Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 328 | Noviembre 2008



International NGOs Won’t Give Up Our Work or Reason for Being Here

This representative of the Basque NGO Mundubat (One World) in Nicaragua shares his views on the recent government attacks on international NGOs—which official media sources label “imperialism’s Trojan horses.”

José María Castán

Mundubat is part of the Secretariat of International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Nicaragua, an umbrella organization that represents more than 70 of the approximately 300 organizations of this type in the country. In the current conflict, the government has singled out two NGOs from the Secretariat: Oxfam Great Britain and Forum Syd of Sweden. It is accusing them of illegal “triangulation” by channeling funds to the Center for Communications Research (CINCO), a national NGO, which has in turn passed them on to the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM) because CINCO is legally incorporated and MAM is not.

Triangulation of funds and money laundering?

The argument that this so-called triangulation of funds is a crime is unsustainable. International NGOs channel funds obtained from international donors to national, legally incorporated NGOs that are responsible for administering them and can decide to transfer part of these funds to non-incorporated “second tier” organizations. There are infinite examples of this procedure the government is labeling “triangulation.” It is done with all types of grassroots organizations, including ones with ties to the current government. The fact that an organization or association is not legally incorporated does not mean it is illegal. These organizations are protected by the constitutional right to organize and associate.

Even less substantiated is the accusation the government made when this conflict first began: that the money disbursed to CINCO by Oxfam Great Britain (which administers the “Common Governance Fund”), and to MAM by Forum Syd (which administers the “Common Fund for Gender Equity”) was suspected of originating from money laundering. Everybody knows that those who launder money do so because it was obtained from illegal actions or in a fraudulent manner. The funds administered by Oxfam and Forum Syd have a legal, open and transparent origin—ten European nations and governments that contribute to the above-mentioned common funds. Such an accusation was so irresponsible that the government quickly backed down and began speaking of “irregular” or “illicit activities,” understanding illicit as those of a political nature.

The priority target is
the Nicaraguan NGOs

From our viewpoint, the government’s priority objective is not international cooperation. It is Nicaraguan NGOs. It wants to regulate the work they’re doing, especially that of generating critical awareness, an awareness of citizenship and rights autonomous of partisan interests. We come into the picture only because Nicaraguan NGOs and social movements have links with international NGOs for financing purposes. The government considers the political activities, principally lobbying and advocacy, engaged in by national NGOs to be illicit, and since international NGOs finance these activities, we are accomplices in this illegality.

We don’t feel like we’re the priority target. We simply accompany these national organizations, but have never attempted to supplant them; nor do we pretend to have any representation or influence. The leading role needs to be played by Nicaraguan social movements and organizations.

The immediate reaction from international NGOs was to show solidarity with Oxfam Great Britain, Forum Syd, CINCO and MAM. The Secretariat of International NGOs issued a communiqué expressing its regret about the events taking place since they were out of sync with reality. It also affirmed that NGOs are not involved in illicit activities, much less money laundering, but rather have spent many years working to support Nicaragua’s development. Since this expression of solidarity, we have met and have been developing our response to this situation.

We believe we should neither confront this situation nor refute it. There are local arenas—Nicaraguan ones—that should play the active role. As international NGOs, we should not go to the mats on this one. Does this indicate fear on our part? We believe it shows respect for those who should be the protagonists in Nicaragua. We are not from here, and that makes us vulnerable. It’s not fear, but instead letting those who should be speaking out—those who are organized in Nicaragua—do so. Moreover, our governments and our embassies are also taking certain steps with the government and responding, like the note issued by the 27 governments of the European Union on October 22.

The government’s three angles

Ever since this conflict began, we’ve been involved in conversations with the Ministry of Government and the Foreign Ministry. What they, mainly the Foreign Ministry, have told us is that they are going to take a look at international NGOs from three angles: those of legality, control and objectives.

In terms of the legality angle, we don’t anticipate any problems. This government, like any other, has every right to demand that we obey the laws in force. The government has said there are national organizations that are not operating legally and that the international NGOs also need to operate legally, which we interpret to mean we should also be regulated by Law 147, which regulates national NGOs. Therefore, we must be registered with the Ministry of Government, with all of our documentation up to date and comply with all the stipulations of Law 147. Until now, operating legally in Nicaragua meant signing an agreement with the External Cooperation department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The second angle is control, accountability: how much money we’re disbursing, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it with. According to the stipulations of the agreement with External Cooperation, each calendar year we have to submit a report to the Foreign Ministry of what we allocate and transfer to national NGOs. We do this through a computer system that works very well and facilitates this accounting. Now, since the conflict began, the government decided that all of this information must also be sent to the Ministry of Government.

