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Grass without roots


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4-30-2010 …

Dean Chahim

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  • Key point: NGOs cannot be the movement
  • Key point: NGOs cannot be the movement
  • General apathySocial movements practically non-existent or co-opted by partiesWeak unions*1989: 22% of labor force2008: 8% of labor forceWeak cooperatives (only slightly improved since 2006 elections)
  • Note “horizontal” accountability as mentioned by Gugerty as an option via accountability clubs
  • Advocacy networkGoal: “citizen participation in public politics”800+ NGOs, networks, & civil society organizations (CSOs)Produces gov’tpolicy proposals“Apolitical” yet opposed to neoliberal policies
  • Donor buzzwords, donor politicsPoliticizationEphemeral mobilizationsDepoliticized popular educationInter-NGO rivalries
  • Note the air conditioning, laptop, and projector. IXCHEN’s education director and other NGO staff complained that people had come to expect amenities like these, otherwise they simply wouldn’t come. What does this mean for the grassroots – for whom these luxuries are inaccessible without foreign funding?NOTE the volatility of a movement dependent on funding like IXCHEN’s. Their network literally disappeared in one year when funding for the promoter network was cut.
  • Note IXCHEN’s education director’s explicit admonition that IXCHEN would not contribute to an improvement of state health services for women, even though that has her long-term goalNote US parallel on last point: many scholars and activists point to the devolution of state services to the private sector & NGOs as a key factor in decreasing the legitimacy of the state, distancing the accountability mechanisms, and fundamentally decreasing protest since those who can will exit rather than pressure for change. See Wood, Hisrchman, Skocpol, etc.
  • Social change will only come about when those excluded from access to wealth and power are able to make their own claims to justice, equality, rights, services, and technical support. (Pearce 1997, 273)
  • Transcript

