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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 226 | Mayo 2000



After Hurricane Mitch: An Untold Story

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS AND CIVIL SOCIETY FROM AGUÁN AND ÁBULUGUNA AND PASTORAL AGENTS OF THE TRUJILLO DIOCESE What happens when all three sides of the triangle formed by local governments, civil society and international cooperation join together and coordinate their efforts? Answers to that question are now emerging in a remote and forgotten region of Honduras.

Envío team

What has happened to the reconstruction funds allocated to Honduras, the Central American country most devastated by the passage of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998? Those in the Río Aguán region and the Garifuna coast, two zones in the department of Colón severely affected by the tragedy, have a lot to say on the matter.
At the end of February, on the occasion of the Consultative Group meeting in Tegucigalpa, the bishop, priests, nuns and organized laypersons representing the ten parishes of the Trujillo diocese corresponding to these areas analyzed the government’s slowness and the international community’s formalistic response through the Consultative Group. We offer their reflections in their own words on those two aspects, their own hope-providing experiences participating in a municipal effort to move beyond both slowness and formalism, and the preamble to a "letter of intent" that the civil society of Colón and its local authorities sent to the top authorities of Honduras’ central government.

Ever since the Consultative Group’s December 1998 meeting in Washington and May 1999 one in Stockholm, Honduran politicians and technocrats have been rushing up and down the presidential office corridors, writing bulky reports, going on dazzling tours and cost pricing each and every broken rib suffered by Mitch-affected Hondurans. They submitted all these injuries to the "great auction" and wrote them into the multiple "honoris causa" speeches celebrating the hard work being put in by President Facussé Flores and his entourage.

Little more than an inkblot

On paper, the international community put US$9 billion at Central America’s disposal in the Stockholm meeting, but 50% of that was in already-approved programs and some had even been disbursed before the hurricane hit. What made Stockholm interesting were the recommendations that emerged from it. The World Bank, IDB and IMF all talked of promoting civil society’s participation in the national transformation, decentralizing the state in favor of the municipalities, transparency and social auditing in the implementation of funds, protecting environmental resources and many other issues that "our representatives" viewed as fulfilled in advance. For all the talk, however, we Honduran citizens know perfectly well that we are little more than an inkblot on the agendas of both the Honduran government and those multilateral financial institutions.

The best Honduras can do?

On February 7, nearly nine months after Stockholm, Honduran government ministers and the representatives of the five Consultative Group countries designated during the Stockholm accords pompously announced in Tegucigalpa that the "May accords" had set the country on a new course, that it was now totally democratic, corruption free and wide open to the demands of the Mitch-affected population. According to them, national reconstruction was on the right track.

But if we look beyond the view from the windows of the hotel where these great lies were told, if we visit the remote municipalities and villages where not even the Consultative Group, let alone the financial organizations, have yet cast their eyes, the enormous and shameful contrast between what has been said and what has been done becomes obvious. The Consultative Group’s own technicians did a sloppy job of concealing even their own cynicism. While publicly singing the government’s praises for its "complete fulfillment" of the Stockholm accords, they questioned the veracity of the presidential presentation among themselves in whispers in the hotel corridors. But they are paid to believe the governors and agree with the financial organizations that this is the best Honduras can do. So they resign themselves to the fact that our country is a limited democracy and that the only thing it is learning to do better is cover up official corruption.

Meanwhile, the financial resources pledged in Stockholm are still to be found in the donor countries, in Honduras’ current account or in the closed circle of corruption that includes the reconstruction cabinet, construction companies and private consultancy firms. One place they cannot be found is in the remotest regions.

Whether for reasons of state or of political convenience, the criteria and conditions established in Stockholm appear to have been forgotten at the highest levels. But the local inhabitants have not forgotten either the presidential speeches or the commitments made in Stockholm, where they were auctioned off as objects of pity, mute victims of the catastrophe.

Colón honors its commitments

Colón is a historically isolated department little known to rest of the country beyond its folklore, its reputation for violence and the great natural disasters that have affected it. It, however, implemented to the letter an executive accord issued on November 10, 1998, immediately after Mitch hit, urging municipal authorities to incorporate civil society’s participation into public administration in order to respond to the emergency.

