The Ever-Changing Face of Nongovernmental Cooperation
A veteran NGO official shares the ideas and experiences she has gleaned from over 25 years working in cooperation with countries of the South, including Central America.
There are three basic kinds of cooperation with the countries 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 NGOs of a wide range of tendencies: Catholic agencies, which themselves have different profiles; agencies of the Protestant churches, especially the historic mainline churches; and secular organizations, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and many others with long traditions and trajectories.
Bilateral aid: An old idea on the downhill slopeCooperation, as a way for the 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. We need to keep this in mind when we hear NGOs speak of “sustainability” because they themselves have been around for over a century, at least in the North.
In the past 25 years, the total multilateral and bilateral aid from the 26 wealthiest countries in the world to the countries of the South has averaged approximately US$60 billion a year. To put that amount into context, we should add that private investment from those same countries in the countries of the South is four times greater. Yet another way to relativize this amount of money, so it won’t be seen as a massive flow of “charity” from the North to the South, is to point out that in 2003 the poor countries in the South paid US$47 billion to the countries of the North just to service their foreign debts.
Bilateral development assistance really began to take off in the sixties and seventies, which were more ”idealistic” times than today. It was proposed at the time that the wealthiest countries earmark 0.7% of their GDP to support the developing countries. Today the wealthiest countries only dedicate an average of 0.22% of their GDP to development aid compared to 0.48% twenty years ago, which is a clear sign of the downward—and less generous—trend. The United States only allocates 0.10% of its GDP to development aid. In absolute terms, Japan heads the list, contributing some US$12 billion in 2003, while Denmark provides the most in terms of the percentage of its GDP.
Private cooperation: From charity to solidarity to businessPrivate assistance largely began in Europe, to support victims of the First World War, then 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, which includes Trocaire, the fifties and sixties saw the creation of a large number of NGOs in Europe, including 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 both 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 “solidarity” or joint responsibility cooperation.
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 going in 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 had made their first significant appearance in Guatemala two years earlier, after the signing of the Peace Accords there.
The donor populationWhat is the relative size of private cooperation? According to the latest 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 dollars 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 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.
Questioning underdevelopmentWe’ve been observing significant changes in the behavior of the donor population in the North over the past few years. Some 20 years ago it was easier to convince donors to support the idea of changing the structural causes of underdevelopment. But it’s becoming increasingly hard in Europe to “sell” the concept of supporting development in Latin America. One-off aid requests for emergencies are more popular today. 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.
Despite the US$60 billion transferred annually from the North to the South, the problem of underdevelopment remains, and the gap between wealthy and poor countries has grown threefold in the past 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. Today it’s 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 transfer of resources, it now has the 16th highest per-capita income in the world. That income is currently some 27,000 euros per person, while in Nicaragua it’s equivalent to well under 500 euros. For those of us who work in cooperation, the challenge, or worse still the dilemma, is how to start shrinking that gap, how to increase our knowledge of the factors of injustice in the world that have widened it today. We particularly need to understand and reflect on the factors that have created such unequal societies in Latin America, where social exclusion is on the rise.
Foreign aid is especially significant for Nicaragua. The country received nearly US$14.7 billion in bilateral, government-to-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 last year, with almost two thirds coming 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.
Why the sudden focus on efficacy?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?
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 has 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. And the solidarity 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.
In those same decades, it became widely accepted that those of us working with NGOs 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.
Into the breach rode corruptionThis 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 us 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 who become involved, the fewer risks there will be.
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.
In Nicaragua in the eighties, there were always cases of corruption: a very common misuse of resources was for local Sandinista leaders to “borrow” a project vehicle for personal purposes, typically to go out with a girlfriend, then get drunk and crash the car. Regrettably, the corruption within the domestic NGOs only got worse in the nineties. I recall a case in 1995 in which the head of a Nicaraguan women’s organization that had projects with five different international NGOs asked each one for a $1,000 salary, which meant she was getting a monthly salary of $5,000. When the five NGOs realized what was happening, we decided to confront her about it. She told us that we were interventionist imperialists who only came to ask questions and that we should get our noses out of her business. What we got out of her “business” was our money!
A group of private aid agencies has already coined a name for this new kind of NGO. We call them “mongos,” short for “my own NGO.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of them. They are 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.
Accountability is a two-way propositionWhen I ask the Trocaire counterparts in Honduras to present their accounts, I always tell them a couple of truths. The first is that I’m not going to ask them for anything that is not also required of me. I explain that by Irish law I can’t spend more than 2% of the resources for the Trocaire office’s own operational expenses, and I have to present our accounts every month. I see the projects of NGOs all over Central America and I know what they spend on their operational costs and salaries and how much really gets to the “beneficiaries,” if you’ll forgive me using that dreadful word. Sometimes when we sit down to negotiate budgets, certain NGOs get very defensive if I ask how they can justify the fact that 80% of the expenditures are earmarked for their own operations.
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 share the responsibility, for having closed their eyes to corruption cases they were fully aware of.
I also explain to my counterparts that I don’t decide about project proposals; the decisions are made by volunteers on the boards of our organizations who try to ensure genuine transparency. I further explain that we have an executive body, elected every two years, that operates according to the law and demands transparency from us. I make them reflect on the fact that, while this happens in the countries of the North, the majority of the civil society organizations in Central America, including Nicaragua, have either no real oversight body at all, or one that only functions on paper.
What is civil society and what’s its role?Another issue at the center of the debate on cooperation revolves around civil society as a factor in the democratization of the countries and a vehicle for channeling cooperation to the communities. In the past 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. It 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 countries, in turn allowing us to massively create capacities among the people, generate great social mobility and expand our middle classes, a process that has not yet occurred in Latin America.
With all these shifts, the concept of civil society has taken on new life in a big way. Today, neoliberals want civil society—read NGOs and private enterprise—to assume all the responsibilities abandoned by the states. Naturally, all the language around civil society must be analyzed very closely. Civil society is a very broad term; it doesn’t just refer to NGOs, as some use it, and isn’t always a progressive or angelic space, as some conceive it; it is shared by everybody from organized neighborhood gangs to the chambers of commerce of the wealthiest business class.
The new focus on povertyStarting in the nineties, another issue that has captured increasing attention in the world of cooperation is 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 favored by our cooperation because we saw them as the instruments of change in Central America. We didn’t directly seek out the poor, because we believed that these organizations represented them. The issue of poverty, of the poor, has acquired major relevance following the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995, the same year the World Bank published a report on Poverty in the World that 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, defined 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 a very 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 Jubilee 2000. That movement 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.
Nicaragua—the darling of cooperationMeasuring cooperation as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product, Nicaragua is the country most favored by cooperation in all of Latin America. Foreign aid accounted for 28% of its GDP in 2003, which is the highest percentage on the continent. It only contributed 6% of the GDP in Honduras, which is the country closest to Nicaragua in both geography and poverty, while in El Salvador the proportion is 2% and in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and the Southern Cone countries it doesn’t even reach 1%.
Such high levels of cooperation keep Nicaragua in a risky situation. What would happen if its cooperation partners suddenly decided that Nicaragua is no longer a priority? It is a question that Nicaragua’s government and society must reflect on very seriously. More than $8 billion of the over $14 billion received since 1979 has come since the nineties, after the Sandinista government, and that flow has remained constant right up to today, which means that cooperation continues to have expectations of Nicaragua.
The rest of Central America often asks why Nicaragua continues to be pampered despite everything that has happened, including Arnoldo Alemán’s scandalous corruption. One possible explanation can be found in the people working in European bilateral cooperation. In the seventies and eighties, many people from European socialism, student leaders, solidarity activists and the like, got jobs in NGOs and acquired experience in cooperation programs. More recently they moved into jobs in bilateral cooperation in their own countries or in the European Union structure. Last month I was talking with a high-level British government official who had closed the bilateral aid programs in 10 countries—including Honduras and Peru—and slashed virtually all the rest in Latin America. Nicaragua was the only unscathed survivor. When I asked him why, he explained that the minister of cooperation had come to Nicaragua in 1981 to pick coffee when he was just out of university, and returned to England enamored of the country and its people.
