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  Number 454 | Mayo 2019
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Central America

Reflections after decades of solidarity work

Sally O’Neill survived Central America’s violence, death squads and earthquakes, as well as cancer… and died at 68 this Abril 7 .in a tragic accident on a rainy, foggy Guatemalan highway. For 37 years she worked for Trocaire, a Catholic Church development agency in Ireland. We got to know her during the 1980s and 90s, when she was directing its work in Central America, years of civil wars and difficult transitions towards peace. We will never forget her joy, energy and commitment. She spoke to envío 15 years ago about the history and hallenges of North-South cooperation. In her memory, we reproduce parts of that still-valid talk, in which she also shared part of her own history.

Sally O´Neill

There are three basic kinds of cooperation with the count ries of the South. One is multilateral aid, which comes from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, regional multilateral banks such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the European Union. Next is bilateral government-to-government aid. And then there is private cooperation, which is where we find international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of a wide range of tendencies: Catholic agencies, which themselves have different profiles; agencies of the Protestant churches, especially the historical mainline churches; and secular organizations, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and many others with long traditions and trajectories.

The more idealistic years
the 1960s and 1970s


Cooperation, as a way for developed countries’ governments to link up with and support developing countries, has been around for over half a century. The first two countries to create official aid agencies were England in 1935 and France in 1940. They did so to cooperate on social projects in the countries that were decolonizing at the time.

The private cooperation provided by NGOs goes back much further, however. The first Caritas was founded in Germany in 1895 and Redd Barna, or Save the Children Norway, which is very well known in Nicaragua for its work with children, in 1919. The oldest NGO emerged in 1854 in England to promote the struggle against slavery. At least in the North, NGOs have been around for over a century.

Bilateral development assistance really began to take off in the 1960s and 70s, which were more “idealistic” times than today. It was proposed then that the wealthiest countries earmark 0.7% of their gross national product (GDP) to support the developing countries. But by 2004, the wealthiest countries were only dedicating an average of 0.22% of their GDP to development aid compared to 0.48% twenty years before, a clear sign of the downward—and less generous—trend. The United States only allocated 0.10% of its enormous GDP to development aid. In absolute terms, Japan headed the list, contributing some US$12 billion in 2003, while Denmark provided the most as a percentage of its GDP.

Joint responsibility concept
begins to outpace charity


Private assistance largely began in Europe to support victims of the First World War, then years later, a second wave emerged to address the victims of World War II. In the fifties, with all the experience they had accumulated, these organizations began to turn their attention to the situation of the developing countries.

In the Catholic world, the fifties and sixties saw the creation of a large number of NGOs in Europe, including Trocaire in Ireland, CAFOD in England, CFCD in France and CEBEMO in Holland. Then in the seventies, with all the changes produced by the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and the Medellín Bishops’ Conference (1968), the concept of solidarity began to gain strength, outpacing the previous, more charity-oriented and paternalistic concepts.

More organizations sprang up at that point in the understanding that their work involved not only transferring money to developing countries, but also struggling in their own countries. That included educating their compatriots so they could urge a change in world relations and advocating that their own governments adopt a more appropriate concept of development in their public policies. Thus began the consolidation of what I call “solidary” or joint responsibility cooperation.

NGOs make a very
important contribution


In the eighties, yet another wave of organizations arose in the NGO world. Some of them maintained this vision of solidarity, while others were already beginning to evolve a more mercantilist perspective. Among ourselves we began to refer to some of these as “ambulance chasers,” created as they were to provide a “humanitarian” response to the great famines in Africa. Another part of that new wave simply sought to take advantage of public funds, and yet another worked with a short-term mentality based on coming from the North and resolving the South’s problems for them, shunting aside local capacities rather than working to support them.

NGOs of the latter type had a lot of impact in Africa but weren’t so influential in Central America until Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when they virtually invaded the region. They made their first significant appearance in Guatemala two years earlier, after the signing of the Peace Accords there.

What is the relative size of private cooperation? According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose members are the 26 wealthiest countries in the world, private NGO aid from the North brought a total of US$6.6 billion to the countries of the South in 2000. Of that, 20% came as government co-financing for NGOs and the rest as private donations. Private cooperation, then, is very important to the countries of the South, both because of the significant amounts involved and because of the work it does in education and advocacy in both the South and the North

Where does the money come from?


Where does private cooperation get so much money? The North offers a large variety of ways to raise funds to support development projects. My agency, Trocaire, does what we call the Lenten Campaign every year in Ireland: over the course of those six weeks, we ask the population for contributions. And to give you an example of the possible dimensions of such initiatives, Trocaire annually collects about 30 million euros—US$35-45 million—from an Irish population of some 3 million people.