Colón’s municipal corporations, as they are called, did just that. They called all the different civil society organizations together—the Chambers of Commerce, social clubs, the Red Cross, civic associations, evangelical churches, the Catholic Social Pastoral, the traditional local boards of trustees (Patronatos), NGOs—in an attempt to turn the emergency into an opportunity to forge new consensus on reconstruction and development. Opening up such new and legitimate spaces for citizens’ participation and social auditing had the added effect of turning the old political-boss power schemes in the different municipalities on their heads. Local Emergency Committees (CODELs) were organized that quickly specialized in planning, negotiating and distributing resources in a responsible, transparent, balanced and efficient way, thus winning the immediate confidence and approval of some 42,000 beneficiary families, the joint management bodies and cooperation organizations linked to the zone. Despite being among the poorest in the country, these municipalities effectively implemented the Stockholm accords much earlier than the Presidency, where it appears that, once signed, those agreements were never consulted again.

Even our zone’s remotest communities now have their own CODELs organized into commissions such as health and the environment, infrastructure, production, rescue, social auditing, provisions and citizens’ security. Each CODEL has an average of 30 members representing all local organizations and forces.

Tensions invariably emerge even in the smallest municipalities when starting up some coordination effort between civil society and the local government, but in Colón, the weight of citizens’ participation has helped overcome this problem, generating a new climate of unity. For example, a Regional Civil Society Forum has been set up to be in ongoing contact with local governments and with the High Aguán and Colón Development Commission, presided over by the department’s political governor.

Municipal and regional development plans are one of the positive results of the government’s coordination with civil society. Both the preparation and the implementation of these plans allowed the inclusion of real information on the population’s demands.

An effective triangle

This effort had produced many other positive results as well by February of this year. Coordinating with the zone’s municipal authorities, the CODELs that joined the Regional Civil Society Forum had succeeded in rehabilitating and reopening 4,700 kilometers of rural highways and roads and neighborhood paths, repairing or building 6,434 houses and cleaning up some 4,500 acres of maize and bean producing land as well as over 2,500 family plots for vegetables and other short-cycle crops. They also carried out 308 community health campaigns, planted 30,000 saplings in buffer zones and protected 290 acres of micro-watersheds. To top it off, they created 530 hygienic rubbish dumps, constructed or repaired 37 small bridges and 186.2 kilometers of drainage systems and repaired 47 community water systems.

Thanks to the triangle made up of municipal governments, civil society and cooperation organizations, the CODELs placed almost 97% of the resources that arrived in Colón for the emergency and reconstruction into the hands of the people it was really intended for. This was achieved through generous levels of voluntary labor and without a single penny from Stockholm.

This is the Honduras we want to see

On February 26, 2000, the zone’s 84 municipal CODELs gathered together in a massive town hall forum in the city of Tocoa to be sworn in by the mayor as legitimately recognized non-political, non-sectarian, democratic, ecumenical—and, above all, honest—permanent organizations. Similar events took place in all of Colón’s municipalities between February 26 and April 1, during which the Municipal Development Councils and the Social Auditing Office teams, which include representatives from all sectors of civil society, were also sworn in.

The fact that local governments and citizens—who were not even included in the Tegucigalpa consultation—have organized a true "Stockholm" for the permanently-affected poor, opening up spaces for the kind of values that should underpin the new Honduran society, is the most notable contribution made by this region. It is also one of the great untold stories.

Several worrying questions

There is a desire for change, transparency and democracy in Honduras that is even being expressed in places as isolated and poor as the municipalities of Colón and Gracias a Dios. People feel that they are at a crossroads where we can define the destiny of the Stockholm accords. The local governments and civil society of Aguán and the Garifuna coast have implemented the Stockholm accords and drawn up their own Letter of Intent to test whether national government, the financial organizations and the Consultative Group are really willing to implement the accords that they themselves signed.

But several questions remain. Why do the Honduran government and the World Bank, IBD and IMF seem to see the Stockholm accords as a dangerous threat if placed in the hands of "hotheaded" technicians from the European bilateral agencies, believing that they intend to intervene in Honduras’ always corrupt public administration, sponsored for so many years by those very financial organizations? Why does the Honduran government view every attempt at bringing about citizens’ participation, local decentralization or social auditing as demonstrating a lack of governance and respect for legal order? And will the Honduran government be able to bend the will of its own people, who have taken on the dangerous doctrines of citizens’ participation, municipal decentralization and social auditing agreed to in Stockholm and made it theirs?
The Consultative Group is at its own crossroads in Honduras: it either supports local Honduran efforts to concretely apply the Stockholm accords or remains on the side of the international lending agencies, sullied by their support for the traditional corruption, bullying and impunity that characterize our country’s political class

Our "Letter of Intent"

All of these ideas are expressed in the following preamble to the "Letter of Intent of the Local Governments and Civil Society of the Aguán Region and Tábuluguna" [Garifuna communities]. It was signed by the region’s 12 mayors and the political governor of the department of Colón on November 1999, and sent to Honduras’ top government officials.