And it isn’t an isolated case: the continuation of many aid projects in Nicaragua can be explained by similar affairs of the heart. Nicaraguans won the hearts and minds of huge numbers of people all over the world. Many men and women from Europe and other countries lived with Nicaraguans in remote villages, worked in cooperatives in the northern part of the country, so close to the war, and saw friends get killed. They left the country imbued with the Nica spirit, that stubborn way of holding their head high and struggling on. I can say this because I too feel it. I live in Honduras and when I compare the attitude of Nicaragua and its people with Hondurans, how they define themselves as a nation, it’s as if I were in two distant countries. Those who in the eighties made fun of “cheles internacionalistas”—light-skinned solidarity activists—should know that many of those cheles have become true ambassadors of Nicaragua in their home countries, some of them even from positions of influence. And that pro-Nicaragua favoritism has to be recognized as a tribute to the Nicaraguan people.
Can Nicaragua hang on to its aid edge?Only two countries of the South—Mozambique and Nicaragua—have been spoiled, favored, prioritized by multilateral, bilateral and private aid despite the disastrously limited results of the resources provided to them. Can we guarantee that this will continue to be the case? I’m not so 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.
It’s already apparent that European cooperation is less and less interested in Latin America. In overall terms, aid to the continent has been steadily dropping every year and is now down to only 10% of all European aid. The first Latin American project I worked on, through Trocaire, was in Chile. Today, Trocaire doesn’t finance a single project in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Costa Rica or Panama. Five years ago, El Salvador was the recipient of 50% of the aid from the 17 agencies in CIDSE, which is an umbrella for Europe’s Catholic agencies. Today it gets less than 5%, while Nicaragua gets 35%. In 2003, the Brussels-based group called CIFCA did an analysis of contemporary solidarity aid to Nicaragua and found that it absorbs almost 60% of all such aid for Central America. Can it hang on to this level in the future?
The pressure from our donors, our public and churches is to focus on Africa, because although poverty in Central America is unquestionably increasing, it’s always a relative concept. Nicaragua’s per-capita income may be only $500 a year, but it’s a mere $80 in Mozambique. This pressure is going to continue and frankly none of us would complain if Africa was given more priority. What we do complain about is that bilateral aid agencies such as Britain’s DFID, which has very interesting values and ideas, has shifted resources out of Latin America without sending them to Africa. Instead, it is participating in the reconstruction of the damage caused in Iraq by the governments of Tony Blair and George Bush. This should be taken as a warning sign; such reactions could multiply in a world in which a single way of thinking is being imposed, including on cooperation.
Thinking about the future, we also have to ask ourselves if there aren’t people in Nicaragua itself who could donate funds to the NGOs in their own country. There are certainly some in Nicaragua who have a lot of money and the middle classes are doing quite well compared with the poor. Couldn’t the Nicaraguan NGOs get their own compatriots to donate, convincing them that they are valid actors and are asking for money because they’re doing a good job? There is no tradition of this in Central America, but it could be fostered and would have a positive effect.
Changing power relations in international cooperationAnother issue that has caught our attention has 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. The United Nations is also 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 sources of Northern financing for alternative research, media and other voices in the South.
A decade ago, those of us working in solidarity cooperation were very critical of USAID. We viewed it as an agency with a politicized agenda very close to that of the Reagan and Bush Sr. governments, which essentially sought to counteract the work of those struggling to change the extremely unjust Latin American regimes of the time. Today, however, AID—which has had to eliminate 40% of its staff and cancel its work in 30 countries—seems a downright benevolent agency compared to the US government’s new way of implementing its “cooperation,” which is now more directly based on presidential decisions.
In the Monterrey Financing for Development Summit, for example, George W. Bush announced that he was going to create a fund—the Millennium Account—to support the Millennium Goals in the countries of the South. While these goals were originally proposed in the UN-organized Millennium Summit, this fund isn’t being channeled through the United Nations, or even AID, but is directly managed from the White House by people with no knowledge or experience in the field of cooperation. It’s the same thing Bush did with funds to fight AIDS in Africa.
The US government is hobbling independent cooperationThe trend in the United States is toward conditioning aid to the country’s particular vision of world security, earmarking huge sums of money for giant presidential projects for which no control or accounting system has been established. At least AID had to be accountable to the US Congress, where we had the chance to talk to, question and discuss ideas with a few accessible congressional representatives. Today nothing is questioned, there are no channels, no one knows what criteria are being used to distribute the presidential resources. The European governments, meanwhile, see increasing limitations to cooperation with Latin America and are thuse evolving their development aid toward the search for markets on this continent, a trend first evident in Madrid in 2001 during the consultative group conference that provided continuity to the post-Mitch Stockholm meeting.
The US government has frequently taken it upon itself to control, coerce or otherwise hobble organizations dedicated to cooperation and, together with private US donors, tends not to support critical voices. A clear current example is the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which played such an important investigative and advocacy role regarding Central America in the eighties and today has to solicit donations from the European NGOs to survive.
The NGOs in the United States that have grown enormously in the past twenty years are Plan International, World Vision and others that rediscovered the old adopt-a-child idea, conducting costly campaigns that involve buying television time to show faces of starving, sad-eyed children to move public opinion. They’ve grown as a result of what I call “fundraising pornography.” People just open their checkbooks without thinking much. The idea that with a few dollars or a few euros you can save a child’s life is very attractive, very comfortable, although to be fair I have to say that some of the organizations that began that way have now started raising funds for community projects.
Many NGOs refuse to do that kind of tear-jerking publicity because we feel it’s an insult to the dignity of the people we work with and believe that accountability isn’t a one-way street, from you to us, in which you simply have to demonstrate how you’ve used the funds. It also has to be from us to you: you have the right to comment on the message we’re sending out to raise these funds in our countries. We in Trocaire feel that some of our more consolidated counterparts in Nicaragua should help us put together more appropriate campaigns in our countries.
The greatest satisfaction comes from small, successful grassroots projectsAnother important issue in the cooperation debate is that of decentralization, in which the hope is that municipalities, local authorities and communities will increasingly manage the aid funds, not the central government. Furthermore, the majority of decisions about projects are beginning to be made on the ground. The Canadian government no longer makes any decision in Ottawa about its Central American aid projects: they are all made in the region itself. For its part, the European Union has inaugurated a “monster” in Managua, where 200 people work. As a result, decisions about EU cooperation—some 400 million euros for Nicaragua in the next two years—will be made locally. But this presence, this physical proximity, does not ensure better decisions or greater commitment, because one can now live in a very comfortable neighborhood of Managua and spend one’s evenings in a variety of good restaurants without ever even going through a poor neighborhood. One can live in inequality without ever seeing it. It is now possible to visit Nicaragua without even imagining how poor and unequal the country still is.
In Trocaire we are strong advocates of small grassroots projects. When I came back to Central America in the early nineties, 99% of Trocaire’s support was channeled exclusively through NGOs in the region. Today a third goes to NGOs, a third to fund the projects of trade associations, churches and the like and a third directly to the base. Our greatest moments of satisfaction come from small projects in which better results are achieved with very little money—managed by the people themselves, which is also educational for them—than with big high-ticket projects. Today Trocaire has 239 projects in four Central American countries, 44 of them in Nicaragua.
I want to give you an example of the kind of projects I’m referring to. Mitch left many people in Chinandega without homes. In addition to rebuilding them, a group of women began to work on mental health, providing therapy to help those in their communities who had lost everything and survived the tragedy work their way through the traumas. Trocaire and other organizations supported them. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Three years later, after two big earthquakes hit El Salvador in 2001, these same humble women from Chinandega, many of whom had lost their whole family, sent us a telegram in Tegucigalpa offering their services. They had to walk many kilometers to send it as there were no telephone lines where they live. I’ll never forget Petronila coming to San Salvador to share what she had learned with other women. Several of them came to work and teach, passing on everything they had learned and discovered about trauma healing. These women didn’t come as victims; they were survivors who came to rebuild the hope of other survivors. The English Association of Psychiatrists got in touch with us to tell us that this was one of the most moving and hopeful things they had heard about the Salvadoran tragedy.
Can we turn this terrible inequality around?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 solidarity cooperation and bilateral aid when we get together behind closed doors. With these levels of inequality, it’s hard to persuade our populations to part with their 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 the 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.
We are seeing many warning signs today. I’m sure that over the next ten years bilateral cooperation will continue to drop and solidarity 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 that 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 are working with, combining effective and transparent use of resources with increasing participation by the population. I also think that those that are serious about social inequality in their countries and find mechanisms to influence public policies toward greater equity will also survive. 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 is Central American regional director for
Trocaire, an NGO of the Catholic Church of Ireland