Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 299 | Junio 2006



International Cooperation and Civil Society: The High Price of Relations

Has international cooperation failed? What has it achieved and at what and whose cost? This is a still-open debate that Nicaragua should take up. One of the fruits of cooperation has been to install in our countries the concept of “civil society” and a language and vision copied from the North and removed from our realities. This is something upon which Nicaragua’s Left should urgently reflect.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

On May 27, Jürg Benz, the representative of Swiss cooperation in Nicaragua and coordinator of the European Union’s budgetary support group, announced in Managua that the countries providing cooperation to Nicaragua “see no progress in the basic education and health indicators, which are the fundamental pillars for measuring a country’s poverty reduction.” He concluded that these indicators “have stagnated in Nicaragua.”

How can such stagnation and even deterioration of social development be explained in a country like Nicaragua that has received over US$16 billion from international cooperation over the last 25 years? How is it possible, with the levels of cooperation received in the last quarter of a century, that one in every three Nicaraguan children suffers from some form of chronic malnutrition and 9% suffer from serious malnutrition?

Corruption and state inefficiency are two of the most obvious causes of Nicaragua’s social failure, but it would be a mistake to assume that the cooperation strategies and policies are perfect and all we need are more efficient, decent governments. Nicaragua and the third world in general need better governments, but after half a century’s experience, the world’s donor countries and poor countries also need to critically review some of the basic premises that have guided international cooperation’s efforts.

The donor and recipient countries must evaluate

Some development promoters argue that the situation of the countries of the South would be worse than it currently is without international cooperation. Others say the whole effort has been an enormous and costly mistake. The total cost of an “enterprise” that according to critics such as William Easterly has very few positive results to show for its efforts is US$2.3 trillion. In his recent book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006), Easterly criticizes, among other things, the tendency of the countries of the North to decide what those of the South need.

The introduction to the United Nations Development Program’s 2005 Human Development Report, titled “International Cooperation at a Crossroads,” talks of the loss of trust currently affecting the idea of development and cooperation. Stating that these human development gains should not be underestimated, the report goes on to add, “Nor should they be exaggerated. In 2003, 18 countries with a combined population of 460 million people registered lower scores on the human development index (HDI) than in 1990—an unprecedented reversal. In the midst of an increasingly prosperous global economy, 10.7 million children every year do not live to see their fifth birthday, and more than 1 billion people survive in abject poverty on less than $1 a day. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has inflicted the single greatest reversal in human development. In 2003 the pandemic claimed 3 million lives and left another 5 million people infected. Millions of children have been orphaned.”

The report provides some rather unoriginal recommendations to improve the quality of cooperation, one of which is the elimination of tied aid, which is the aid that comes in the form of credits for purchases in the donor country for a specific project. The report acknowledges the obvious fact that this includes hidden returns to the donor countries’ corporations, and argues that this and the tied components of technical assistance should be discounted from the aid reported, and in fact progressively eliminated between 2006 and 2008.

The UNDP’s recommendation refers to tied financial aid, but the report says nothing about the need to eliminate the theoretical conditionality and intellectual dependency generated by cooperation through the imposition of a conceptual vocabulary, methodologies and theoretical premises that have blocked the development of the South’s own intellectual capacity to identify, conceptualize and resolve its countries’ own problems. Those of us who think that international cooperation is an important element in the fight against the poverty and backwardness of most countries of the South also believe it’s necessary for both the donor and recipient countries to evaluate this problem in-depth. Nicaragua could and in fact should be a pioneering country in this task.

Chronicle of a failure foretold

The history of international development cooperation is intimately linked to the interests and objectives of the countries of the developed West. At the end of the Second World War, the advanced capitalist world found itself facing Soviet socialism, a rival system with global aspirations. Under these circumstances, the capitalist first world, led by the United States, decided that to compete with the socialist second world it needed to induce the development of poor third world countries to bring their interests into line with the development of capitalism.

Parallel to the political rationale and strategic interests that motivated the birth and evolution of international development cooperation, many people and institutions—guided by humanitarian, academic and even religious motivations—got excited about the possibility of promoting the modernization of the world’s poor countries. Unfortunately, the premises behind that enormous social engineering project were amazingly simplistic and inadequate.

The political leaders, experts and academics of the advanced capitalist world perceived history as a unilinear process led by the developed countries. From that perspective, the world’s rich societies were providing the underdeveloped ones an image of what things could be like in the future. All the world’s backward societies had to do to become new versions of Germany, Sweden or Canada was to emulate those countries’ systems of social organization.

Initially, development had a fundamentally economic emphasis. The inevitable consequence of developing production and consumption capacities among the underdeveloped countries would supposedly be the political and cultural development of their inhabitants. With greater economic growth, Latin Americans, Asians and Africans would come to perceive and understand power and the world in the same way as they were perceived and understood by the English and the gringos.

In what was already appearing to be the chronicle of a disaster foretold, the economistic vision of development faltered when the economic growth failed to materialize, or when it did materialize but was unaccompanied by improved distribution of wealth or democratization in societies that were now called “developing”—to avoid saying “underdeveloped.”

The first world academics and theoreticians that supported the idea of “development” decided it wasn’t enough to modernize the economies of the poor countries to achieve the comprehensive modernization of their societies. Thus the concept of “political development” was invented, which led to highly expensive efforts to “Westernize” and democratize the third world’s political structures.

Next it was discovered that neither economic nor political development was possible without developing those societies’ public institutions. With that, the concept of “administrative development” was invented, which once again led to an industry based on consultants, books and conferences aimed at transferring to the third world the bureaucratic systems of the first world.

All these efforts were exclusively led by the North. The South countries were mere consumers of the opinions and theories of intellectuals and technicians from the developed world, who assumed they knew how to create capitalist economies just because they lived in capitalist countries. They also assumed that they knew how to build democracies because they lived in liberal democratic systems. Neither the South countries’ history nor their inhabitants’ opinions and knowledge were considered important for the promoters of development to know.

Crushed between two elephants

In the 1980s, capitalism sensed the weakness of real socialism, which had proved unable to legitimize itself politically and therefore depended on a costly and inefficient coercive system to reproduce itself domestically. On the international plane, socialism had proved incapable of developing the force needed to compete economically with capitalism.

Capitalism, meanwhile, was facing its own problems. The reproduction of capital demanded new and larger markets. Further still, it needed to reduce the costs of production and labor that the welfare states had made more expensive. Capital needed more mobility to escape internal political pressures, state-imposed controls and pressure from the working class. It also needed the capacity to move from country to country, playing one off against the rest.

In the end the Soviet Union collapsed, the “free world” established itself as the victorious force and the third world—which remained as poor as ever—became practically irrelevant to the interests of the first world, particularly the United States, which no longer had any dangerous enemies and therefore stopped needing friends. What happened next was what many in the South had feared when they pointed out that the world’s poor countries were dangerously positioned between the elephants of the first world and those of the second. The South would lose whether the elephants attacked each other in a nuclear war or decided to make love. In either case the poor countries living between the two colossi would be crushed to death.

Michail Gorbachov perfumed the socialist elephant, applied makeup, dressed it in a thin negligee and left the door to its bedroom open. The capitalist elephant quickly got the hint, slipped into the red elephant’s room, sporting its most seductive look and a greased-back Reagan-style quaff. The rest is history. Washington’s grunts of pleasure could be heard around the world. The Berlin Wall collapsed under the passionate vibrations unleashed by the East-West encounter, which, among other things, led to the birth of what in Nicaragua was christened “democracy.” Neither the FSLN nor Violeta Chamorro, nor the contras were the real procreators of this pathetic offspring.

The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the final obstacle to the globalization of capital. The market doctrine was raised as the only alternative and international development cooperation adjusted to the demands of the new times.

Memories of an experience of the eighties

I experienced the moment in which the global structural changes that conditioned the sense and purposes of international cooperation started to materialize. In those terrible eighties, far from my war-torn country, I was working in the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Canadian government cooperation agency that was promoting the generation of knowledge in the fields of health, agriculture, informatics and social sciences in the third world. I worked as an adviser on projects in the field of social sciences and headed up a multinational research program on public policies and participation.

From my position in that organization I could see firsthand how the development agencies of Europe, Canada and the United States were starting to build their priorities around the demands of the nascent global capitalism. Given its own requirements and the enormous weaknesses of real socialism, the market was starting to be established as a planetary system based on a single way of thinking. It was almost like a religion, complete with dogmas, to which the international cooperation organizations had to adapt.

The priorities and focuses in the world of cooperation changed gradually, almost always subtly, justified by some demand that appeared logical and rational. They were developing at the same time that the framework of values that defined the meaning and pertinence of reality was changing.

Let me try to explain this further. Cooperation agencies like the IDRC depend on their governments. In the eighties, the political climate in the first world was marked by the neoconservatism embodied in leaders such as Ronald Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Brian Mulroney in Canada. The neoconservative shift had to be felt in the cooperation agencies, as they had to justify their budgets and operations within the political rationality prevailing in their countries and governments. For example, if one of the Mulroney government’s main goals was to promote a free trade agreement with the United States and if a US goal was to promote such agreements in Latin America, the “normal” thing was for the issues of free trade and market freedom to emerge as priority issues in the Canadian government’s discourse and therefore in the discourse of its cooperation agencies, which had to justify their existence to the Canadian parliament.

Free trade was starting to be more than just an issue in the eighties. It was becoming part of reality, of common sense and normal life in the developed capitalist world. So the reality of the market and market society began to form part of the value framework used by first world governments and cooperation agencies to define what was good, bad, priority, marginal, utopian and possible. Even the Sandinista revolution started to feel the weight of market logic, adjusting to it with the economic reforms instituted in 1988.

Thus the concept of market efficiency began to influence the evaluations of research and development project proposals received by cooperation agencies. In the field of social sciences, for example, theoretical research lost value, and with it the search for alternative third world development models. In a world dominated by a triumphant and globalizing capitalism, the search for alternatives started to be seen as foolishness. What the social sciences had to do was promote the practical and instrumental knowledge that would facilitate the South’s consolidation of the market system and liberal democracy. This premise either remained implicit or was expressly postulated, depending on the style and approach of the different development agencies supporting research in the South.

Measuring poverty from an
impoverished intellectual environment

Very soon, support for critical research degenerated into activities to promote technical consultancy work dressed up as research. In such “applied” research, third world researchers generate practical knowledge based on premises imposed by first world bureaucrats and academics.

The market society premise, for example, began to be imposed in the field of research on public policies, which because they were considered relevant had to respond to the imperatives of a neoliberal economic system. Similarly, the premise of neoliberal order started to inform research on society’s political organization. Issues linked to concepts such as “social exploitation,” “class struggle,” “imperialism,” etc., disappeared from research agendas and from the conceptual vocabulary used by researchers working in international “cooperation.” Very soon, intellectuals from the world’s poor countries learned the vocabulary legitimized and officialized by cooperation. And they started to base their thinking on it.

We learned to design “targeted” social policies in countries such as post-1990 Nicaragua, with its immense number of poor people. Targeting in fact amounts to a macabre game designed to seek among the miserable those truly at the extreme. This “game” became a source of fat fees for the army of consultants specialized in measuring poverty. No respected development expert could avoid decorating his or her office with a “poverty distribution map” luxuriously printed in bright primary colors. And of course, we all had to celebrate the so-called “democracies” or “democratic transitions” or “democratic consolidations” in countries where electoral processes add up to nothing more than a periodical raffle for the right to impunity.

In this new and impoverished intellectual environment, the classic issue of “social order” that inevitably takes us back to thinkers of the stature of Max Weber and Karl Marx and obliges us to think of “social conflict” as the flip side to “order” was replaced by the useless and sterile concept of “governance,” which imposes a regulatory vision of society that is functional to the market society. In this vision, the opposite of governance is not conflict, social change or revolution and structural transformations, but rather chaos and disorder that must be avoided at any price because they dis-turb the normality demanded for the development of capital.

Civil society:
Cooperation’s new attempt

With the idea of “social conflict” eliminated from the visions of society imposed above all by the big multinational finance institutions, the emerging order in the third world needed a neutral concept to describe the organizations of representation and participation that would help maintain and reproduce the democratic governance demanded by the market society. The result was the emergence of the concept of “civil society,” defined by the World Bank as a broad array of nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations that are present in public life, express the interests and values of their members and others, according to ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. The term “civil society organizations” thus covers a great variety of organizations: community groups, nongovernmental organizations, unions, indigenous groups, charity organizations, religious organizations, professional associations and foundations.

Anyone reading this definition will recognize that the concept includes the whole of society. In Nicaragua, for example, it’s almost impossible not to be part of what is termed civil society. The concept is so elastic that the real theoretical challenge is to establish which social sectors or actors don’t form part of it.

If all of society’s interests are included in the concept of civil society and in the organizational bodies in which this concept materializes, then how does “civil society” differ from the old concept of society formerly conceptualized as consisting of social classes, or of elites and masses in relations of conflict?

The difference lies in the fact that, at least in the way it’s used and interpreted in third world, the concept of civil society represents a harmonious society—or the illusion of one—made up of actors operating within a basic consensus that transforms all conflicts into marginal differences. How is this harmony achieved in fragmented and polarized societies? To answer this we have to do a bit of historical research.

Civil society:
A concept generated by European history

The concept of “civil society” has its origins in European history. In Europe and the other countries of the North, the concept refers to the development of a social capacity to domesticate the state’s actions. That capacity is the result of the evolution and consolidation of civic rights starting from the 18th century, a process that can be graphically represented as series of concentric circles. Each circle represents the articulation of a new social consensus on the political and economic organization of society, the extension of public spaces relatively independent from the state and the institutionalizing of a new civil rights framework. Using T.S. Marshall’s definition of the development of citizenship in England, the first circle can be visualized as the emergence and institutionalization of civil rights in the 18th century. In the second circle is the emergence and institutionalization of political rights in the 19th century, and in the third, the emergence and institutionalization of social rights in the 20th.

Thus the development of the principle of citizenship, inspired and guided by the idea of equality, accompanied the development of capitalist economic systems, which generated inequality. This development led to the establishment of what David Held calls a relationship of “congruence” between those making public policies and those receiving them. This relationship constitutes one of the main premises of the democratic system. Thus conceptualized, democracy provides members of society an important quota of power with which to control their individual and social destiny.

European history generated the conditions expressed in the concept of civil society. That same history also generated the institutional organization and balances of power conceptualized under different names: “state,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” etc., creating the conditions for the emergence of the concepts that explain and define it. But exactly the opposite is true of the relationship between the histories of the third world countries and the concepts we use to represent them.

A civil society in dependent states
with imaginary citizenships?

The concept of “civil society” is an imported one imposed by international cooperation to condition and mold the histories of the countries of the South, and doesn’t reflect the historical specificity of the countries in the South in which it’s applied. Worse still, the concept is a discursive falsification of reality. To understand the nature of this falsification we need to analyze the two elements that determine the nature of relations between the state and society in most third world countries: the high degree of the states’ autonomy from their societies and the high degree of foreign dependence of both states and societies.

In countries like those of Latin America, for example, the state’s high degree of autonomy from society has its origins in its initial formation as an instrument of conquest and exploitation. The state apparatus inherited by Latin American countries when they achieved their independence was conceived as a mechanism for controlling the population, rather than incorporating it into “national life.” That tendency still prevails and is expressed in many countries through the existence of what Fernando Gonzalo Escalante calls “imaginary citizenships.”

The absence of civil rights structures in the vast majority of Latin American countries is aggravated by the high level of foreign dependency of their states. The Latin American state was born within a framework of historical limitations determined by the requirements of the world economy and the interests of the powers dominating the world of the 19th century. That dependency increased along with the institutionalization and development of the international market’s power and has currently reached unprecedented levels with the globalization of capital and implantation of free trade regimes.

The Latin American state’s foreign dependency intensifies its autonomy from society. A state that depends on the legitimacy, political support and economic resources it obtains from abroad doesn’t need strong domestic social support to survive. Nicaragua is a good illustration of such a condition.

The signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States was decided by a Nicaraguan government and political class that fears US pressure more than it fears discontent among its own people. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, CAFTA has still not been signed precisely because it is one of the continent’s few countries that has managed to develop a democratic system and civil rights structure that provide society the capacity to domesticate the state’s actions.

It is the existence of a citizenship with rights, rather than civil society organizations, that has made the difference in the Costa Rican case. Costa Rican civil society has the capacity to domesticate the state’s actions because it is supported by citizens willing to defend their rights. Without a real civil rights structure, civil society is simply a superstructure floating above society, influenced by the whims of international cooperation on which its survival depends.

A dependency that limits and
promotes a neutral language

Unlike the European case—used here as a point of comparative reference—the material basis of civil society in Nicaragua and the rest of the third world is not national; it has no domestic roots. The main economic support of many of its organizations comes from international cooperation. This makes it possible to talk about a dependency relationship between civil society and international cooperation, which has certain parallels with the dependency of the South’s states on the trends of the global market, international finance organizations and the international cooperation agencies.

That dependence limits civil society’s representiveness and its capacity to identify and name its own problems. It also promotes the tendency of civil society organizations to adopt the conceptual vocabulary, premises and theoretical frameworks imposed by international cooperation. That vocabulary has been appropriately defined by José Luis Rocha as “cold, monotonous, dry, opaque and above all neutral.” Finally, civil society’s dependence obliges its organizations to resolve their problems within the social visions imposed by cooperation.

In other words, both international cooperation organizations and the governments on which they depend operate within a framework of values and priorities that are imposed on the governments and civil society organizations of the countries that benefit from development aid. This, of course, does not stop conflicts and disputes between governments and civil society in the countries of the South, or among the very organizations that make up civil society. However, such conflicts are marginal and take place within the limits imposed by a certain vision of the world and society. They are conflicts and disputes that lack the capacity to transform the social structures that generate poverty and misery in the countries of the South.

It isn’t conspiracy or bad intention,
but rather mental conditioning

Civil societies in third world countries can only propose and promote marginal reforms to the power structures within which they operate. The conceptual vocabulary they use, the approaches and means of struggle their organizations have become used to are designed to function within the limitations imposed by the prevailing system. Even when they protest against the system they do so using the truth imposed by the powers that be: in other words, using the conceptual vocabulary and world visions legitimized and accepted by international cooperation and the donor countries.

Nothing mentioned so far means that international cooperation is part of a conspiracy to stop third world countries developing their own authentic way of thinking. Experience shows that changes to the paradigms of cooperation take place gradually and even imperceptibly. Nor does it mean that international cooperation hasn’t made positive contributions to the development of ideas and knowledge in the South or that people who form part of that enterprise don’t work with the best of intentions. We’re talking about broad tendencies and the general balance here, not isolated cases that can be cited as examples and positive models of cooperation.

The problem of the mental conditioning imposed by cooperation is not one of individual will and intentions; it’s a structural phenomenon that cannot and should not be personalized. It doesn’t take conspiracies or conspirators for the imperative of the global economy that conditions the visions of development in countries such as Canada or Great Britain to be transferred to or imposed on countries like Nicaragua, even with the best of intentions. It doesn’t take a Machiavellian anti-third world plan to solidify a model of dependence that helps neutralize the possibility of structural change in the South. Social conflict with transforming capacities can be deactivated by the very work that is being done with the best of intentions for a country’s development.

What Hurricane Mitch revealed

The contradictions and problems generated by the existing dependency relationship between civil society and international cooperation were revealed in Central America in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch caused a social disaster that many observers described as being of biblical proportions. The civil society organizations in the region’s different countries came together in unprecedented unity to demand and even concretely propose structural changes to avoid any future disasters on a similar scale. They were even given a seat at meetings between their governments and the post-Mitch consultative bodies of the European donors.

Despite those efforts to create a force for change in response to the social crisis generated by the hurricane, civil society was unable to modify the orientation of Central American social, economic and political development. The disaster’s impact ended up being “absorbed” and “normalized” by the region’s political structures, which proved able to neutralize the crisis, turning it into a new scar on the Central American countries’ social body. Furthermore, Hurricane Mitch’s impact reinforced the region’s power structures as the governments of the affected countries exploited the foreign resources to promote the dominant economic model.

The region’s governments and strongest economic groups saw the crisis caused by Mitch as an opportunity to streamline the neoliberal-style structural transformations already promoted in Central America since the 1980s. Central American civil society organizations, in contrast, viewed it as the chance to promote a strategy of structural transformations to deal with the problems of poverty, marginality and vulnerability in the region’s weakest sectors.

The “Strategy for the Reconstruction and Transformation of the Nation” drawn up by the Alemán government with the backing of the opposition FSLN confirmed the intention of continuing to promote the neoliberal policies that had already being initiated before the disaster. In his message to the Presidential Commission for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Nicaragua, the President pointed out that the guiding objectives of the reconstruction and transformation efforts were to: 1) “safeguard our newly-born democracy and strengthen the country’s governance”; 2) “safeguard the achievements attained in economic and social matters and provide the necessary concessionary resources to tackle this great national enterprise”; and 3) continue with the economic, social and institutional reforms “necessary to guarantee integral, equitable and sustainable development.”

The “Central American Agenda for the 21st century” drafted by the Central American Business Administration Institute (INCAE) in collaboration with the Harvard University’s Institute for International Development, also advocated using the crisis triggered by Hurricane Mitch to reinforce the neoliberal-style transformations promoted by the region’s governments. That agenda offered a development strategy based on the private sector’s competitive strategy, particularly that of the businesses with the greatest transnational and transregional potential in Central America. From INCAE’s perspective, the development of the private sector’s business competitiveness was fundamental to promoting the democratization of our devastated region—a term often used almost as a synonym for “free enterprise.”

An international arbitrator
in our national tragedy

The characteristics of the Central American states and the dependency relations between civil society and international cooperation facilitated the “externalization” and therefore deactivation of the social conflict generated by the hurricane. The dependence of the state and civil society promoted displacement of the crisis and social conflict generated by Hurricane Mitch outside the political, legal and territorial arena of the region’s countries. As a result, the conflict was not organized around the national institutions and within the political arenas of each particular country, but rather in the transnational arenas dominated by the rationality of the North’s governments and cooperation agencies. In those arenas, the international community consolidated itself as a source of financing and of the legitimacy of the state and civil society during the months following the tragedy.

Thus the “Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America,” the organizational body that brought together the donor countries and multilateral organizations involved in the reconstruction work, became a kind of arbitrator between the different national actors promoting development strategies and plans for the region’s countries. Meanwhile, those affected by the hurricane were turned into passive actors within the social drama inflicted on them. Their fate ended up depending on interactions—or lack thereof—between organized civil society, the state and the international community, which were dominated by the discursive power of international cooperation.

The Central American governments ignored the demands for structural changes made by the civil society organizations because the latter lacked the social force needed to obtain their objectives. Their proposals were complaints and petitions that were not be backed up by societies with rights, or at least with the organizational capacity to demand those rights. Furthermore, the demands and proposals of Central American civil society as a whole were articulated within a limited language and vision. They added up to requests that the elites controlling the institutions in the Central American countries voluntarily renounce their power and transform the region’s social structures to favor the poor.

The lesson was emphatic: structural transformations are not obtained during discussions held in meeting rooms in the capital cities of Central America and Europe. Nor are they obtained in the South in discussions conditioned by the conceptual vocabulary and world visions imposed by international cooperation.

Without the urgency and rage of the poor

The political influence of the Consultative Group had many positive aspects. But those contributions also had the price of reinforcing foreign dependence not just in the Central American states, but also in the civil societies of the region’s countries. Another price attached was the strengthening of the intellectual conditionality derived from the imposition of premises and approaches generated by the North and the behavior of the social actors in the South. And finally, it resulted in the social deactivation that results from a civil society that assumes the task of representing the victims, without being part of those affected.
Civil society leaders frequently represent the marginalized masses out of ethical convictions and sometimes for professional reasons. But they almost never share the same “life opportunities” and existential urgencies of those they represent. This has an enormous impact on the speed and intensity of the social changes promoted by the civil society organizations. The needs of the victims of Casitas Volcano, where thousands died in a mudslide, were not the same as those experienced by members of the civil society that represented them.

Thus the transforming policies that civil society might promote with excellent intentions lacks the incentive, sense of urgency and even the rage and need for change that in the past provided the force behind social transformation and collective action. We’re facing a new way of doing politics; a bureaucratic, reformist style of representation and participation limited by the dominant rationality and by the nature of the political arenas that international cooperation creates to discuss the third world countries’ social problems.

Devoid of equitable power arenas

The arena in which the South’s civil society organizations relate to international cooperation is a political one in the sense that a power relation prevails there that must be analyzed if we are to understand it and its implications. Its material expressions are well known: conference halls, events in luxury hotels, training workshops, awareness-building meetings, roundtables to “socialize” the different kinds of information and ideas, etc., etc.

To be democratic, a political arena has to facilitate an equitable distribution of discursive power among the participating actors. In other words, the participants in a democratic political arena should all have the same rights to debate and examine the issues under discussion, the arguments of the different parties involved and the premises behind those arguments.

How can truly democratic arenas be created when the actors participating in them come from a mixture of poor and rich, underdeveloped and developed societies, when they are aid donors and aid recipients without the direct participation of the aid beneficiaries? This is one of the questions that both civil society and international cooperation must explore to avoid transforming the arenas in which these two actors meet into socialization mechanisms for reproducing the relations of dependency and subordination between countries of the North and South.

A recent, disappointing
experience in Brussels

A few weeks ago I had the chance to participate in a conference on relations between the European Union and Central America—“Much more than trade”—held in Brussels on May 3-4. The conference, organized by the Copenhagen Initiative for Central America and Mexico, the South Group and the European Parliament’s Socialist Group brought together representatives from Central American civil society to create, according to the invitation, an arena for dialogue among European political actors and members of civil society on the perspectives and challenges of the European Union-Central America Strategic Association project. This project will commercially integrate the European Union and Central America. The announcement of the start of negotiations over the agreement was made during the Vienna Summit immediately after the conference on May 11-12.

The Brussels conference turned out to be a real failure because it didn’t create the arena for dialogue announced in the official invitation. The European Parliament members who participated came to announce their vision of the free trade projects that Europe wanted to promote in Latin America, imposing the premises of their arguments, with no willingness to examine them.

The strategic association agreement and possible free trade agreement with Europe growing out of it was presented as a positive element for achieving the “social cohesion” of the Central American countries. Some of us Central Americans at the meeting tried to start a discussion on the tremendous contradiction implied by presenting trade integration with Europe as a mechanism that could facilitate social cohesion in such disintegrated countries as ours. We pointed out that even the European countries have voiced concern over the disintegrating tendencies of supra-national integration, based on which they have developed legal and institutional mechanisms to prevent the transnationalizing of their state apparatuses and economic systems from “de-territorializing” each EU member country’s culture and national history.

If the Europeans themselves view such integration as a challenge to reproduction of the cohesion of their stable and well-established social systems, how can the same Europeans be proposing to Central Americans that integrating with Europe will facilitate our countries’ “national cohesion,” already disintegrated by a lack of highways, abysmal social inequalities, racism and macho attitudes and behavior?

No time or will to discuss “CAFTA with a soul”

There was neither time nor interest to explore such questions or seriously discuss the European proposal as a premise we were supposed to accept: that the free trade model proposed by the Europeans is different to the one proposed by the United States, has a social vocation, is consistent with the democratic aspirations of Central Americans, protects and promotes human rights, etc.

We wanted to know on what the European parliamentarians present at the meeting based their assertion of these differences, as everything we knew about the agreement confirmed its neoliberal orientation. Their replies required of us an absurd leap of faith: we had to trust in the European intentions. Such was the trust demanded by those suggesting that the European free trade agreement should be seen as “CAFTA with soul” that we weren’t even given access to the official documents containing the details of the associative project to be discussed in Vienna. The Europeans actually told us they couldn’t show it to us; we had to take their word for it. We also had to believe that what is good for Europe is good for Central America. This idea was repeated every time European examples were offered as evidence of the positive potential of Central America’s trade integration in order to justify the idea.

Ignored voices and questions

The presentation of a Guatemalan indigenous representative who wanted to remind us of the conditions of misery and exploitation in which his country’s indigenous peoples were living was lost among the dozens of presentations that failed to mesh into an even moderately rational discussion. Also lost were his questions about the impact of the integration proposed by Europe on Guatemalan indigenous populations and other questions by other participants seeking greater clarity about the proposal and even the purpose of the meeting.

The magnificent work of Christian Ferres, a researcher associated with the Spanish Complutense Institute of International Studies, was completely ignored. The European participants didn’t have a single comment on his observations, which included the need for a serious discussion of the problem of asymmetry between the EU and Central America with respect to their populations, GDP, export volume and relative weight in the world economy. According to Ferres, “If the existing conditions in the region aren’t changed, the Central American countries could find themselves flooded with European products and services.” His presentation also mentioned something that is relevant to understanding the nature of the interaction arenas created by cooperation. Referring to relations between the EU and Central American civil society, Ferres argued that these spaces needed to be “opened up,” which implied “such simple measures as placing negotiation texts on the Internet.” This was an important recommendation for a conference supposedly organized to discuss the contents of a European proposal to which we Central Americans had no access.

Will we reject such invitations?
Will we accept and think with our own minds?

Although this piece is not supposed to be a personal memoir, I would like to mention something my Central American colleagues should take note of. Frustrated by the arrogance of the European parliamentarians, I left the conference room and expressed my annoyance to one of the event’s organizers, a good man who has tried to help Latin America for much of his life. He agreed with me, and further recognized that international cooperation was a real failure. He told me something that we Central Americans should consider: “You can get angry, but your Central American colleagues will continue attending our events. It will be hard for them to reject one of our invitations.”

Those words were not said in an offensive tone; they indicated a certain cynicism. Perhaps it was the bitterness of feeling part of a failure, or perhaps it reflected an unrequited desire for all Central Americans to leave en masse and start trying to solve our own problems.

Over a beer sitting in the patio of a bar in friendly Brussels, I meditated long and hard on what I had seen and heard in the halls of the European Parliament. More often than not the transnational arenas of a conference created by cooperation offer no opportunities to establish a democratic dialogue. The balance between power and poverty that feeds North-South relations is reproduced in those arenas. It’s a foolish illusion to assume that in the conference halls of Brussels or Washington we cease being the objective and subjective expressions of the national and regional histories we carry around inside us. The North imposes its premises, its definitions of good and bad and its vocabulary. In exchange, we stop thinking with our own words; that is, we stop thinking.

The fate of a billion people

It’s impossible to know what would have happened to Nicaragua and the third world if international cooperation had never existed or had acted with greater understanding of the complexities of history and the human condition. But we do know that the countries of the North call the shots in defining our problems. We also know that this tendency has a negative impact on the capacity of Nicaragua and the rest of the third world to identify, conceptualize and resolve its own problems.

We should also know that subordination and dependency are not inevitable problems. As pointed out by Rosa María Torres, an expert in international cooperation at the Fronesis Institute, “Where the agencies have come up against strong, professionally suitable counterparts that are clear about what their country needs and can do and have a sense of public responsibility for their actions and results, international cooperation has managed to be channeled in such a way that it has really started to function as such: in line with the country, not the agencies.”

Overcoming the existing relations of dependence and intellectual subordination between civil society and international cooperation is a political challenge. It implies the South demanding the right to speak and be heard, to name and define reality and itself in relation to that reality. It also implies that those who represent the South seriously assume that enormous responsibility. If international cooperation truly wants to improve the quality of its efforts, it has to facilitate that task, or at least avoid hindering it. The fate of over a billion people currently living on under a dollar a day—three million of them in Nicaragua—depends on it.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, an associate researcher at the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica (IHNCA) and an envío collaborator.

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