Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 296 | Marzo 2006


Central America

Solidarity Cooperation in a Market-Driven World

Solidarity cooperation has made important contributions to Central America, but it has also been incongruent and even strayed off the road at times. In the current domination of business and the almighty dollar, we must resist in principles and innovate in methods. We must be able to say NO and to aim lower. If we lose spaces in the market, so be it; we’ll recover them in solidarity.

Néstor Napal

Julio is a Nicaraguan peasant from the Segovias. He, his partner Clara and their five children now live off the nearly three hectares of land that they all work. In a meeting to evaluate the work his peasant organization has done in the past year he stands up to say: “We now know we can’t count on the state. We owe the progress we’ve made here to solidarity cooperation.”

Clara and Julio have been pillars of this peasant organization for many years. They’ve accepted different responsibilities and participated in numerous debates. They have the ability and the experience to give the organization they helped forge the central place it deserves and to demand that the state fulfill its obligations. They are also experienced enough not to overvalue the economic aid from abroad, even though they obviously and reasonably enough appreciate it.

A quarter century of changes

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations from the North that make up what is called “solidarity cooperation” have always been distinguished by their emphasis on building up contacts between different peoples and their political solidarity with the South’s grassroots struggles and movements. With this vision, they attempt to deal with the causes of injustice and poverty, not just the havoc they wreak. They try to avoid impositions and the assumption of leadership roles, preferring the principle of strengthening the local subjects. Nonetheless, the profound changes that have shaken Latin America and the world in the past quarter century have been reflected in all development aid, pushing even solidarity cooperation into the need for more money, and hence into the market.

Reflecting on the evolution of this type of cooperation and its recent practice in the Central American countries, we can identify many positive contributions, but there are also inconsistencies and wrong turns. We speak less of the latter from “our” camp, perhaps to avoid giving ammunition to those who want to gut solidarity cooperation or even get rid of it altogether. But isn’t the future of solidarity best defended by discussing its dilemmas and challenges?

A power relationship

When they use the term “cooperation,” people who have some kind of relationship with “international aid”—whether as recipients, officials, intermediaries or consultant analysts—usually think of subjects, associating “cooperation” with the World Bank, the embassies of the countries of the North, or European and North American NGOs. All these “cheles”—an umbrella term for all the fair-skinned foreigners who come brimming with good will and good deeds—are lumped together on one side of a relationship that has at least two sides.

While cooperation expresses a social relationship, it is thought of in terms of those who control the purse strings. And despite all the talk about equity, the fact that there are resources involved does inevitably make it a power relationship.

How much does cooperation cooperate?

What’s the overall amount of these development resources in today’s world? The official aid provided by the North’s 23 leading countries—those belonging to the Development Aid Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—averaged an annual US$58.3 billion over the past five years, according to the OECD itself. Two thirds of that was channeled bilaterally, country to country, while the other third consisted of donor countries’ contributions to the multilateral institutions (United Nations agencies, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and the like). , again using OECD figures.

Does it seem like a lot? To put the answer in context, this flow of funds has to be compared with others traveling in the opposite direction. In 2001, the countries of the South as a whole sent US$382 billion North just to service their foreign debts, according to the Foreign Debt Observatory in 2003. That alone is five times more than entered as aid, and doesn’t even include the repatriation of profits by transna-tional corporations operating in the South or capital flight.

Thirty-five years have passed since the countries of the developed North promised in the United Nations to earmark 0.7% of their respective gross national product (GNP) as development aid. Only five countries are living up to that pledge today. In fact the tendency has been towards a reduction of aid. On average, the nations of the North contribute barely 0.25% of their GNP.

The dark side of official aid

Furthermore, many facets of official development aid have little to do with the South’s interests. Everyone knows the role played by the international financing institutions—also using cooperation funds from the North—in making sure the South’s state policies follow the dictates of structural adjustment. In addition, an increasing amount of “aid” comes in as credits tied to the purchase of goods and services from the donor country. In 2003, such credits represented 13% of Spain’s total official aid. A sad fact is that all of the tied credits designated by Spain as post-Hurricane Mitch aid to Nicaragua went to finance the Managua-Masaya-Granada highway, far from the affected areas (Intermon, 2004).

