National Catholic Reporter
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Latin American Today
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Lasting change: Helping the poor, without paternalism

Part Three: Development
New forms of organizing have grown up in the wake of natural and human disasters that have plagued Central America in recent decades. In all cases, poor people suffered most. Now these new entities, such as Codels in Honduras and mancomunidades in Guatemala, are demonstrating that unity leads to strength and that nonviolent ways can achieve social change. They’ve been successful in combating corruption and are being hailed as signs of “real democracy.”

Tocoa, Honduras

When Hurricane Mitch smashed into Central America in 1998, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, their crops or their lives. Yet the tragedy also provided the backdrop for a unique church-sponsored experiment in building democracy in a region most often characterized by grinding poverty and unending corruption.

“We’re trying hard to change this history of ours where the poor always get ignored, marginalized or crushed,” said Lorenzo Cruz, a church activist who played a central role in building a new community organization in the Aguán Valley of Honduras. For Cruz, the experience constitutes “a sign of what’s possible in the future when we allow civil society some space to flourish. It’s a sign of what’s possible with real democracy.”

Real democracy is not a term many would use to describe most Latin American nations. Although formally democratic since the demise of military rule two decades ago, the periodic election of political leaders has done little to give ordinary citizens a feeling that they have some say in how their communities -- let alone their nations -- are run. In Central America, the recent approval of a regional free trade pact with the United States promises to erode local empowerment even more, as it moves the locus for economic decisions out of the hands of national elites and into multilateral organizations, some of them secret and even further removed from the day-to-day life of the 62 percent of Central Americans who lives on less than $2 per day.

In the wake of Mitch, the social ministry of the Catholic diocese of Trujillo, Honduras, helped urban residents and rural villagers in the Aguán Valley to organize local emergency committees, known as Codels, which took charge of much of the cleanup and reconstruction work. Citizens had to organize the Codels if they wanted to receive supplies from a food-for-work program supported by Catholic Relief Services and managed by the diocese.

The Codels assured fair food distribution, yet they also quickly began to transform local politics, which had long been dominated by political bosses schooled in top-down paternalistic politics. In some cases, the Codels uncovered and exposed evidence of political leaders trying to get rich off humanitarian aid -- a local tradition dating back to Hurricane Fifi in 1974. In many cases, the Codels ended up functioning as a parallel government, a de facto substitute for a corrupt and inefficient existing system.

May 14Part 1Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4Part 2Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16Part 3Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
 Part 4Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
 Part 5Reconciliation from the grass roots up
 Part 6Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination
 Part 7Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
 Part 8Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
 Part 9Church: Despite crisis, Latin America's grass-roots communities remain strong model for effective church
 Part 10Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action
Such organizing doesn’t win friends in high places. The political establishment in the Aguán Valley, some of whom have been linked to drug trafficking, began to complain about and ultimately to threaten Peter Marchetti, a U.S. Jesuit who ran the diocesan social ministry. When griping about Marchetti to the church didn’t get them anywhere, a delegation of local mayors and congressional deputies from the region decided to follow the money. Since the U.S. Agency for International Development was providing most of the money for the project to Catholic Relief Services, the political bosses went to the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa to make their displeasure known.

“They went to say to the people at the embassy, ‘Look, Gringo Fathers, you’re giving dollars that are being used to screw us,’ ” said Fausto Orellana, a coordinator of the Codels.

According to a participant in the embassy discussion, the mayors were essentially complaining that “USAID was subverting Honduran-style democracy” by working outside the box of traditional patronage politics. Catholic Relief Services got called on the carpet in the embassy, but responded that it was merely doing what its contract with the agency called for, the empowerment of local groups to effectively manage relief work and build grass-roots democracy in the process. It’s language that one often hears from U.S. Agency for International Development technocrats, but when it really happens people in Washington get nervous.

Undeterred, the Codels -- which grew to almost 500 in number -- continued their work, forming a regional network that in the years since has been a model for similar efforts elsewhere in the region.

One secret to the Codels’ success was that half the participants had to be women, itself a radical departure from traditional organizing efforts in the area. Mariana Ortiz is a Catholic lay minister -- a delegate of the word -- who coordinates a Codel in the village of Sonaguera, where neighbors not only cleaned up after Mitch but built a potable water system -- something they had never had before. “Thanks to God, Hurricane Mitch did us a favor,” she told NCR. “For some it was a difficult time, but for many of us it has been an opportunity. We had big losses of people and property, but we gained consciousness. Through this experience we learned we have strength when we work together.”

