Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | November 20, 2009

Local versus Centralized: Anatomy of a Photo

By Dr. Kenneth Reeds

Kenneth ReedsThe relationship between a centralized system and its individual parts has long been the source of conflict.  Someone from the US needs only to think of the tug of war between states’ rights and Washington that has formed the crux of much disagreement – even contributing to our civil war.  Taking another form, the same debate recently manifested itself in the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Elinor Ostrom.  Exploring whether local communities or a government organizing from a distance was best at managing resources, Ostrom, in the words of the Nobel Committee’s press release, “has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized”.[1] This notion that local control can lead to more efficient management reminded me of the anecdote behind a photo taken last summer in the Maya village of Ek’ Balam in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Two contrasting structures at Ek’ Balam, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula: A traditional dwelling on the left and a modern building on the right

In the photo it is possible to see two structures.  On the left is a typical dwelling, relatively unchanged from the types of constructions the Maya have been occupying in this same village since before Europeans’ arrival in the early sixteenth century.  The other building, made of what seemed to me to be cinderblock, called attention to itself because of the presence of modern materials in a small town that had, in almost every sense, resisted any alteration to the lifestyle, linguistic traditions, and cultural habits that have endured despite centuries of outside influence.  Almost every family had one of these more modern buildings sitting on their property.  A few were occupied, others were employed as storage space, and a noticeable number lay abandoned.  It was the latter which provoked me to ask some locals about the story behind these buildings.

HurricaneTheir answer began in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma struck the Yucatan Peninsula, damaging Cancun and its economically important resorts as well as devastating many of the nearby villages.  In the United States, the majority of articles written about the subject focused on the area’s hotels which were an important tourist destination.[2] The Mexican press echoed this concern, but they also reported the elevated number of people left homeless in the storm’s wake.  Vicente Fox’s government responded to this second problem by ordering the new constructions which can be seen in the photo.  However, problems quickly arose when the region’s high humidity and temperatures rendered the new structures difficult to inhabit.  Worse still, the same temperatures and humidity also made them largely useless for food storage because much of the crop left inside went rotten.  The result was the hodgepodge described above of some occupied houses, others employed as storage, and a good number abandoned.

Accompanying this story, some of Ek’ Balam’s residents made a complaint.  While still thankful for the assistance, they pointed out that their traditional homes were superior to the new constructions in dealing with the region’s climate.  Furthermore, while those same traditional homes were easily demolished by hurricanes, they were almost as effortlessly rebuilt – a process proven reliable over hundreds of years in the storm-prone region.  Instead of wasting money on the modern buildings, they argued, the funds would have been better employed helping them to restart the crop cycle that was only then, four years after Wilma, reaching normalcy.  The primary complaint: instead of consulting the locals about their real problems with crop cycles, the central government had solved a homeless problem that hardly existed by constructing buildings that were more a waste of money rather than useful dwellings.

The debate between centralized authority and local management has not only lasted a long time, but it has also taken many manifestations.  The reason for this is because it is a question which is not easily resolved.  Without a doubt, a strong centralized government has the potential to be a positive force because it is capable of marshaling and concentrating a large number of diverse resources.  At the same time, Ek’ Balam’s story demonstrates the importance of local input in deciding how those focused resources will be aimed.  Certainly the most obvious lesson to be learned from Mexico’s relief efforts in one small town is that local information is not to be ignored.  However, there is also a bigger message: be it aid in the wake of a storm or more enduring issues like poverty, problem solving requires cultural sensitivity which beings with communication.  Communication begins with language and the more we understand how another community speaks, the closer we are to working together to solve problems.

[1] “The Prize in Economics 2009”.  The Official Web Site of the Nobel Foundation.  12 October 2009.  4 November 2009 <>.


[2] On 24 November 2005, The New York Times ran the headline “Storm-Swept Yucatan Hotels Trying to Fix Up for Tourists” and on 11 December 2005, The Washington Post focused on the question “After Wilma, Is Mexico Ready For Some Fun?”.

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