It’s relevant to reflect on where official aid is going and the priorities it’s responding to. The recent emphasis on “combating poverty” is being replaced by geopolitical and market interests. The United States in particular has pushed its official cooperation and that of the other major donors toward reconstructing countries its army has destroyed. World aid for the “development” of Afghanistan and Iraq went from US$218 million in 1999 to US$3.8 billion in 2003, more than double what Central America received that year. And that doesn’t even include military aid, which is now displacing economic and social assistance. On average, US military aid to Latin America amounted to half of its economic and social aid in the second half of the 20th century, but by 2004 it had caught up completely, and in Colombia it exceeded it fourfold (ALOP, 2004).

Nongovernmental aid: dollars and discord

The weight of nongovernmental cooperation—understood as including private funds and usually also official co-financing from the NGO’s home government or multilateral entities such as the European Union—is growing within the development aid package as a whole. According to the OECD, NGOs from the North contributed US$8.3 billion in self-collected funds in the past five years, which represents 12% of all cooperation.

Nongovernmental cooperation has become so heterogeneous that it’s no longer a very useful category. Discord is thus growing together with the funding. Over the past 25 years, while aid for the South being defined increasingly by a competitive and relatively apolitical market, the differences within the nongovernmental world have intensified greatly. Today there are NGOs of all sizes, from small groups based on voluntary labor that support a single project in a single country to institutions with tens of thousands of employees and complex programs in numerous countries. Many of these latter “transnational NGO corporations” emerged in the eighties in response to humanitarian emergencies and now manage budgets of several hundred million dollars. These institutions with a charity-based welfare approach involved in massive humanitarian work in Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America are categorized as NGOs alongside solidarity organizations that attempt to maintain a political focus of grassroots organizing and social transformation, and even think tanks that finance propagation of the hegemonic democracy-plus-market model in the South.

Thanks to US military deployment, a new modality has emerged directly linking NGOs to the occupation troops; it was picked up by the media with the kidnapping of cooperation workers in Iraq. The Bush administration has promoted a design that assigns some NGOs the role of providing a humanitarian complement to government policy, putting them in charge of clean-up and otherwise dealing with post-invasion damage. This recipe is accompanied by persecution of those NGOs with the temerity to denounce the war-mongering policy and question its consensus.

The South’s NGOs form a very dense forest

This heterogeneity has its correlate in the South. The world of local organizations financially linked to NGOs from the North is increasingly more populated and diversified. Many communities are now witnessing the arrival of US or European nongovernmental institutions that have come to do, either directly or through local intermediaries, the work the state has been encouraged to renounce. In 2000, two years after Hurricane Mitch, nine NGOs were working in a single Honduran community in the department of Colón implementing community projects of all kinds: organizing commissions, promoting meetings, generating jobs and reactivating both the economy and the fabric of local life. Five years later they had all gone. The state’s behavior, in contrast, was more stable: no presence in the community either before, during or after the hurricane.

Those with harsher opinions of the role of NGOs tend to repeat a cruel joke: the first NGO on the American continent was run by Christopher Columbus: the guy didn’t know where he was going, never knew where he had got to, and yet he managed to get financing for three more trips…

Solidarity cooperation
has written beautiful pages

Solidarity cooperation isn’t separated from the rest of the wide nongovernmental gamut by any clear lines; in fact the lines are fuzzier now than ever. Many of the solidarity cooperation organizations emerged in the first half of last century, before the boom in official aid that followed World War II. Most were formed by poor and middle-class sectors of Europe and North America. The relationship with the South often began as a natural extension of the work with their own population. Born out of the membership of churches, unions and cooperatives, they gradually learned to combine awareness-building work in their own countries with accompaniment and economic aid for social movements in the South, providing funds collected directly from their own people. Social sensitivity was the main criterion for the recruitment of staff and volunteer activists.

