Sunday, January 17, 2010

It Doesn't Work

One of the first things a visitor would notice in Azerbaijan is that a lot of things don’t work. Toilets don’t flush, stove burners don’t light, light fixtures and electrical outlets don’t work, apartment stairwells are always dark, windows are broken. Some electrical outlets feature bare wires and you are supposed to wrap the bare wires from an appliance around to get it to work. Sorry, I don’t wrap.

In the center of town, patio blocks are laid for sidewalks and soon they start to pop out of place. There is a continual need to replace the blocks. Apparently pouring concrete sidewalks, as they did in Soviet days is not possibly anymore. Cars may have working headlights or not, kids may go all winter with no heat in their schools because the heaters or electrical outlets don’t work or don’t exist.

In my house, currently the hot water heater doesn’t work, the kitchen sink runs constantly and the kitchen has one tiny bulb for light with no ceiling fixture. We have a washing machine, but it isn’t hooked up and only two burners on the stove work. The bathroom is tiled, floor, walls and ceiling, but the wall tile is buckling and much of the floor tile has come up. The shower has a tiny trickle of water and the toilet doesn’t flush.

Everything is tolerable to my family except the hot water heater. My host mother has taken an 8-hour train ride to Baku to get money from her sister to fix the hot water heater. Until then I take bucket baths with water heated up on top of the stove.

Azerbaijanis tend to take a relaxed attitude toward things not working. My teacher tells me that there is a new apartment building in Baku in which there was supposed to be a boiler in the basement (central heating is rare here), but they forgot to put it in while it would still fit, so now the building will not have central heat.

This is not a fix-it culture. Most Azerbaijani men don’t seem to have toolboxes, know how to use tools or feel it is their responsibility to fix any of this stuff. There are people who can be hired to do it, but they aren’t plumbers, electricians, or painters, just guys who are supposedly handy. Of course, there are some tradesmen in the country, but ordinary people can’t afford to hire them.

But if there is a continuum in which one end is “everyone knows it doesn’t work” and at the other end is “it works”, Azerbaijanis and many other countries do a lot better than America at some things. One is integrating the poor into the mainstream.

I notice that Azerbaijanis don’t try to keep people poorer than they are from living near them. Neighborhoods are mixed up, with very poor people living next to middle-class people. This is a huge benefit to the poor because they have access to the benefits that everyone else has.

I was in Toronto a couple of times in the ‘90’s. The first time, on the way to my hotel, I asked the taxi driverwhere where the bad neighborhoods were. He said that I must be American because we usually don’t understand basic things that other countries do to save money and make things work.

He went on to explain that in Canadian cities, poor people aren’t allowed to live together and create a place where resources are scarce and the atmosphere is dangerous and unhealthy. He said that the poor are scattered thinly in successful areas when the poor children are small. They are surrounded by working people, good schools, low crime, libraries, and few opportunities for getting into trouble. This is a powerful way of helping poor children to succeed and does not breed institutional poverty. His opinion was that in the US we would prefer to punish the parents of these children by not helping them get the basic things they need to raise their children to be successful. He felt that by doing this, we punish ourselves in the long run, because we are the ones who pay the social costs generation after generation.

Of course, in America this doesn’t just happen with poor people. Those who have $5 million homes don’t want to live near people with $2.5 million homes and want gates to keep them out. This happens in Baku, our capital city, to a certain extent, mostly with people from other countries who work here and want to live with people like themselves. And in America, it is common for communities to want to zone affordable rental apartments out of their middle and upper class neighborhoods.

One of the criticisms of the countries of the former Soviet Union is that there is corruption, with people paying money to get an advantage--a good place in a university or a job. However, I don’t see the difference between this type of corruption and ours that forces poor children to live in places that have none of the resources that better-off people have, giving us a permanent advantage over them.

No comments: