What can NGOs do in a political downturn? Ideas from Central America

I spent last week in Central America, where in the 1980s, I got my political education in South and particularly Central America, hopping Central Americaas a journo and writer between revolutionary Sandinistas in Nicaragua and guerrilla fighters in El Salvador.  So this week’s posts will mainly be a download and reflection on that visit.

First, I took my ‘how change happens’ roadshow to Honduras, and a meeting of Oxfam’s Central America, Mexico and Caribbean (Camexca) team. Returning to the region after such a long gap, I was struck by the political sophistication on display – a deep feeling for ‘power analysis’, and instinctive grasp of the expansions and contractions of ‘political space’, and the cycles of conflict and cooperation that characterize so many processes of social change. I realized that a lot of what I’m doing on how change happens involves systematizing that ‘feeling for power’ for non-latinos.

But these days, those political talents are confronted with huge challenges in Camexca. Progressive actors face an extended political downturn, in which access to influencing is getting steadily harder:

– Drug trafficking and organized crime have contaminated the region, expanding into the vacuum left by corrupt and inept governments. Honduras, which used to be a safe (if dull) backwater, has become one of the murder capitals of the world – in several countries, the death toll is higher than during the civil wars of the 1980s.

– Tightly knit elites run the show, carving up the wealth and refusing to pay tax or contemplate redistribution.

– The liberation theologians of the 1980s have been largely eclipsed by a conservative backlash (Opus Dei and co), leading to a counterattack on sexual and reproductive rights. The rapidly expanding evangelical churches have so far failed to become significant political players.

And the progressive movement seems increasingly marginalised from power. As one veteran Oxfam worker lamented, ‘In the 80s, we built utopias here. Now they are being constructed elsewhere, so what should Oxfam be doing in Camexca?’ More generally, how should sandinoprogressive NGOs respond to such a deep political downturn? I can see at least four options, and am genuinely uncertain over which offer the best path – probably depends on context.

1. Cut your losses, leave the region in search of new utopias and more promising opportunities elsewhere. But how do you square that with our commitment to partners and poor people or with the essentially long-term (and unpredictable) nature of most progressive change?

2. Since short term wins are unlikely, dig in for the long term by concentrating on shaping enduring attitudes and beliefs, e.g. working with new partners (youth movement, school curricula, churches, media – others involved in that area) and identifying where future movements for change are going to emerge from (urban slums, migrants and Diaspora, other?). But how do you fund this kind of thing?

3. Become more nimble in identifying and exploiting divisions and differences within elites, forming coalitions and alliances, finding common ground, and seizing windows of opportunity, however fleeting. The Oxfamistas felt we have a lot of experience in dealing with states in this nuanced way, both at national and local levels, but much less on the private sector and churches, which we still tend to see as homogeneous (and usually unsympathetic, at best).

4. Pursue a defensive strategy, trying to minimise the reversal of past gains on say, women’s rights or agrarian reform. Stay faithful to our traditional partners, helping them weather the downturn. It may even be easier to construct broad alliances to stop bad stuff happening than to push new demands. I can’t remember the reference, but the conversation reminded me of the psychology experiments that show that if you give volunteers a cup for a few days and then ask them to set a price for selling it to you, the average price they name works out about double that offered if you ask them how much they are prepared to pay for an identical cup that they have not previously ‘owned’, and the result is remarkably uniform across different countries. A bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush.

And to what extent do these options reflect the choices for progressive social movements in Europe in the current downturn, I wonder?

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Comments

3 Responses to “What can NGOs do in a political downturn? Ideas from Central America”
  1. It feels to me that the problem occurs when we assume that the enemy is passive- Liberty is always unfinished business. Which would suggest that the answer is a combination of 2,3, and 4. Digging in for the long term, taking opportunities to advance when they occur and tenaciously defending the ground once we have taken it.

  2. Carlos S. Zepeda

    Thanks for this reflection Duncan, I am always following your posts. Having been a former Political Advocacy Officer with Oxfam in CAMEXCA,and as a Salvadorean with Nicaraguan and Guatemalan roots, I can only say that I share a lot of these feelings, but I would be happier with a combination of your options 2 and 3, because they are more proactive and defying (not business as usual). “How change happens” in Central America is a question that can be partly responded by taking a close look at how power structures have changed through time in the region and which are still hegemonic. For example, corporations are still the dominant transnational regional power and have political influence over the States of the Isthmus and so on. Elites are still reproducing there the profound patterns of inequality and social exclusion of the eighties, but with different mechanisms, now they are more global/local, multidimensional and long term…(For instance, see the ongoing work of Benedicte Bull on the subject http://www.sum.uio.no/english/people/aca/bbull/index.html ) which leads me to the following thought: development organizations such as Oxfam that believe in change “from poverty to power” have to have long term ethical commitments towards their partners. They cannot flee to other places just like the markets in the stock exchange.Doing so gives a bad message for partners and discredits development organizations. Furthermore,utopias need coalitions with a broad set of actors, old and new. Societies in Central America are evolving and new powerful actors are in play (and this obviously includes churches). Ethical and creative sources of fund come easier and are better legitimized when broad coalitions target common societal objetives with solidarity in many dimensions including economics. Can you imagine what a broad coalition against structural violence in Central America would look like? Or on advocating for implementing the Human Right to Water for all in the region? It would be at the very least multiscalar and multi-actor and this should include dev. NGOs such as Oxfam. Giving voice to the voiceless for positive change to occur implies direct work with the youth movement (including the socially excluded gangs or “maras”, migrants, religious communities, etc. A barters network (of ideas, inspiration, solidarity) with progressive social movements in Europe is also something key.
    Constructing utopia means constructing positive change with broad coalitions, long term and defying negative power structures. Thanks for sparking thoughts on this otherwise forgotten and neglected region!

  3. Lucy Stone Russell

    As another Oxfam CAMEXCA person (from 1980s up to hurricane Mitch) I find the discussion thought-provoking and wonder where it might lead.

    Someone recommended to me these postings on International Alert about the very differing role of the business sectors in Guatemala and El Salvador during those countries’ peace processes. And I wonder if they’re any use in looking ‘out of the box’ at new potential alliances, (as ‘out of the box’ as your Honduran restauranteur in today’s blog). http://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/publications/17_section_2_El_Salvador.pdf
    http://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/publications/18_section_2_Guatemala.pdf
    I agree with Carlos, Oxfam should stay for the long term, we’ve learnt a lot from Central America/Mexico region if you look at OGB’s own history (1976 Guate earthquake onwards) and I’m sure there’s more to be shared.

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