These organizations headed up a common North-South struggle based on a shared vision of the need for structural changes. They have filled pages with beautiful examples of solidarity with their partners in the South—African national liberation and anti-apartheid movements, people fighting for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East, resistance to the dictators and collaboration with experiences of social change in Latin America. They actively participated in the long and ongoing struggle of women, helped develop an anti-war awareness and a consciousness of the enormous environmental challenges.

The times they are a-changin’

The North-South solidarity die was essentially cast in the thirty years following World War II, stamped by the Cold War and the paradigm of progress. While its trajectory was marked by diverse stages, this backdrop began to change dramatically for the worst in the eighties. In the past quarter century we’ve witnessed the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp as a counter power and the unipolar imposition of neoliberalism, which is accelerating world domination by transnational mega-corporations and financial capital and shriveling the state’s role in a way very different than Marx envisioned. In Latin America, we saw the defeat of national revolutionary projects.

Such huge political and economic changes in a single generation also triggered a profound cultural transformation in the populations of both North and South. This long earthquake has shaken the underpinnings of all who work for a more just world, including solidarity cooperation. How can a consistent international solidarity practice be maintained in these new global conditions?

The transfer of money evidently occupies a much more central place in solidarity cooperation relations than it did twenty years ago. The balance between awareness-building in the North and funds for the South that marked the history of these relations is now more off kilter. Fewer people in the developed countries want to listen to people who talk about development. With honorable exceptions, solidarity cooperation organizations collect fewer funds from the population and thus depend much more on governmental or business donors. This of course requires a discourse compatible with their interests and more tangible evidence of the results of their investment.

Stimulated by this economic dependence, business and market logic is seeping into the terminology, managerial methods, salary scales and personnel recruitment criteria. Like fashion in consumer logic, priority issues quickly become obsolete and new fads spring up periodically. While still present and more valuable than ever, there is increasingly less voluntary work in the North that speaks of the South with a political vision.

We’ve legitimized the business state

With respect to the South’s processes and actors, solidarity cooperation in Central America has played its part in the growth of a strata of intermediate local organizations that picked up this changing terminology and now compete with the social movements for leaders and leadership and act as shock absorbers for the demands for radical change. The state’s desertion of its responsibilities is now such a part of the landscape in Central America that many organizations act as if they’ve forgotten the state even exists.

One of the most negative roles cooperation as a whole has played is its participation in legitimizing an openly business-oriented state that turns its back on the majorities. In many cases, solidarity cooperation has also participated, albeit in a particularly sophisticated way. In recent years it has abused the famous term “political advocacy.” Although some relevant and educational processes have been achieved, advocacy is often aimed at wringing minor concessions from governments and ends up reproducing a fatalistic vision of the impossibility of seriously transforming the state.

On the positive side

Alongside such limitations and backpedaling, positive contributions to progressive social change in Central America by solidarity cooperation can also be identified in recent years. Although its political contribution in a situation like today’s is surely more modest than its documents usually proclaim, its support to local organizations and groups has helped build the critical consciousness of numerous population sectors, promoted their organization and put them in contact with actors and experiences that offer alternatives to the hegemonic superhighway.

In general, the processes being developed by local organizations supported by solidarity cooperation leave their mark on the way their protagonists see life, creating political awareness and to some degree helping question passivity and fatalism. They have helped men and women excluded by the system discover their own strengths and stop viewing themselves as eternal losers.

These positive contributions, however, can and should be tempered by many questions because the real effect of these processes will inevitably be controversial. While they may spark questioning and critical awareness, how much weight will this have in offsetting the other, opposed values transmitted by powerful agents that are also part of “civil society”: consumerist television, bad schooling and the church of resignation? Moreover, what responsibility does cooperation have for the many people who think they won’t be able to keep struggling without aid from abroad, even if they’ve undergone processes of personal growth?

Even with these doubts and the oft-heard argument that reflection and the formation of a critical consciousness can’t take priority when people don’t even have enough to eat, many local organizations supported by solidarity friends have become convinced that there will be no social change without a critical examination of the ideas and values of those who must push them.

More and better organization?

