chevron, Zurich, Disney, Coca Cola, Molinos, Johnson and Johnson, The Golden Arches, and the telecommunications giant Claro, which has invested in 160 shacks for different districts of the country. Keeping in mind just the ten recently assembled in Florencio Varela, Claro contributed about $220,000 and more than 100 employees.

For this, Julio thanks the company. Because 48 hours ago, in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that doesn’t appear on maps, he and his family, four young volunteers, a girl from a call centre, a manager and his daughter, an accountant, and an employee from human resources strained, lunched, dug, hammered, sweated, and were moved together. When the house took root – when they buried the 15th and last post of the base – they cried. In this moment, they had to write a wish on a piece of paper to be read aloud and thrown to Pachamama (Mother Nature). One of the volunteers said: “I wish that, like, this will be the base for the future of the family, and that, like, you will be very happy.”

Now that everything is ready, that each nail is holding up what it should be, that the beams are in a perfect grid, that the corrugated metal sheets are covered with insulating glass wool, and the coloured balloons are hung on the door, the last ritual of the weekend commences. The whole crew is gathered in front of the entrance, with dirty shirts, out-of-control hair, and semi-buried shoes. A close-up of their eyes shows they are not thinking that tomorrow is Monday and all that it brings; they are watching what is happening here. A detail shot of nails full of dirt proves they gave their bodies for the cause. Julio and his daughters walk towards the door, uncomfortable with the show but happy with the recently baked house. Someone hands them scissors and Julio cuts the ribbon. After, they turn around not knowing what else to do. The producer of [local tv show] ‘Surprise and a Half’ is not there to tell them which camera to look into and there is no soundtrack of violins. Nor is there a neon sign, but the live audience applause, shout and celebrate, they rejoice and think: ‘wow, it was great to help!’

Volunteers help construct a house (photo: Yluux, via flickr)

Volunteers help construct a house (photo: Yluux, via flickr)

The same model they offer to companies is a success with private secondary schools – a class raises the money and off it goes to the neighbourhood-, with families – uncles, cousins, in-laws, and nephews of volunteers donate and get to work with their own hands-, and with Jeff, a student of international relations in Massachusetts, who has just finished, a few metres from here, the 11th house of the weekend. This proactive North American paid US$4,000 for the experience and travelled especially to end up surprised by the “feeling of teamwork.” Jeff says when he first arrived at the plot where they would be building, a neighbour began to speak to him effusively and he didn’t know how to tell him that he didn’t speak Spanish and “it was so funny.” He also says he wants to get to know Argentine steak, dance and wine, but this will come later. Jeff contacted Techo through a branch the organisation just opened in Miami to attract funds from international and private organisations and NGOs working with Holy Cross, a university that has Jesuit origins like Techo. All very Pope Francis.

The second and final work day of corporate volunteering with Claro in Florencio Varela has just ended and… congratulations! Everybody wins. The employees, who are elated and full of adrenaline waiting for the minibus to take them back to the capital, won. “It’s cool to know that a company supports you and encourages you to do something like this: I’m happy and proud to be part of it,” said the head of internal communications at Claro. The Techo volunteers also won – like Mer, Pato, and Vicky, who have reaffirmed their commitment and are sitting to the side debating whether or not to participate in the next construction. Claro won: not because of the “tax deductions” as we love to say when Coto asks us if we want to donate our change, but because of the self-indulgence in good deeds and the self-congratulatory solidarity work. Claro won from the outside, if it wanted to publicise its actions. But Claro mainly won from the inside: the human resources department licks its lips because “instead of going to paintball, we stimulate working in a team by helping someone,” explains a volunteer. Jeff, who will return to North America to talk about the asado, tango and team spirit that characterised the Argentines, won. Julio and ten more families, who now have someplace to go, also won. An unknown neighbourhood won because someone paid attention to it. Carlos Slim, owner of Claro and number one in the Forbes ranking, won, because he has a company with more motivated employees and – as Techo’s slogan says – “links as strong as a house”. Over and out. There is something pornographic in the fact that Julio and the richest guy in the world both won.

The shack isn’t free for everyone, or better said, for anyone. The agreement is transparent: those who show willingness will receive it in return, and there are three devices to measure this. Whoever wants a shack must pay $720, attend two meetings, and participate actively in the construction. “The money is symbolic, to demonstrate the commitment and say ‘look, I worked my arse off’” says Victoria. With 720 symbolic pesos they could buy 100 litres of symbolic milk or 40 kilos of symbolic rice and all would be symbolically fed. The meetings are exclusionary: “If they don’t come, they get unassigned [housing].”

