Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 187 | Febrero 1997


Central America

Non-governmental Organizations: Who’s making the Decisions

We at envío would like to share with our readers this letter of resignation by a concerned friend from the North who has worked for two decades in the South. It is a call to attention, a text for reflection and debate.

Andrés McKinley

November 15, 1996
San Salvador, El Salvador

Dear Colleagues:
I am writing to inform you that, due to policy changes related to field participation within Community Aid Abroad (Oxfam Australia), I am resigning as Central American Field Representative. I also want to express to each one of you my deepest regard, and my gratitude for your friendship and support during my 5 years with this agency. I hope that our paths continue to cross in the future.

Since an aging Irishman never leaves a place quietly, I want to share with you some of my concerns before closing this chapter of my life in Central America. This is not intended as a personal indictment of CAA. It is a small effort to call attention to what I perceive as a worrisome trend within the international NGO community at large.

When I arrived in Central America in 1977, popular unrest was on the rise. Students, rural peasants, workers, and urban slum-dwellers were mobilizing around issues such as land, wages, housing, and basic services. Towards the end of the decade, in the face of increasing government repression, protests grew more violent, and large sectors of the region's population eventually opted for armed struggle.

Those of us who accompanied the Central American people through those years learned the obvious lessons of the period: first, that the failure of previous nation-building efforts was due primarily to top-down economic and political models which excluded the poor; and secondly, that a more participatory and democratic model could only be promoted by entities which internalized and put into practice the values they espoused for others.

When I began working with CAA in 1992, the agency was embarking on an exciting experiment with decentralization. Decision-making authority related to strategic planning, program design and counterpart selection was gradually being transferred to the field. To promote a more democratic process at the regional level, we also formed an advisory body of Central Americans to assist the field representative in decision-making related to the program.

In mid-1996, in the face of an agency-wide economic crisis, CAA began to reverse the process. Correspondence from the central office spoke of "external pressures to redefine the focus of the program," and explained that the need to seek outside funding required that the program be "driven more by external parameters."
We were informed at the same time that the "direction that the [Regional Committee] wants to take the program in may not sit with the organizational imperatives of CAA," and that "future management of the program will fall much more to the desk in Australia."
CAA is not alone in this dilemma. External funding sources (primarily government or multilateral) are increasingly defining the development agenda for many international as well as local NGOs. Within this new context, participatory decision-making is often perceived as overly-burdensome, and mechanisms which offer a voice to local communities in the definition of priorities and program design are considered unessential.

CAA insists that its commitment to "harmonization" -- a joining of forces by the Oxfams in order to maximize the impact of programs and advocacy efforts -- is another factor requiring centralized control. Maximizing the impact of programs on the ground, however, requires participation from the field. Further, it is ironic that the agency has ceased doing the very thing that its lobbying efforts with the World Bank, IDB and the UN are designed to obtain: greater levels of participation in policy-making.

The principal issue in all of this is not the reduced role of field offices, but the question of who defines the agenda, and to what set of interests does this agenda respond. Many international agencies, along with CAA, are failing to address this issue squarely.

In the pursuit of their own economic viability, they run the risk of marginalizing the poor and promoting the DEVELOPMENT LIE: that the world's elite know what is best for the poor without having to ask them; that the development process can occur within any social, political, or economic context; that process and methodology are secondary factors; that technology, not empowerment, is the central issue; and that human solidarity is only a minor ingredient.

A commitment to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable lifestyles is by its very nature political. As one author put it, "we are all part of a world system which perpetuates poverty and deprivation...," and "poverty and deprivations are functions of polarization, of power and powerlessness." Efforts to promote a process of sustainable development must focus on the empowerment of the poor, and this begins with the consolidation of mechanisms for participation.

An elderly Salvadoran woman put all of this more simply. When asked what she most remembered about Rutilio Grande -- the Jesuit priest assassinated in 1977 for supporting landless peasants in their efforts to organize -- she recalled the day when Father Grande asked her what she thought. "In my 70 years," she said, "no one had ever asked me that question."
Traditionally, our agencies have not only asked that question, but made it central to their work. My fear is that this tradition may be coming to an end.

Andres McKinley

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


América Latina
For Life and Against Neoliberalism

Non-governmental Organizations: Who’s making the Decisions

Elections on the Atlantic Coast: Where Politics Moves on Slippery Turf

Dora María Téllez Assesses the National Assembly

Peace Accords: Return of the Quetzal

A Model for Poverty

Zedillo Government: Human Rights in Crisis


President Alemán: First Moves, First Signals
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development