Ever since Law 147 was passed, previous Ministries of Government have been quite obliging; since we had already presented the information to the Foreign Ministry, that was considered sufficient. Now, however, we’re also being required to inform the Ministry of Government. On September 25 we were advised that we had to deliver all the information from the previous five years to the Government Ministry by September 30, organized not by calendar year but by fiscal year.

All the international NGOs had to rush to try to meet this new requirement and, although no data is available, I think only around 10% were able to present the requested documentation. The remaining 90% couldn’t do so in the time allocated, so the Minister of Government gave us a one month extension. Nonetheless, I don’t know if all of them will be able to comply. Control translates into this new requirement and adjusting ourselves to the other stipulations of Law 147. We think the government has a perfect right to ask this of us; the only problem will be meeting all the deadlines.

The third angle is the problematic one

Where we find a problem is with the third angle, the one related to what we’re doing and the objectives of our work. In a meeting with NGOs, Deputy Minister for External Cooperation Valdrack Jaentschke was quite clear: the government is very interested in having international NGOs end their funding of national NGOs that engage in political advocacy activities, or activities that question the current government’s policies. It will not only consider such activities illegal and illicit, but will also—and this is exactly how he put it—consider them a problem of national security. They argue that since cooperation funds are sizable, if a certain volume and percentage are channeled in the direction of political advocacy, they could constitute an orchestrated action against the government and thereby affect its security. At one point they tried to nuance this position somewhat, stating that we could not engage in “political advocacy,” but could take part in “influencing agendas,” but the difference was not completely clear.

In the agreement that we have signed with External Cooperation, this issue is only mentioned in terms of prohibiting international NGOs from engaging in political activities. This is logical; it’s true in any country. What the Foreign Ministry told us is that starting in January, they are going to propose a new written agreement that will clarify this point better. And although the Secretariat has asked to participate in drafting this new agreement so its wording can be negotiated and hammered out together, we still haven’t seen any proposal or draft. We assume the new agreement will contain requirements or restrictions regarding channeling funds to organizations involved in political advocacy.

This, then, will be the new situation of international NGOs. Some have stated that NGOs are being “persecuted,” but I wouldn’t use such strong language in the case of international NGOs… for now. If we leave aside the first two requirements that need to be fulfilled, and are logical, it’s the redefinition of what constitutes political advocacy, our reaction to the constraints placed on us by the government and the nature of our relationships with local NGOs that will determine whether there is or isn’t persecution.

The origins and role of Spanish NGOs

It’s worth remembering the origins and role of international NGOs, especially of Spanish NGOs, given their number and their cultural ties with Nicaragua. The NGO Mundubat first began working here in 1990, together with other NGOs from Spain. The oldest of these NGOs is ACSUR-Las Segovias, which first began working in the Segovias region of Nicaragua. I’ve coordinated Mundubat here for ten years.

We grew out of the solidarity movement that appeared in Spain in the late 1980s when new social movements began to develop. In addition to the traditional movements that struggled against Franco—trade unions, the agrarian movement and the neighborhood movements—a number of new ones began to emerge in Spain much later than in the rest of Europe: feminism, environmentalism, anti-militarism and international solidarity. This is where NGOs like the one I represent sprang from. The first thing that caught our sympathies was the events taking place in Central America, especially the Nicaraguan revolution.

This is where we come from. Our commitment to the principles of the revolution was one of our first efforts. And solidarity with these principles is what has kept us here in Nicaragua. This flies in the face of any claims that try to link us with Yankee imperialism. We’ve maintained our empathy and an ongoing collaboration with Nicaragua’s social organizations over many years, transcending the politics of the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños, working to create the foundations of participatory citizenship, and strengthening the critical skills of the population we work with. Most of the international NGOs come from this same tradition.

The government’s poor use of the
concept of “political advocacy”

Coming from this tradition and having such origins, are we going to let them prevent us from engaging in political advocacy? I think the government is making poor use of the concept of “political advocacy.” Valdrack told us: “Politics is just for politicians and political parties, not for social movements and NGOs.” So, where does the exercise of civil and political rights by the citizenry fall? What about the right to participate, organize and express political opinions? Is the government proposing that we only finance paternalist charity-oriented activities?

Given this situation, we need to decide whether we should intervene in the negotiations between our local partners and the government. What we want is to support national organizations, because the “protagonism” should belong to them. But we’re also aware that if the international NGOs accept any agreement with the government that imposes restrictions, we’ll also be setting a precedent that will affect the government’s relations with local NGOs. What is happening shows that the government has a very well-defined strategy that is having an impact on Nicaraguan society, national NGOs, international NGOs and donor governments. Our strategies haven’t been well coordinated at all of these levels. There have been responses of solidarity, diplomatic lobbying, resistant attitudes and defensive attitudes… There have been different strategies. And this is logical, because many interests are involved. The different reactions have depended on roles. In the case of the embassies of European Union nations, although traditional diplomacy has taken place, there was also a unanimous decision to issue a strong communiqué. But this coexists side by side with diplomatic commitments. We can’t expect the situation affecting NGOs to be a priority for our governments, but to the extent that we continue receiving public backing and support, we’ll be in a more sustainable position.

The influence of the
European trade agreements?

Some have asked if the European Union’s effort to obtain an Association Agreement with Central America could be influencing or conditioning the position of European governments in this situation. Honestly, I do not think this is the case, although this agreement certainly has a commercial approach and will also contain elements related to cooperation and dialogue between European and Central American nations. Many European NGOs and social movements have questioned this agreement, considering it harmful in many ways. This has been demonstrated. We see evident asymmetries in trade aspects and see that this isn’t an agreement between equals. Therefore, the benefits here and in Europe aren’t the same.

With respect to the Nicaraguan government, we find it taking a dual approach to trade agreements. It clearly understands that the greatest beneficiaries of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the trade agreement with Taiwan and also this agreement with the European Union are big businesses and producers of the items covered by the trade agreements, and that small-scale producers and cooperatives won’t benefit. But it has an alternative—the trade agreements with the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA)—to compensate those who won’t benefit from these other agreements. Thus, there’s a “laissez-faire” attitude; the Nicaraguan government won’t oppose the agreement with the European Union. It has no reason to do so. The European Union has the greatest interest in this agreement, and the current problem has to do with timing. This agreement has been under discussion for years and the steps being taken to concretize it are moving very slowly. On the European Union’s part, this is because Central America isn’t a very important partner—it represents only minimum trade value—and on Central America’s part, it’s because of structural problems still affecting regional integration.

The Nicaraguan government wants
to control the cooperation funds

The problem isn’t outside. It’s here. We see an interest on the Nicaraguan government’s part to obtain and administer cooperation funds, or to control those that come but it isn’t administering. This means controlling the activities to which these funds are allocated. We think there won’t be any problems with funds assigned to grassroots economies or fair trade, but there will be issues regarding political advocacy, training and building organizational capacities. That’s where they will want to exert control. Clearly, it’s different if funds—for example for “governance,” which includes building capacities to exert political influence—are in the hands of governmental institutions or in the hands of NGOs. The title of a training program on governance might be the same, but its orientation wouldn’t be.

Given this situation, the position of donor governments has been diplomatic, but some—although I can’t provide concrete information—are also discussing whether or not to continue cooperating with Nicaragua. Why stay in Nicaragua where there are so many obstacles, and even insults, when we could go to another country where cooperation is also needed? This wouldn’t be the case for Spain, given the historical and cultural ties we have with Nicaragua, but for other countries that lack such connections, plans are underway to redirect their aid. This could be a negative consequence of the current situation.

Cutting the social and women’s
movements down to size

We’re concerned that the view we’re seeing isn’t a passing one, but a more in-depth one. Faced with a politically divided Right, the governing party wants to hegemonize the Left’s camp. It wants to alternate power with the Right with no challenge from leftwing competitors. Nicaragua’s social movements are still young, so their ability to respond is also incipient. But the governing party is afraid this response capacity could increase over time. For this reason, it prefers to pay the political cost of reducing these movements to a minimum expression today, fearing that the cost could be greater if they’re able to exert greater influence in the future.