We’ve been observing significant changes in the behavior of the donor population in the North over the past few years. Some 20 years before 2004 it was easier to convince donors to support the idea of changing the structural causes of underdevelopment. However, by 2004 it was becoming increasingly hard in Europe to “sell” the concept of supporting development in Latin America.

One-off aid requests for emergencies were more popular then. For example, in 1994, during the genocide in Rwanda, Trocaire collected an all-time record of US$14 million in just one day with a small campaign that didn’t even use the media, just the parishes.

The challenge is to
shrink the inequality gap


Despite the US$60 billion transferred annually from the North to the South, the problem of underdevelopment remained, and the gap between wealthy and poor countries had grown threefold in the previous ten years. When I began to work in development, some 25 years ago, the gap between the income of the European countries and that of the wealthiest countries of Latin America—Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—was 10 to 1. By 2004 the gap had grown: 57 to 1.

I’m from Ireland, which only a few decades ago was the most underdeveloped country in Europe, but in just 15 years, with its integration into the European Union and subsequent resource transfer, it had the 16th highest per-capita income in the world by 2004. That income was some 27,000 euros per person, while Nicaragua’s per-capita income was equivalent to well under 500 euros.

For those of us who work in cooperation, the challenge, or worse still the dilemma, is how to increase our knowledge of the factors of injustice in the world that have widened that gap today and start shrinking it. We particularly need to understand and reflect on the factors that have created such unequal societies within Latin America, where social exclusion is on the rise.

Where did all the money go?


Foreign aid is especially significant for Nicaragua. It received nearly US$14.7 billion in bilateral government donations between 1979—when statistics began to be kept here—and 2003, not to mention the billions more in bilateral loans and credits and NGO aid in that same period. Where has all that money gone? What difference has it made, given that Nicaragua today has more poor people than it did when I began to study this country in 1978?

There’s no reliable data on solidarity cooperation during the eighties, but it started being recorded in the nineties, when all organizations with a presence in Nicaragua were obliged to report their resources to the government. Just in 2000, for example, recorded international NGO cooperation amounted to US$152 million. This dropped to US$90 million by 2003.

Almost two thirds came from NGOs based in European Union member countries. And these aren’t even the full figures, because many NGOs—Misereor or CORDAID, to name just two—don’t have offices in Nicaragua but do send significant contributions. My calculation is that the real figure for 2003 would be about US$130 million.

We didn’t demand results


What are some of the major issues that most worry private and solidarity cooperation as well as official bilateral cooperation? In what direction is cooperation moving?

In the first place, we’re very concerned about the effectiveness, the efficacy of cooperation. Having invested billions of dollars over so many years, we have to face the big question: why are there actually more poor people? Why has all this aid not helped change the unjust relations between the North and the South or reduce social exclusion in the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia themselves?

This concern about efficient use of aid resources led to a major shift starting in the nineties, at the end of the Cold War, in which the NGOs of the North started requiring a whole series of indicators from their counterparts in the South to measure effectiveness: Most of the new project terminology, particularly the concepts used in strategic planning (logical framework, strategic plan, SWOT, institutional capacity building, synergy, sustainability, etc., etc.), is taken from private enterprise. “Logical framework” comes from the North American Space Agency (NASA), which invented it forty years ago. These language changes express changes in conception as well: in large measure, NGO cooperation ceased being an act of solidarity between those with more and those with virtually nothing, and is now a form of business. Starting with language, this new conception has been filtering into our methods and even our perceptions.

Naturally there is something valuable and positive about professionalizing the world of cooperation and the different sectors of civil society, since we need to be professional in order to show that we’re reaching the poorest people and using our resources and methods effectively. But today, any project proposal presented to an aid agency that doesn’t incorporate all this terminology won’t get a cent. Before, working in an NGO was all about heart, mystique and commitment. Now this gets you nowhere, largely because the citizenry of the wealthy countries had begun to demand that their financing agencies and governments produce results with their tax dollars and personal donations. During the Cold War, the US and European governments and aid agencies loaned and donated money to buy friends and sell ideologies in the South, not to help it develop socioeconomically.

From romanticism
to accountability


The solidary cooperation of the seventies and eighties didn’t demand development results either. That was the period of civil wars in Central America, conflicts in Africa, the killing of two million people on Pol Pot’s order in Cambodia, famines that killed thousands in Ethiopia, murders and disappearances in Chile and Argentina… and we were simply there, doing the best we could.

It became widely accepted that those of us working with NGOs in those decades were all goodhearted and self-sacrificing. We were looked on as a new wave of lay missionaries, heroic because we came to work in developing countries; some even thought we lived in miserable hovels and barely had enough to eat. Then very quickly, public opinion and the media back home switched from this idealization to seriously questioning us: what are these people doing, how do they live, what do they earn from the work they do, why do they get into this kind of work and a raft of other questions.

European public opinion began to demand accountability: how many people were we helping, in what conditions, what had we succeeded in changing…? Naturally, those of us working in cooperation aren’t naïve enough to think that money alone can change everything. It rarely changes the cultural conditions of poverty, although we do know that, if well directed, it can represent one more element in the construction of a fairer world.

This debate about effectiveness, logical frameworks, indicators and the like also came to focus on the transparent use of funds; in other words, on corruption. In the seventies and eighties, with such widespread human rights violations in Central America, we paid too little attention to how the funds we provided were being used. And there were indeed abuses. I remember that when I returned to Central America in the early nineties after five years working in Asia, Salvadorans started telling me that during the just-ended civil war there, the FMLN taxed organizations that received international aid funds—sometimes as much as 50-60% of the total amount. They didn’t tell us this before because they were afraid, but after the peace, when the grassroots organizations began to become more autonomous of the political-military organizations, they started speaking up.

It’s still a challenge to keep these things from happening. Before, it was common for communities not even to know what funds the local or national NGOs or social organizations were requesting in their name. Now people are much more involved: they know the budgets, they know what’s being requested, they’re making their own demands and requiring accountability. The more people become involved, the fewer risks there will be.

“Mongos”: A new type of NGO


Unfortunately, corruption doesn’t only affect governments. It also affects societies and cooperation, even solidarity cooperation. Regrettably, we know now about a large number of cases in which private funds for development projects have been used for personal benefit.

A group of private aid agencies has already coined a name for a new kind of NGO. We call them “mongos,” short for “my own NGO.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of them. They’re briefcase NGOs, family NGOs, NGOs that are just a personal modus vivendi, NGOs of opportunists who make inroads because they speak English—the new lingua franca of cooperation—and are pros at tossing around the latest lingo, the eight or ten basic new terms I alluded to that have to be written into any project.

It could be said that NGOs are like mushrooms: some are healthy and nutritional and others are poisonous and deadly. There are all kinds, and not all should be lumped together in the same sack. It must also be recognized that sometimes people from cooperation who are themselves honest share the responsibility for having closed their eyes to corruption cases they were fully aware of.

Civil society appears on the scene


In those fifty years, during the first stage of cooperation, an effort was made to strengthen the State in developing countries. In the current stage, the neoliberal model has advocated dismantling the State and privatizing aid. In that context the concept of civil society has taken on new life in a big way.

The neoliberal model is obsessed with shrinking the national States in Central America and the rest of Latin America, and eliminating the welfare State in Europe. But that welfare State was what allowed us to develop “human capital”—a very cold but content-filled concept—in our home countries, in turn allowing the massive creation of capacities among the people, generate social mobility and expand our middle classes, a process that has not yet occurred in Latin America.

Neoliberals want civil society—read NGOs and private enterprise, which is their limited definition of the term—to assume all the responsibilities abandoned by the States. Naturally, all the language around civil society must be analyzed very closely. Civil society is in reality a much broader term; it doesn’t just refer to NGOs, as some use it. Nor is it always progressive or leftist, an angelic space, as some alternatively conceive it; it is shared by everybody who is organized, from neighborhood gangs to the chambers of commerce of the wealthiest business class.

Enter the debate on poverty


Starting in the nineties, another issue that captured increasing attention in the world of cooperation was that of extreme poverty. In the seventies and eighties, when we still had the hope of changing the structures of injustice through political change, there was no direct reflection on the issue of poverty. Mass organizations, grassroots groups and trade associations were the civil society favored by our cooperation in Central America because we saw them as the instruments of change. We didn’t directly seek out the poor, because we believed that these organizations represented them.

The issue of poverty, of the poor, acquired major relevance following the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, the same year the World Bank published its report on Poverty in the World, which read like the work of some civil society radical.

That text revealed a spectacular shift: “our” language was no longer ours; even the World Bank was embracing it, abandoning its 40-year-old theory that poverty was simply a limitation on income. Now the Bank was talking about other forms of poverty, and defining it as lack of participation, of autonomy, of human development … And it’s still talking like that today. What language are those of us with a different vision going to invent to communicate it? How can we differentiate ourselves from this “new” language of the multilateral lending agencies?

In the Central American case, the debate on poverty became even more important after Hurricane Mitch, and became linked to the foreign debt. It was an important international moment, and the churches, especially the Protestant ones, played a very important role by linking the pardon of the developing countries’ foreign debt to the movement called Jubilee 2000, which generated a lot of passion and energy in European societies. This showed that there is not really solidarity fatigue in Europe; interest in supporting the developing countries persists. But what does spark fatigue is doubts about the effectiveness of that support.

Mozambique and Nicaragua:
Two spoiled countries


Measuring cooperation as a percentage of a country’s GDP, Nicaragua was the country most favored by cooperation in all of Latin America up until 2004. Foreign aid accounted for 28% of its GDP in 2003, the highest percentage on the continent. It only contributed 6% of the GDP in Honduras, the country closest to Nicaragua in both geography and poverty, while in El Salvador the proportion was 2% and in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and the Southern Cone countries it didn’t even reach 1%.

Such high levels of cooperation kept Nicaragua in a risky situation. What would happen if its cooperation partners suddenly decided Nicaragua was no longer a priority? It was a question that Nicaragua’s government and society needed tp reflect on very seriously.

More than $8 billion of the over $14 billion received since 1979 came since the nineties, after the Sandinista government left office, and that flow remained constant right up to 2004, which meant that cooperation continued to have expectations of Nicaragua.

Only two countries of the South—Mozambique and Nicaragua—have been so spoiled, favored, prioritized by multilateral, bilateral and private aid despite the disastrously limited results of the resources provided to them. Can we guarantee that they will continue to be so favored? I’m not sure, because we cooperation veterans are beginning to be replaced by a new generation with a different vision, other interests; people who never picked a single coffee bean in Nicaragua’s mountains, as many government officials from the EU did during the years of the revolution.

A drastic change


Another issue that has caught our attention had to do with the drastic changes in the leadership of international cooperation. As recently as ten years ago, the UN agencies were the principal actors in development issues, but now the dominant ones are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They’re getting more and more involved in development issues, moving from being banks that loan money to being institutions that set goals, impose conditions, influence governments and control cooperation. Even the UN is increasingly losing ground to them in the democratization processes, poverty reduction strategies and development in general.

The World Bank has even acquired a kind of monopoly on development research, information and knowledge in the countries of the South. And in the current Information Era, a monopoly on ideas implies way too much power. It’s risky for a single institution to have so much control over information about the South. There’s a danger that other voices will no longer be heard, particularly given a continual reduction in Northern financing sources for alternative research, media and other voices in the South.

Latin America:
The most unequal continent


The inequality in Latin America—the most unequal continent on the planet—drives off solidarity. This is a major issue of discussion among those of us working in solidary cooperation and bilateral aid when we get together behind closed doors... with no Latinos present.

With these levels of inequality, it’s hard to persuade our populations to part with their own hard-earned money. In Trocaire’s case, the people who support our campaigns are not Ireland’s wealthy; they are workers, young people who still go to church and support projects with great feelings of solidarity. But when they see how the wealth is being concentrated, what public policies are like in the Central American countries, for example, how Central America’s civil society has been incapable of influencing these policies, they get discouraged.

Which NGOs will survive?


We are seeing many warning signs today. I’m sure that over the next decade bilateral cooperation will continue to drop and solidary cooperation will have to become increasingly demanding. I don’t know what new instruments will be invented to measure compliance with those demands and can only trust that this wave of professionalism in the NGOs’ techniques, all clothed in that new business terminology, has peaked out.

I think the organizations in the South that will survive in the future, that will continue being supported, will be those that achieve more transparent accountability, not only to the agencies that finance them but also to the people they work with, combining effective and transparent use of resources with increasing participation by the population.

I also think those that are serious about social inequality in their countries and find mechanisms to influence public policies toward greater equity will also survive. There are fads in cooperation: environment, gender equality, advocacy…I think advocacy is one of the techniques that will last and maintain its importance in the future.

This much I think and believe. But what I hope against all hope is that new times will come in which solidarity, commitment and mystique will be revalued, and the poor will finally be able to participate in their own liberation, allowing us all to help build a more just world.

Sally O’Neill was a cooperation and human rights activist. She received the Hugh O’Flaherty award in 2011 and in 2017 Ulster University awarded her an honorary doctorate in law. At the time of her death, Sally was a consultant for the Fund for More than $8 billion of the over $14 billion received since 1979 came since the nineties, after the Sandinista government left office, and that flow remained constant right up to 2004, which meant that cooperation continued to have expectations of Nicaragua Global Human Rights in Honduras. Ana Paula Hernández, Mexican, the Fund’s program officer for Latin America; Ana Velásquez, Guatemalan, from the Mayan People’s Congress; and Daniel Luc, the Fund’s driver, also died in the accident This is a slightly edited extract of a talk published in the July 2004 isssue of envío.


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