Another secret to the Codels’ success (and a frequent complaint of the groups’ opponents) is that they provided old Cold War-era revolutionaries a legal way to recycle their desire for social change. Indeed, Orellana once trained in Cuba and Libya and came home to join a Honduran guerrilla group. Even one U.S. government official who worked with the Codels claimed the exercise in grass-roots democracy was invaluable, no matter who got involved. “A serious problem in Honduras is getting people involved. I don’t care if they are revolutionaries, as long as they give a damn and are willing to get people involved. They can only help,” the official said.

Those upset by the Codels also liked to blame the Catholic church, particularly Marchetti, the Jesuit, who was driven by death threats from Honduras in 2001. Yet Orellana denies the priest was the cause of the conflict. “When the rich got rid of Peter, they thought it was over, because they thought that Peter was everything. But they were wrong. What Peter did was give us glasses so we could see our myopia. He didn’t do the work. He just helped us poor people to see things as they really are,” Orellana told NCR.

Globalizing solidarity

The church has long been concerned about helping the poor in Latin America to improve the quality of their lives. Or, at a minimum, to eat. While a few in the church, from the Colombian guerrilla-priest Camilo Torres to the Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal took that vocation to logical extremes, most in the church have been content with more traditional approaches, helping rural farmers improve their crops, building wells and clinics in poor neighborhoods, promoting literacy among marginalized adults. While there is nothing wrong with such reformist labors, at the end of the day not much of the big picture has changed.

There is growing discontent among development specialists that what has been tried for years is simply not working. In Central America, the vulnerability of the poor manifest in the violent ravages of Hurricane Mitch or in the quiet anguish of depressed coffee prices is ample evidence that after years of everything from latrine projects to micro-credit funds, the poor remain marginalized and desperate. Not only has the “Washington Consensus” -- the prescription of open markets and shrunken bureaucracies -- failed to improve the lot of the poor, the church’s solution has usually failed as well.

According to Rick Jones, the Catholic Relief Services director in El Salvador, development groups like his “have realized that the problem is not just technical. The problem is also political, the result of an imbalance of power.”

It is not enough, as the old adage goes, to teach a hungry person to fish. The water where the fish are to be found may be fenced off, polluted or fished-out by a foreign company. Although a few segments of the Latin American church, such as the bishops’ pastoral land commission in Brazil -- which gave birth to that country’s highly effective Landless Movement -- have understood this for years, in most parts of the region the church is just catching on. So gone from fashion is anything that smacks of asistentialismo, while what’s hot is anything that can be called incidencia -- a hard to translate word that means what you do politically to have an effect, to get results.

“You can have the best agricultural project and teach small farmers how to grow small tomatoes, but if public policies don’t favor growing small tomatoes for the national market, then that project is bound to fail. No matter how successful, it won’t be sustainable. So you need to have a policy environment that favors incorporating these people into the economy and society. That’s been a big recognition for most of the nongovernmental organizations that started with humanitarian assistance and then went into development. Although they have great projects, when the projects are finished they haven’t changed anything. They’ve come to realize that advocacy and public policy work are an essential part of development,” Jones told NCR.

The lesson isn’t applicable only in the south. Indeed, groups like Catholic Relief Services are reengineering their appeal in the global north. No longer is the pitch to parish potlucks just for funds, now they want both money and action. The idea of globalizing solidarity by purchasing free trade coffee or pressuring apparel makers to enforce codes of conduct in their southern factories is spreading in parishes far from the coffee fields and sweatshops. Cross-border solidarity is slowly overcoming the paternalistic relationships of past development aid in favor of new strategies that may make more of a difference, precisely because they identify and attack the structures of inequality rather than just try to reform them.

“For groups like CRS, this awareness emerges from a reencounter with our faith-based identity, because Catholic social teaching tells us we need to address the root causes of poverty and violence, something we can’t do today without getting involved in advocacy,” Jones said.

One part of the changed approach focuses on helping the poor become subjects of change, as opposed to objects of someone else’s largesse. Throughout the region, for example, Catholic Relief Services sponsors forums for migrants and their families -- groups that lobby their own governments for their own needs and rights, rather than the nongovernmental organization and government elites sitting down over lunch to work things out. “Strengthening civil society” has become a standard against which all development plans are judged.