Although we haven’t heard the government state that feminist organizations are the main target of its attacks, we (and everybody else) have seen that they’re a priority objective. Articles appearing in the official weekly publication, El 19, have been very explicit about this. International NGOs have seen that despite internal debates and difficulties maintaining unity Nicaragua’s women’s movements have struggled consistently, tenaciously and with laudable insistence to defend sexual and reproductive rights. This has been and still is one of the most important struggles in Nicaragua today, and is gaining more and more backers and generating more sympathy for women every day. This important political effort, combined with the repercussions of Daniel Ortega’s personal history, have surely situated women’s organizations high on the list of this government’s targets.

Characterizing Nicaraguan civil society

How can we characterize Nicaragua’s civil society? Before saying anything, we should first take a critical look at Spanish civil society, which has numerous weaknesses and for many reasons has much less of a social commitment now than it had in the immediate post-Franco period.

I think that organized civil society in Nicaragua is undergoing a change and is rethinking its future. Strengthened after the revolution was defeated in the 1990 elections, the Hurricane Mitch emergency in 1998 also reinforced this movement but simultaneously caused some dispersion of its purpose. Some of the strategies of social organizations were redefined as a consequence of the new needs generated by the emergency.

From that time on, there was a greater focus on providing assistance and implementing programs and activities that were priorities at that time. Few had to do with organizing strategies, or more specifically with political advocacy. A profusion of NGOs came into being, not only Nicaraguan but also international. Moreover, the volume of international cooperation increased significantly.

International cooperation can reach a point of perversion. A moment comes when it conditions national organizations to such an extent, when it sets so many requirements, that if an organization manages to obtain a lot of funding, it will tend to adapt itself to the conditions set by donors. And in this process, it is often hard to discern between what was and what is its guiding principle and the type of cooperation it offers and for what purpose. In many cases, international cooperation has actually distorted Nicaragua’s social movement, exhausting it in the never ending process of administering projects.

The dispersion caused by the Hurricane Mitch emergency still persists today, and unfortunately civil society remains fragmented. Diversity is a positive thing. In today’s world, we must learn to get along with a range of ideas and approaches. What is negative is that this diversity isn’t linked together, and an organizational culture centered on very strong leadership makes such links and connections difficult. We believe that the Civil Coordinator is currently playing a very important role in joining efforts and creating common ground.

Where will the government draw the line?

Let’s go back to the three criteria by which the government is going to evaluate us. Both the international NGOs themselves and the national NGOs they work with are going to comply with the first two. The real issue is the third criterion. Where will the line be drawn? Mundubat, for example, has always worked in different barrios of Managua with traditional neighborhood councils. Now the CPCs are also in the neighborhoods. Are they going to prohibit us from doing training on civil rights with a community council that isn’t part of the CPC? Will they consider this illicit political interference? All NGOs conduct this type of training. Will that be the limit, or will they also prohibit us from financing other activities, such as demonstrations or citizen marches?

We don’t know where the limit will be, or what the intentions are, and we doubt that a legal framework can regulate this. We also believe that local organizations aren’t going to accept restrictions on their freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom to exercise political rights—as the hundreds of organizations grouped in the Civil Coordinator have already indicated.

We know from a survey we conducted with our own national partners that no one is going to restrict their defense and promotion of these rights. And as far as many international NGOs go, we’re not going to abandon our reason for existing, which is precisely to fortify the critical skills of the population we work with.

In fact, building citizenship, which starts with people’s participation in community affairs and moves on to their involvement in grassroots organizations and development of critical skills regarding institutions and the nation’s reality, is part of the Sandinista tradition and essence. Building realities that impact the political situation doesn’t necessarily imply creating partisan spaces, or pro-government or opposition spaces either. It means building something that is the true foundation of democracy: motivating people to participate in public affairs.

Sometimes it seems like the Left’s conception of “political advocacy” is similar to the Right’s: one that classifies political action as pertaining only to political professionals and parties, a special class that’s somehow above the rest of the population. But it’s not like that. One only has to reflect a little on what participatory democracy should be about.

For us, the scenario has changed. We’re no longer operating in the terrain of the Bolaños or Alemán governments, where we weren’t restricted in any way. If we face restrictions now, we’ll do things differently. That’s our challenge and our new debate: how we’re going to react if the democratic spaces available to Nicaraguan civil society are restricted and we’re kept from engaging in political advocacy, which is aimed at helping those we work with learn how to fully defend their social, economic, political and cultural rights.

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