They work side-by-side to move away from the concept of welfare, which Techo are profoundly afraid of. They demand for the poor “that there is an intention to move forward and a lot of willpower to fight for it,” Ana Ramírez describes. Techo isn’t for the poor who like being poor. So, for those who have not lost hope the NGO has a lot of community development strategies to suggest to them: “We work so that we don’t need to exist – we want to create communities that don’t need us, that are autonomous,” explains Victoria Moreno, in her early-twenties and head of internal communication of Techo Argentina. As a result, in the neighbourhoods, there are games libraries for children, round table discussions with neighbours, trade workshops, tutoring, and a micro-loans programme inspired by the Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus. This banker, Noble Peace Prize winner and, for the organisation, an inescapable role model, wrote in his book ‘Creating a World Without Poverty’ that poor people are like bonsai trees that society never gave the base to grow on. If given real opportunities, says Yunus, they will grow as tall as the rest. Yunus created Grameen Bank, the first finance company to notice that poor people can also repay money. Under that same logic, Techo grants mirco credits. Now, rising out of poverty doesn’t depend on anything but the choices and willingness of the individual.

A young builder working on a Un Techo Para Mi Pais project (Photo courtesy of Un Techo Para Mi Pais)

A young builder working on a Un Techo Para Mi País project (Photo courtesy of Un Techo Para Mi País)

Every weekend Techo deploys between 600 and 1,000 young people in the most needy areas of Argentina. Which ones are they? They don’t need to be told because they have their own “land registry” to look for settlements around the country, survey them, and release the results. According to the report that was presented at the end of last year, they claim 700 volunteers have covered 60% of the country and improved their methodology. “In a normal country, not having a property title would be enough, but here there is so much informality in land ownership and services, it was more difficult to define the method,” explains Juan D´Attoli, National Director of the Land Registry in the NGO’s Social Research Centre. “In the 2011 report there were mistakes: with the parameters we were using, you could enter a ‘country’ (gated community) as a settlement,” commented Moreno regarding the information that made the front page of most newspapers. “The most important thing is that we know where the settlements are and we want the municipalities to use the data to generate public policies,” says D’Attoli. “We are in the neighbourhoods,” he stresses.

They are. One Saturday in August, while they are constructing in Los Quinchos, giving out micro credits in Virrey del Pino, and conducting a survey in Córdoba, in the IAPI neighbourhood of Quilmes someone is taking the first steps to define who will be next to receive a shack. This person is 24-year old Mariano, and he follows the standard procedure: he visits the families, surveys them, puts the results through a common sense filter, and notes down the priority as appropriate: high, upper middle, middle, lower middle, low. In this first operation lies the fortune of the homeless.

The house of Esteban, a 26-year old who lives with his wife and his seven-year old daughter, is made of mud and dissolves a little with each shower of rain. Mariano asks about income, about services. And makes notes. He calculates by eye the size of the house and the state of the walls. And makes notes. Mariano asks if anyone in the family has an illness and if there are any unwanted pregnancies. And makes notes.

“What are the problems that most concern you about the neighbourhood? I’ll tell you the options: housing, jobs, drugs, violence, juvenile crime, rubbish, unwanted pregnancies, lack of schooling,” he asks.

“Violence… juvenile crime,” Esteban stammers.

“Perfect. I will add rubbish because everyone says rubbish, see,” he decides. What do you like in the neighbourhood? That’s if you like something. If not, I’ll put ‘nothing’.”

“It’s peaceful…”

“Peaceful? You told me there is violence and crime but it seems peaceful to you?”

Mariano is logical, relaxed, like everyone in the organisation. Mariano interacts with the neighbours pretending they are equals. “I won’t build this house for you because there is a conflict with the family behind: in cases like this, better avoid the trouble,” says Mariano, while asking for more ketchup for his hamburger. The saleswoman, who already knows him, who has seen him in the neighbourhood, comments that she is surprised they are here this Saturday because it is a public holiday. And Mariano replies: “How could we not come? Poverty knows no holidays.”

For more about Revista Crisis, visit the website here or Facebook page.

Translated by Tess Bennett.

 

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- who has written 787 posts on The Argentina Independent.