    • 1. Grass without Roots?
      Foreign Funding and Accountability in Nicaraguan Civil Society
      Dean Chahim (
      2009 Beyond Good Intentions Fellow
      Development Studies & Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • 2. From Agents to Facilitators
      “Constructing civil society cannot be essentially about building up intermediary development organisations to represent the 'poor': it must be about empowering the poor and enabling them to fight for their own rights as citizens.”
      (Pearce 1993, emphasis added)
    • 3. Civil society for health
      Resistance against neoliberal policies
      Pressure for improvement of social services
      Reduce corruption via watchdog groups
      Enhance democracy?
      Youth at rally in Managua
    • 4. Motivation
      Increasing donor funding for “civil society”
      Apathy and demobilization
      Structural inequalities (economic, ethnic, gender, orientation, etc.)
      Highly organized society in 1980s
      Farmer & NGO aid recipient
    • 5. Key questions & Outline
      How does foreign funding affect the accountability of NGOs to the grassroots?
      Does conflicting accountability affect the ability of NGOs to catalyzesocial change?
      How does the presence of NGOs affect the viability and vitality of the grassroots?
      What are the alternatives?
    • 6. Nicaraguan Context
      High poverty & inequality
      GDP/capita: $1160
      Top 10% own 41%
      Bottom 10% own 1.4%
      Weak social movements, unions, cooperatives, etc.
      Rampant corruption
      Poorqualitysocial services
      Data source: World Bank,
    • 7. NGOs in Nicaragua
      Explosion after 1990 Neoliberal reforms
      2009: 60% of foreign aid goes to NGOs (Hidalgo 2009)
      Assumed to be:
      Closer to “people”
      More innovative
      Check to state power
      NGO administrator at press conference
    • 8. Paradox: Why so demobilized?
      Highly unfavorable conditions for poor – stagnant or declining.
      BUT: 20+ years of “civil society” building NGOs
      (and 20 years of neoliberal policies)
      Coffee farmers & NGO aid recipients
    • 9. “Civil society”?
    • 10. Hypothesis: “Grass without Roots”
      Increasing Foreign Funding…
    • 11. Points of departure
      “Civil society” as purchasable and quantifiable
      NGOs as strictlynormative actors
      NGOs as “apolitical” actors
      NGOs able to “empower” the grassroots
      NGOs able to advocate on behalf of the grassroots
    • 12. Sample
      17 NGOs
      Advocacy networks (4)
      Organizing (1)
      Human Rights (3)
      Democracy (1)
      Environmental (1)
      Rural Development (5)
      Health (2)
      16 locally run
      11 national
      Most visible NGOs in media included
      NGO educator at workshop in León
    • 13. Methodology
      Two month field study (July & August, 2009)
      Semi-structured interviews with:
      Field staff
      Volunteer “Promoters”
      Observation & field visits
      Analysis of NGO literature & local media
      Volunteers and field staff of local NGO
    • 14. Characteristics of funding
      Volatile & whimsical
      Short-term cycles
      Aimed at quantitative results
      Politicized and depoliticizing
      Tied to donor foreign policy
      USAID funded NGO compound
    • 15. Accountable to who?
      The struggle for downward accountability
    • 16. Strained accountabilities
      Other NGOs, Staff
    • 17. Coordinadora Civil (CC) :The“Voice” of Civil Society?
      Foreign funded
      Dominated by NGOs
      Representatives elect “spokesperson”
      Extremely prominent in media
      Claims to be “the voice” of civil society
      Headline: “Civil Coordinator condemns Mel Zelaya”
    • 18. The “apolitical” paradox
      How can advocacy for any group be “apolitical” – let alone the disempowered?
      Does this notion of “apolitical” restrict the impact of advocacy?
    • 19. Accountable to who?
      Downward accountability?
    • 20. Weak downward ties
      • Legitimacy from NGO “experts”
      • 21. Urban elite NGO staff
      • 22. NGOs not strongly accountable to volunteer promoters
      Volunteer promoters and victim of abuse
      NGO representative checking on project
    • 23. Structural impediments
      Completely dependent on foreign aid
      No institutionalized downward accountabilityto constituency
      Can it be responsive?
      Can it mobilize?
    • 24. Net result
      • Self-admitted minimal policy impact
      • 25. Marginal success at NGO coordination
      • 26. Springboard to politics for NGO staff
      • 27. Façade of active civil society
      Representative speaking at CC assembly
    • 28. Mission Drift
      Social service or social change?
    • 29. Example: IXCHEN
      Promote and defend women’s rights
      “we incitethe autonomy, participation, equality, and decision power of women”
      Create a movement for women’s rights
      More funding for: Vertical healthcare delivery
      Less funding for: Women’s rights education via volunteer promoters
      Pre-natal care
    • 30. Empowerment?
      Ixchen workshop
    • 31. Pushed to serve the status quo
      Short-term “project” focus ignores structures
      Depoliticized, token popular education
      Services reduce pressure on state for policy change
    • 32. No Room for the Grassroots?
    • 33. 1979-1983: Mobilization & Institutional Change
      Tens of thousands of volunteers mobilized
      +37% Literacy
      -50% Malaria
      Elimination of Polio
      -75% Infant Diarrhea
      +4 years life expectancy
      Literacy crusade trucks
      Teaching literacy
      Photos and statistics from Walker, 2003
    • 34. Contextual Effects of Neoliberalism, War, and Poverty
      Fatigue from war
      Distrust in corrupt institutions
      Neoliberal reforms crushed unions, cooperatives
      Increasing poverty: eat or organize?
      Rural community leaders in Somoto
    • 35. Impact of NGOs on Grassroots
      NGOs have disproportionate voice
      Overshadowed by NGO elites
      “Funding culture”
      Depoliticized & demobilized
      Overly localized and project-focused
      Community organizer in León
    • 36. Policy Implications & Emerging Solutions
    • 37. Summary: “Grass without Roots”
      Funding restricts downward accountability
      Structural inequality stagnant
      Dominated by NGO elites
      Limited “empowerment”
      Limited potential for grassroots growth
      Minimal policy impact
      Depoliticized, localized, and demobilized
      Undermining of social contract?
    • 38. “Illusion of Progress”
      Foreign funding to NGOs does not resolve but actually may distractfrom the structural issues underlying inequality while demobilizingthose best capable of challenging them.
      Campesino children
    • 39. Emerging solutions
      Long-term donor funding?
      Does not eliminate donor politicization
      Social audits?
      Accountability clubs?
      Democratic NGO structures?
      NGO technical support without co-optation?
      Ex. Zapatistas, Sandinistas
      Return to member funding for advocacy?
      Difficult - and not perfect - but great potential
    • 40. Working towards Obsolescence?
      “The greatest achievement of any NGO is the ability to renew society and then be replaced by movements from that renewed society.”
      -Marchetti 1997 (emphasis added)
    • 41. Thank you!
    • 42. Questions?
    • 43. Sources
      Gugerty, Mary Kay, and Aseem Prakash. Advocacy Organizations and Collective Action. Cambridge, UK:: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
      Hidalgo, Wendy Álvarez. "Ipade: Obtener fondos internacionales fue dificìl en 2009." La Prensa, 12 18, 2009.
      Marchetti, Peter E. "NGOs: RethinkingStrategy." Envío, no. 195 (October 1997).
      Pearce, Jenny. "NGOs and Social Change: Agents or Facilitators?" Development in Practice 3, no. 3 (October 1993): 222-227.
      Polakoff, Erica, and Pierre La Ramée. "Grass-Roots Organizations." In Nicaragua without Illusions: Regime Transition and Structural Adjustment in the 1990s, by Thomas W. Walker, 185-201. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997.
      Walker, Thomas W. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Boulder: Westview Press, 2003.
      Vázquez, Luis Serra. "La Sociedad Civil en Nicaragua." Centro de Análisis Socio Cultural, Universidad Centroamericana, Managua, 2008.