The Challenges and Tribulations of Big NGOs

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


Labor Unions Struggling to Find Their Place in Paraguay

Leaders of PGT with Organizers’ Forum delegation

Asuncion      The headquarters of the Confederacion Paraguaya de Trabajadores or CPT is located on a gritty street near central Asuncion named after an historic colonial general named Yergos.  The imposing brick wall on the corner of the street hosts a small plaque that commemorates the location as the home of the federation.  Walking through the arched opening into the property, we were ushered into a large open room with a table and chairs in front of the CPT banner hanging on the wall.  The wall facing the street had pictures of past presidents, all wearing red ties, but otherwise black-and-white.  There was scaffolding in half of the room, presumably for some kind of roof or ceiling work, except there was no ceiling as such, but beams and brick exposed twenty feet above the floor.  We were meeting with the CPT’s President Francisco Britez and his Vice-President.   Britez is also the General Secretary of the taxi drivers’ union.

President Beatriz in the foreground

The building said much about the struggle of labor unions to find and hold their place in Paraguay over the years.  Britez told us that the building had been owned by the Labor Ministry, but had been given to the CPT, and then taken away from them when the CPT was one of the leaders in the protests to end the Strasser dictatorship in the late 1980s in Paraguay.  They had managed to get possession of the property again, but it was in some dispute because the Labor Ministry claimed to have lost the property transfer paperwork, though fortunately the CPT still had the records.

Though there were cracks in the walls and ceilings, the meeting hall was cavernous.  Only weeks before President Britez told us that 1000 campesinos had met there as they prepared demands and protests concerning government action.  The hall is frequently used by social movements and others seeking change in Paraguay.

We were unclear how often the unions of the federation met there in common cause.  The CPT had 65 affiliated unions and eight larger union amalgamations from what I understood.   They told us that there were 500,000 members out of 3 million workers in labor unions.  We were unclear how many were part of the federation, though Wikipedia said they had 43,000 members.

We inquired about their role in the recent presidential elections.  They claimed to be rigorously nonpartisan as a federation, but more discussion seemed to indicate that a number of their affiliates had strongly, though perhaps not overtly, pushed members to vote to empower the more conservative and long ruling Colorado Party.  Though they didn’t say so explicitly, such action seemed to frustrate and tie the hands of the CPT leaders to even more determinedly stay out of the way of their larger affiliates in order to avoid the crossfire of any partisan politics.  They were frustrated over their meetings with the Labor Ministry and its lack of follow through.  They conceded that the constitution and legal framework for unions and the right to organize was strong in Paraguay, but laughed bitterly at the weak enforcement of any labor laws.

Asking about informal workers, Britez seemed to answer with a complaint against foreign workers and an argument that informal workers were able to make a better income than formal workers.  Asking about any organizing program, and the main response seemed to be their grievance about an inability to get their program taught in the schools.  Asked about an encampment protest near the Congress building and whether it was about pensions, they seemed to be saying it was about displacement, but then arguing some sympathy for a proposal that would allocate pension money for infrastructure improvements in the country.

Thirty years after the end of the dictatorship, labor unions are still facing a long road to rebuilding with minimal resources and immense challenges to secure their place in the work and political life of the country, while grappling uneasily with the future at the same time.