1) In the wake of the most tragic event to hit our land in this century, Honduras has been offered the possibility of a new dawn, a democratic awakening. Like the phoenix that rises from its own ashes, Honduras, from its inhabitants to the central government, is struggling to pull itself up by means of creative proposals and a firm resolve to transform our country and our history.
2) Committed to making a new start, the civil society and municipalities of this northeastern corner of the country are weaving together development proposals that have been agreed upon and contain explicit commitments and mechanisms guaranteeing citizens’ participation in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of a multi-year regional reconstruction and transformation plan. This could act as a pilot project for the decentralized implementing of the criteria established for the release of funds resulting from the Stockholm accords.
3) We wish to use this letter to clearly express to the Honduran government and to foreign cooperation our intent and pledge to implement a program that demonstrates that Honduras has the necessary flexibility and commitment to diversify the package of solutions and meet the challenge of administering a project portfolio that is over four times greater than its historical implementation capacity.
4) This letter of understanding promotes:
Respect for the law and for authority, both of which represent the highest expression of society’s sovereign will and constitute the basis of harmonious coexistence and the attainment of common well-being as defined in the spirit and declarations of the Constitution of the Republic.
The consolidation of democracy as the framework of liberties that guarantees the people’s prevailing desire to avoid authoritarianism and promote respect and social harmony in order to respect and be respected.
5. We can tell you in advance that this plan is based not only on the dreams of a forgotten people in an isolated region, but also on the experience that these people have been acquiring alongside their local governments and with the collaboration of multilateral agencies and national and international nongovernmental organizations during these post-Mitch months. In addition, we believe that this plan contributes to the process of national reconstruction and could be offered to friendly countries and multilateral agencies to ensure the prompt and effective use of funds earmarked for Honduras as it honors the accords made during the Consultative Group’s meeting in Stockholm.
6. The reactions and responses to Mitch have varied according to the country’s different departments and regions. These variations are highly important because they reflect the areas in which growing regional responsibility and contributions can be generated in response to the challenges of reconstruction and transformation facing our country.
7. It is worth underscoring the factors that differentiate Colón, Olanchito and Juan Francisco Bulnes from other Honduran departments and municipalities:
Coordination between the local governments and civil society. The region’s municipal corporations took Executive Accord 0036-98 of November 10, 1998, very seriously. That decree urged local governments to respond to the emergency by incorporating the participation of churches, OPDs, associations and NGOs into public administration, emphasizing the particular aptitudes of the private and public spheres.
This was not the case in other departments. The participation of foreign aid and civil society In other parts of Honduras has replaced the responsibilities of the municipal corporations, undermining the crucial role they should play in the coordination and regulation of the reconstruction and development processes. In the majority of departments—including Francisco Morazán and the capital city—the decree was implemented during the first few weeks of the emergency, but after that the coordination could not be maintained, because of either civil society’s limited capacity or the lack of patience of one of the parties in response to the difficult challenge of inter-institutional coordination.
The reconstruction activities have advanced along two parallel tracks, with the local governments implementing their own reconstruction activities and a large number of churches and NGOs implementing the same activities with different criteria. Meanwhile there has been no auditing processes or municipal-level coordination.
In the municipalities of Colón, Olanchito in the department of Yoro and Juan Francisco Bulnes in the department of Gracias a Dios, the citizenry, the political governor, the Higher Aguán and Colón Development Committee, the mayors and the town councilors all saw the Mitch disaster as an opportunity, and therefore took advantage of the reconstruction period to strengthen our municipal governments and civil society’s capacity to coordinate its actions with the corporations. Thus Executive Accord 0036-98 became an instrument enabling this region to distribute 95% of all of aid given in the form of food, clothing, tools, seeds and agricultural inputs within a single program, made up of a consortium of churches and civil institutions and coordinated by the Catholic Church’s Social Pastoral.
Around 70% of the housing starts for the affected population respected the public ordinances promoting citizens’ participation. Our municipal authorities overcame the political temptation to manage the emergency aid directly and instead channeled it to the affected population in strict collaboration with civil society organizations.
