The Challenges and Tribulations of Big NGOs

Community Organizing International Organizers Forum

Asuncion         Our last day in Asuncion was typical of those for past Organizing Forum delegations.  We were only in-country for a week, and now, as our clock wound down and the airlines were calling. we had discovered other groups, neighborhoods and projects that we would have loved to visit and meet, but only learned about through our early meetings.

These trips are humbling.  New countries have to be approached with an open mind to understand the different challenges other groups face.  We come to a country usually without any of us ever having visited, and we leave knowing that we still know little but starting to understand what we could only have imagined before coming.  There are also “ah-ha” moments when we may have missed critical understandings, having not asked the right question or enough of them.  We walk the balance beam, wanting to get to the nuts and bolts of their work, but also grateful for their time and sensitive to their challenges.

For example, in our excellent conversation with the Banco Alimentos, it never occurred to us that all of their distribution was through charities affiliated with the Catholic Church.  Learning about Habitat for Humanity Paraguay’s contract to assist in the resettlement of one-thousand families in Barrio San Francisco, talking later to Oxfam Paraguay and others, though they were supportive of Habitat in general, clearly the resettlement and the lack of voice by residents was a critical and contentious issue.

We met with two very interesting NGOs based in Paraguay who had long histories and were undoubtedly pillars of what outsiders and some insiders would define as civil society.  Both of them were wholly funded by international bodies whether USAID or the European Union or French, German, and Spanish governmentally-funded bodies.  We can’t rush to judgement.  As organizers we know information and self-interest is powerful, and every issue is complicated.

Semillas for Democracia

Semillas para la Democracia or Seeds for Democracy had two primary purposes.  One was assisting in the refugee resettlement process by helping refugees access applications and services.  The other was broadly civic engagement, sort of a League of Women Voters of Paraguay, including a strong gender focus.  They were interested in making the judiciary more accountable and generally had played a strong role with others in getting an open records law passed.  A key interest in their lobbying was trying to establish “open primaries” that would take parties out of their dominant role in elections.  When a point was raised about whether that advanced democracy or not, the director conceded it was controversial, and there were pros and cons.

Decidamos or We Decide had a dozen staff on similar research and advocacy projects.  They gave us a detailed briefing of the state of income and poverty in the country and how it ranked compared to other Latin American countries in terms of indirect taxes, informal workers, percentage of the population on social security, and other critical indices of the health and well-being of the population.  Paraguay was a leader for all the wrong reasons.  Land was terribly concentrated, particularly exacerbated by the dictatorship when more than 5 million hectares were transferred secretly between Strasser, the dictator, and the generals he depended on for his continued power.  Another million hectares were transferred in a similar way without transparency or fair value even after 1989 and the end of the dictatorship.  When asked, it was clear that Decidamos might tell stories of disputes around the country with campesinos demanding land reform, but this was not an issue that was a focus of their own lobbying or litigation or anyone else’s among the large NGOs.  Their big campaign was pushing for more taxes since the top rate for income and corporate tax was only 10% for each, the lowest in South America and one of the lowest in the world.

It was hard to tell if these were popular issues with Paraguayans or key items that found traction with the local elites and big international donors, who were the only source of their funds and arbiters of accountability.  In most cases their projects were overtly political, even as they declared themselves apolitical and nonpartisan.

We were not the only ones walking a tricky balancing beam in their country.

Enrique Gauto is the project director for Deciamos