After the devastating earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, Catholic Relief Services encouraged hard-hit communities to organize. The National Coordinating Body of People Affected by Natural Disasters emerged as a result. “The quakes raised everyone’s awareness that if we don’t address everything from zoning laws to disaster preparedness, nothing is going to change in El Salvador. Yet rather than support a consortium of NGOs that wanted to lobby the government, we wanted people directly affected to be the ones working for change, pressuring their own government to respond to their needs,” said Jones.

There are risks in this new way of working, of developing a protagonistic civil society that sees itself as a counterbalance to the government, but which often depends on the government for any money to pay for the changes everyone finally agrees upon. “We can easily fall into a trap when the government, under pressure from civil society, makes proposals, and civil society makes counter-proposals but knows that sooner or later it has to get in the car with the government or there won’t be any resources to pay for change,” Fr. German Calix, director of Caritas Honduras, told NCR.

Calix said civil society leaders in the region are still trying to figure out how to relate effectively to their governments. He cites the case of a church-led environmental movement in the central highlands of Honduras that in June 2003 mobilized thousands of people to participate in a seven-day march to the nation’s capital. First studiously ignored by the government, the environmentalists finally got attention when one of their leaders -- Carlos Reyes, a staff member of the environmental ministry of the diocese of Juticalpa -- was assassinated a month later, a sign that real incidencia has its costs. And only then did the government take notice. “They called us immediately to begin a formal dialogue, but that dialogue effectively drowned the movement,” said Calix. Popular anger over environmental abuse dissipated as the sessions dragged on, and church leaders admit they didn’t work hard enough at building coalitions with other groups. The movement lost momentum, and the loggers went back to work destroying the forest. No one was charged with Reyes’ killing.

Enhancing grass-roots democracy

A large portion of any foreign assistance arriving in the Third World is usually siphoned off by capital city elites; someone has to pay for all those SUVs and air-conditioned offices. So development experts in the region have recently discovered that all politics are local. The municipality -- like a county in the United States -- has become the new locus of social change. It is the basic building block of democracy, so the argument goes, and development groups are tripping over each other to help municipalities develop long-term strategies for water and agriculture and all that makes for improving the quality of people’s lives. This new cooperation brings together the expertise of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector -- which in Latin America has seen its funding dwindle as many aid sources have focused more on Africa -- with the resources of the municipalities, since most central governments in the region are required to remit a certain percentage of their revenue to municipalities, something they achieve to varying degrees. When rural municipalities on their own are too small to function well, development groups have herded them into mancomunidades -- local associations of three of four municipalities that work in common.

A key assumption of this new focus is that there’s less potential for corruption at a local level, where everyone knows your name. “In all our work there’s a focus on building community and capacity so that communities can advocate on their own behalf,” said Jones. “Most people know their mayor, and they are much more likely to participate at that local level than they are at a national level. People have more access to their municipal leaders than they do to the national parliament. They may not even know who their parliamentary representatives are, since they aren’t elected by districts but rather on a national slate. Most people couldn’t even tell you who their representative might be.”

This work of building democracy at the grass roots is a natural task for the church. According to Anthony Gill, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, there is an organic link between the task of “re-evangelization” -- a priority in the region since the 1992 Santo Domingo conference of the Latin American bishops -- and building functional local governments. “Given that religious organizations are often the foundation for civil society, such re-evangelization is likely to enhance grass-roots democracy,” Gill told an October conference on Latin American Catholicism held at the University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Center for International Studies.

Although this focus on building civil society and strengthening local democracy should remain the focus of much of the church’s development work, even the most progressive leaders in the region say the church can’t avoid applying Band-Aids once in a while.

“If you go to a rural village and the water is contaminated, you’ve got to help the people solve their problem in the short term, but at the same time help them reflect on why their water is contaminated, and understand where they can really attack the problem. They’ve got to get to the causes of why their village doesn’t have good water to drink,” Alvaro Ramazzini, bishop of San Marcos, Guatemala, told NCR.

“Besides the reflection and analysis about how to resolve problems, you’ve also got to offer immediate assistance. I am always more inclined toward achieving a long-term incidencia that will change the social structures, but we can’t avoid the immediate needs of a peasant group for legal help, or their need for accompaniment to a court where they’re confronting landowners, or the possibility of working behind the scenes for conciliation between the parties in a conflict,” Ramazzini said. “I’m nonetheless clear that the most important thing we can do is work for structural change. In our case in Guatemala, we have a long history of domination and exploitation, and that’s not going to change in five years. It’s going to take a lot of work to overcome.”

Barbara Fraser worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner. She now lives in Peru as a freelance writer. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist who lived in Central America for two decades. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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