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4 Responses to “Un Techo para mi País: Building on Shaky Foundations”

  1. Fede says:

    Dumbest analysis ever written. The author’s doing a blatant ad hominem attack at one of the most transparent NPOs around just because she doesn’t like the people who participate and how much money they have. She’s almost blaming the entire existence of poverty on this specific organization which, by the way, gives a huge hand to those in need.

    Whether the quality of the house is up to the author’s standards or not is irrelevant, since no one is forcing anyone to live there. People who do ask for a Techo house obviously choose to do so because their current living situation is worse than that. If they find somewhere better later on, nothing’s stopping them from moving there. Her clasifying the entire operation as a sham because the houses are not a life-long solution comparable to houses worth thousands of times more is like saying you should never donate clothes if you’re not going to donate entire wardrobes for a person’s entire life. It’s ridiculous, and there’s no requirement to do so either. Only local and national governments can be subjected to such criticism, since that’s the actual person in charge, working with taxpayer’s money to do so. Techo promises what it delivers and does so with time and money voluntarily donated.

    I really can’t believe they’re re-publishing this stupid article, widely read only because of its agressively contrarian attitude and supported by absolutely nothing but a bitter hate and a desperate need to make a name for herself.

  2. Werner Almesberger says:

    Fede, I don’t think the analysis is dumb. It seems to come from someone who is honestly and deeply upset about the government being outdone in its own game and who is offended by this humiliation coming at the hands of none other than the arch-enemy, evil corporations and their army of darkness, the middle class. I also sense a hint of admiration if not envy at what seems to be an effective organization :-)

    Let’s see: complaints that the houses don’t come with infrastructure. Well, supplying water, etc., is by and large the responsibility of the communes. I notice no comment on coordination with communes or any shortcomings of the process, just criticism that the results aren’t there.

    Then, the “pornography” of the rich and poor both benefiting. That’s truly scandalous. How dare they doing this to our class struggle ? Also here, there is a link to the government’s way of thinking: wealth, power, all are a zero-sum game – for us to be better, someone else has to be worse. If I want a bigger piece of the cake, someone else has to get less. Making a bigger cake ? That would be … expansionist !

    Next, the use of industrially pre-fabricated, easily assembled parts, the whole procedure broken down in nice manageable parts. Engineering ! An outrage ! A true noble savage builds his home from twigs or finds a nice cave.

    And we get right to the poodle’s core when it comes to welfare. Welfare is the height of aspiration ! Milk, not houses ! Fish, not boats and nets ! Down with property, no matter how small, let the state provide for you. Big daddy knows best. Dependence is freedom !

    I’d say this article is less about the merits or failings of “corporate philanthropy” but more a study of the demons that inhabit the dark, embittered and destructive end of the “left” spectrum.

    It would be naive to expect that the rich and powerful of this planet would be very interested in upsetting the status quo. At the same time, they have little to fear from the poor. And they know a thing or two about doing things right. We may not like what they do and how they do it, but we have to admit that they are good at getting what they want.

    If, in this case, they want to help the poor but promising, it’s absurd to criticise the undertaking as such. It would be more useful to watch the process and its results. There is also the crucial question of whether this actually accomplishes its stated goal, i.e., whether it does enable people to escape poverty and become self-sufficient, or whether it’s just another case of dangling a carrot in front of their noses, making them struggle for a bit, before failure inevitably strikes and shatters their dreams once more.

    - Werner

  3. Mike says:

    Good read, I had thought about volunteering for Techo, but now that I have a better understanding of how the organization works, I doubt that I will. The fact that they don’t provide electricity or plumbing to any of these “houses” tells me that they are in the business of providing a team-building experience for the volunteers and employees of major companies. I guess installing a toilet in one of the houses wouldn’t provide the volunteer with the experience they were expecting.
    Perhaps The Argentina Independent could recommend some other charities that are worth volunteering for.

  4. Ella says:

    Mike,

    Actually, TECHO does build bathrooms as well, though I’ve only seen this taking place in Chile, for the time being (our good friend Google can help us here).

    I don’t think you should dismiss volunteering based on this article…does this mean you don’t buy a certain product if you read a bad review of it? (Really?)
    Experiences are subjective and, as such, you might want to consider allowing your own experience to determine whether working with this organization fills a part of you – the one that wants to contribute to society – or not.

    Truth is, you don’t necessarily need to volunteer for TECHO and, once again, Google might surprise you. I’m sure you can find more than one organization that can use your help.

    Ella

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