Chimbote's Safety Net
My first contact with Foster Parents Plan in Chimbote was when Doris Rojas tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Are you Dutch’?’ she wanted to know. ‘Are you a padritto — a foster parent?’ The answer to both questions was no. But I understood why she wanted to know. Foster Parents Plan — known locally as ‘Plan’ — was threatening to close down in Chimbote and Doris, like many other mothers of sponsored children, was anxious to contact the sponsor directly. She thought there was a chance that a friend of the sponsor might be coming to the city, so she had been anxiously keeping a look-out for any passing gringos.
Doris was not alone in her anxiety; there would be five thousand other families left out on a limb after Plan’s departure. In all, around ten per cent of the population was covered by Plan’s programme in a city of 300,000 — for if one child was sponsored the whole family was entitled to services.
But Chimbote itself is an artificial creation — a fishing village that has swollen and sprawled into one of the great industrial centres of Peru. Fishing and steel have been the two employment magnets that have drawn the Indians down from the poverty-stricken mountains.
It was a grey city that they came to. In a bay filled with bobbing fishing boats, grey waves lap on dirty grey rocks. And if you stand on the shore looking inward you can see where the newcomers settled. Dust roads radiate out from the centre up and away to the horizon. From a distance the pueblos jovenes — the ‘young towns’ of the migrants look like rough grey squares of matting that have been placed in neat rows on the sand-hills.
But close up they are a lot less comfortable. When Doris approached me I had been talking to a family that was using the respite of Sunday afternoon to rebuild their house. Most of the homes here are made the same way: square reed mats are tied to a framework of wooden poles. From a distance they look like houses of cards that the slightest gust would topple — but here they seem to rot rather than blow away.
I walked with Doris around the back of the huts and was surprised to find, not another patch of desert, but a stretch of marsh densely packed with six-foot reeds.
‘The water originally came from under the ground,’ said Doris. ‘Now it also comes from the drains of three communities further up the hill.’ There were children playing at the edge of the marsh. For, as she pointed out, children and muddy water are hard to keep apart.
That’s where we met 12-year-old Carlos — the son who was being sponsored through Plan by a Dutch family. He is tall for his age, lively and alert like his mother — and ambitious too: he wants to be an aircraft pilot when he grows up.
In the front room of their house there isn’t much more than a table and a couple of chairs. Pride of place on the reed wall goes to an old picture frame that holds a cluster of snapshots — some of Carlos and his younger brother and sister and others of a pleasant-looking Dutch family in the dining room of a suburban house. Doris also showed me a letter from the mother of the family.
‘We have your photograph on the wall very close to where we eat so that we see it often. You are part of our family. Our daughters Bea and Marisca often talk about you.'
Carlos had high hopes that if a family friend from Holland showed up he would be able to go back with them – so he could go to school in Holland. I pointed out that he would have to learn Dutch.
‘That’s OK.’ he said, ‘I could do that’. And he wouldn’t mind leaving Peru? ‘No, of course not.’ I asked his mother how she would feel. ‘I would be sad. But it would be the best thing for him. And it’s not as if he would be going away when he was just a baby — then I would never have seen him again. Now that he is grown up a little I am sure that he wouldn’t forget me.’
It seems unlikely now that Carlos will ever make it to Holland. But the Rojas family maintains an even stronger connection with Europe than through their Dutch Foster Parents. That link is an endless stream of cans packed with sardines.
Doris came to Chimbote with her husband ten years ago in search of work in the fish factories. He deserted her shortly afterwards, so she had to bring up the three children by doing anything she could. She has had few steady jobs. One of them, until recently, was on the production lines at the El Sol canning factory. Almost all of the fish that she was packing was going to Europe and North America — few in Chimbote could afford to buy it (see box).
Working conditions were terrible. She had to spend the day wading in icy water laced with fishbones. Complaining to the supervisor, however, was not a good idea. When she asked if it might be possible to have boots to protect her feet she was dismissed as a troublemaker.
Since then she has earned what she could by taking in washing or by selling clothes in the street. She was also getting $1 a month from Plan for Carlos.
But Foster Parents Plan, she explained, is leaving Chimbote because of trouble with the ‘social workers’ — the people who maintain contact with the sponsored families.
‘They say they have been stealing money from the families,’ she said, ‘and making a lot of trouble — even attacking the Director.’ Plan itself is a sizeable local employer with 113 staff in all.
Natalia Lopez, one of Doris’s neighbours also had complaints about the social workers.
‘It depends whether or not you are friends with them if you are to get all the benefits from Plan — or the gifts that come from the padrino.’
As we speak, her nine-year old daughter Gisella comes rushing up convinced that I am her padrino. In fact her sponsor is a university lecturer in Melbourne. Could she not have written to him, I wondered, to ask exactly what they had sent?
‘Well, we can’t write directly,’ she said, ‘since we are not given the address. And anyway, there, are certain things you are not allowed to talk about in the letters. There can be nothing about politics or anything controversial and you cannot mention money — not even the fact that all we are getting for the child’s “scholarship” is $1 a month.’
It should be emphasised, however, that the $23 that the sponsors were giving was actually intended to help with ‘services’ like schools and health and not to be cash donations — though these two families said they did not get more than free medical attention.
Since their chief complaints seemed to be about the social workers of Foster Parent Plan, I went to see them next.
Hilda Carmona was the secretary of their trade union. Her view was that the hierarchical management of Plan wanted to turn it into a hire-and-fire organization, not much different from the fish canning factories. For that purpose the management had, she said, been telling stories about the staff to the mothers to try and set the families against them.
‘Ultimately what they want to do is to destroy the union — to get permission from the government to fire all the staff and then hire new people on two or three-month contracts as in the factories, so that they don’t have any labour rights.’
The union was formed back in 1972 and has had a long history of conflict with Foster Parents Plan management — mostly over working conditions and salaries. In February 1981 after their first-ever strike and the threat of a hunger strike their wages were lifted from about $80 to $100 a month.
‘Several times,’ said Hilda Carmona, ‘they tried to have the union disbanded. And they have tried to undermine us by promoting only nonunion members, so that people would not join the union.’ She also alleged that there was collusion between Plan and government officials when the latter were called in over staff disputes in the organization. The firm of lawyers that Plan was employing at the time of recent disputes with the union was Felipe Osterling and Company— at a time when the Minister of Labour was the same Felipe Osterling.
As to the allegations that staff were taking money, Hilda Carmona admitted that there were ‘small crimes’ as you would expect in any organization of this size, but that they had been exaggerated to get rid of the union.
It is clear, however, that the union’s objections to Foster Parent Plans management went beyond their own conditions of work. The union argued that the medical services were of a low standard. And some union members were very critical of the whole idea, saying that the correspondence gave the children ideas that were of no value to them. ‘It gives them a different way of looking at things; they learn to admire another reality.’ They went on to argue too about the kinds of dependence that this system created. So it was perhaps understandable that the management were not that keen on any broader participation of the staff in the way that Plan was run in Chimbote.
To find out what were the management’s complaints, I went to the beleaguered Plan office — the outside walls were covered with the slogans of the dissident staff.
Plan’s Director here was Alexander Gray from the United States. He outlined to me some of the services that their million dollar budget provided. The health operation was seeing 120 cases a day, he said, and the community development programme included housing construction, adult literacy, vocational educational and arts and crafts.
‘We don’t like cash handouts,’ said Mr Gray. ‘We consider ourselves a development agency. If we just provided cash we wouldn’t know how it would be used. We want people to become independent.’
Since it arrived in Chimbote in 1965 Plan has had 10,140 families on its books and the organization is proud of what it has achieved. ‘Infant mortality for our people is about a quarter of the regional or national level, and we haven’t lost a single mother in childbirth. Homes have been built by 420 families; 545 have installed water and sewerage; there is a high level of education among the children and 1,800 adults have become literate.’
But there have been problems with the staff — and that was why, in September 1981 when I spoke to him, he was thinking of closing the operation down. The people they employed, he said, were ‘too politicised and conflictive for this kind of organization’. They had not been fulfilling their objectives and it had been difficult to get ‘a proper use of resources and assets’.
There had also been, he said, a history of favouritism between social workers and certain families.
‘The families will say that it is going on but none of them will put it in writing. There had, however, been proven cases of dishonesty. A book-keeping assistant was stealing envelopes and was dismissed and the accountant for the operation had recently been fired. But it was not always so easy to get rid of staff.
‘The labour sector,’ said Mr Gray, ‘had made tremendous advances in Peru’ and government protective legislation made it a long and expensive process to get rid of people.
‘Under the present laws,’ he said, ‘a lot of physical proof is needed. You need an expert personnel officer.’ He rejected the union’s assertions about Osterling and Company, saying that the conflict of interests was recognised and if anything slowed the process down and made it more difficult.
He was unsure about the mothers’ claims that they were not allowed to mention in the letters the size of the monthly ‘scholarship’ they got — though he could understand such a restriction, if there was one — the families would not necessarily mention the other services that they were getting and so mislead the donors about the use of the $23. He repeated that he did not want the families to become dependent.
But didn’t the letter-writing itself maintain this dependence? ‘No,’ he said, ‘the correspondence is the lifeblood of Plan, The letters widen the parameters of both sides, so that they become aware of different ways of life. The families see that in other parts of the world life is different. And this gives you the motivation and the opportunity to improve yourself. If you use your resources to the best of your ability you can improve. It’s a kind of cultural exchange from afar.’
But how were they going to improve? What were the major problems they faced? In the end, he said, it was a lack of opportunity — the tremendous competition for relatively few openings.
Plan however had been able to endorse job applications coming from sponsored families. They had been able, he said to ‘screen people for the factories and help in providing them with a workforce’.
Did that mean, I wondered, that they were acting on behalf of the employers — giving the workforce the illusion of hope and a small safety net to fall back on when they failed?
‘Well, if you spend a million dollars a year here it has to have an impact on local attitudes. Chimbote has a large poor population and if you keep that segment of the population relatively happy they are not going to make a lot of noise. Maybe we are an impediment to some kind of idealistic socialism, so that people accept the way of life and don’t aspire to any drastic change.’
On the 30th of October 1981, Plan shut down its operations in Chimbote because it could not operate with its staff in the way that it wanted to. In March 1982 it is still in dispute with the union, which claims that its members have been dismissed without proper severance pay.