Strengthening citizens’ participation on the local level. Foreign aid, when outside a framework of governmental regulation, produces multiple forms of division and dependence, thus undermining both civil society and government credibility. The strategic option that we chose in an attempt to avoid such divisions was to promote Local Development Committees (CODELs) that actively participated in directing the humanitarian aid without any religious, organizational, gender or political bias. Those committees include representatives from different civil society organizations and have a balanced gender representation.
The Patronatos and the CODELs are organized on the urban neighborhood or rural village level. They are not considered legitimate if they do not include at least one member of each organization existing in the community, if there is no gender or religious balance or if there is a division in the community between groups disputing their leadership and questioning their democratic mechanisms. Each Patronato and CODEL has various operational commissions covering areas such as production, housing, the environment, health and education.
The 452 authorized CODELs have signed joint management agreements for implementation of the reconstruction programs with the diocese’s Social Pastoral and the other NGOs to which the municipal corporations have delegated responsibilities in the reconstruction work. There are many legally recognized Patronatos, and municipal authorities have sworn in over 107 CODELs. This recognition process aims to turn both structures into official counterparts of the local governments and legitimate representatives of an increasingly consolidated citizenry that can defend its own interests.
Establishment of the basis for micro-planning and social micro-auditing. Through the implementation of the Food-for-Work Program, the Patronatos and CODELs were able take the first steps towards micro-planning, fair distribution, evaluation and social auditing of the emergency and reconstruction works.
The local representatives were trained to prepare and file the written documentation corresponding to the planning process, selection of beneficiaries, evaluation, auditing and rendering of accounts.
This training was carried out by 75 joint managers authorized by the municipal authorities, who shared responsibility for the transparency of the activities and operations with the Patronatos and CODELs. Later, the 42,000 families represented by the 452 CODELs organized into 46 second-tier councils (SECODELs) for the planning, channeling and auditing of some $7 million in food, mainly from AID, and $4 million for housing, community tools, seeds and inputs and community infrastructure from various international nongovernmental agencies. The organizational dynamic of the municipal authorities and civil society forces led to important results in the areas of disaster mitigation and rehabilitation during the emergency period.
As a result of the experience and capacity generated in social auditing, micro-planning and signing joint management agreements, this whole process has enabled the region to start preparing a three-year reconstruction and development program that will expedite external evaluation and the obligations of external organizations.
The creation of an institutional planning and social auditing structure. Representatives of the economy’s social sector, business associations and public auditors have been laying the foundations for planning and social auditing during the negotiations between the Patronatos and CODEL associations.
A new planning experience is being introduced in all municipalities involving a two-way information flow between the municipal governments and civil society. Unlike the planning processes involved in the central government’s FHIS [Honduran Social Investment Fund] packages, the organizations of citizens’ participation consider themselves the real authors of their municipal plans and not just the clients of a process controlled at the national level.
By common consent of the region’s mayors and in line with the Municipalities Law, the Municipal Development Councils are being restructured to establish a new balance in the territorial representation of the Patronatos and CODEL, other social sectors, business associations and civic leaders. Social auditing commissions are being sworn in and their attributes and functions within the municipal framework are being discussed.
The municipal governments now have extensive experience in signing overall agreements with civil society, not only in food-for work programs but also in regulating the construction of houses for the affected population (beneficiary selection, land legalization and provision of mortgages to affected families in a position to receive credits for their houses); creating public housing programs in which affected people not in a position to pay for the construction are granted use of a house for their immediate family, in which both lot and house belong to the municipal government; and making use of municipal ordinances to regulate the participation of all international NGOS and churches within a common scheme.

This very encouraging and unusual document demonstrates that the emergency caused by Hurricane Mitch resulted in the integration of efforts and united many dispersed energies in at least one impoverished region of Honduras. It sparked the search for a new cooperation and coordination scheme between local governments, the central government and international cooperation. This experience, this untold story, should be disseminated and widely recognized, because despite its fragility it provides a thread of hope in Central America’s tattered social fabric.

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