Faced with increasingly concentrated interest in what kind of work should be financed, solidarity cooperation has consistently identified local grassroots actors as the protagonists of the South’s possible social transformations. This is one of the important differences that distinguish them from the charity-oriented NGOs and the transnational “NGO-corps” that have spread through Central America, leaving slick posters bearing their logo in so many communities.

With one eye on who is strengthened by the relation, solidarity organizations have supported the long-term role of these local actors. This type of support has helped thousands of social organizations, NGOs and groups of all shapes and sizes survive and grow stronger in their crucial role of resistance and exploration of new paths. Organizations committed to the excluded and dedicated to human rights defense, education and research would never have survived without this support.

But “collateral damage” can also become the main effect in the organizational sphere. How much have we fostered a new form of dependence? How frequently can the country’s groups and organizations genuinely negotiate the use of money according to their own priorities and not just the menu placed before them by their friends from the North? To what degree has the generalized subsidizing of social organizations that should be mainly supported by their own base’s effort created distortions and corruption, holding back the necessary changes?

In the Nicaragua of the eighties, the main grassroots organizations were either supported by the state or by favorable legislation that guaranteed them a basic income. When that came to an abrupt end in 1990, some organizations that were disoriented by the new context turned to friends from solidarity cooperation to take up the slack. External support for training, outreach or investments seemed logical, but if a union or community organization can’t even guarantee its own basic functioning without a subsidy, wouldn’t it be healthier for it to adjust to its possibilities, join forces with others or admit it has reached the end of the line and fold up its tent? Many local organizations and groups that are conscious of these risks insist that their basic performance must depend on their own efforts and resources. But cooperation, including solidarity cooperation, bears part of the responsibility in many other cases that led to a dependence on subsidized functioning.

Experiences, contacts and recovery of memory

Solidarity cooperation has also helped strengthen and link many groups and processes that are the building blocks of an alternative world. There is an enormous accumulation of small experiences that show other, more humanized and less mercantile forms of organizing work, of gender relations, of education and of interacting with nature. Given the frequent isolation of these processes, solidarity organizations frequently contribute the knowledge of other people working with similar perspectives, facilitating contacts.

They also offer contact with the past, helping recover memory in response to a dominant power that fragments and impedes the accumulation of experiences we must not forget. Many young Nicaraguans currently interested in literacy work or in neighborhood vaccination campaigns know nothing of the excellent community health and education experiences led by their parent’s generation only two decades ago.

Only fragmented work on the sidelines?

Genuine interest in this other possible world, very small-scale versions of which already exist, is leading part of progressive cooperation to pitch camp on the sidelines, supporting groups and experiences that are stimulating but exceptional and can coexist with the hegemonic system for a long time without ever challenging it. The promotion of contacts, the “networking” so monotonously lauded in cooperation jargon, can also promote political sterility when it fosters the population’s fragmentation into a variety of differentiated identities. Or it can verge on the absurd when solidarity organizations, in response to their own anxiety or pressures to hold up their work for show, promote networks in which the main point its members have in common is that they all appear on the same counterpart list.

Solidarity cooperation has contributed to the South’s processes most positively as an accompanying actor; the main protagonists, be they organizations or individuals, must be from the country itself. It’s not valid to measure these processes by their survival; not a few have fallen beneath the excessive weight of the adverse surroundings; others have failed to survive because the outside support facilitating their development was interrupted prematurely and without adequate warning or because the people leading them burned out or lost their way.

Resist in principles
and innovate in methods

To avoid betrayal or death, solidarity cooperation seems obliged to resist in principles and innovate in methods. Its basic role has been communication between peoples of the South and North, among organizations and groups seeking profound changes at the local and global levels. That communication, the work of education in the North and support to organizations building awareness, strengthening organization and experimenting with other development in the South, is still its main mission, even though it’s not currently in vogue. More than it did 25 years ago, this mission requires winning over minds, changing values and exploring new paths.

One example of how far we still have to go is the paradox of how unattractive it still is to support the generation and dissemination of one’s own distinct ideas. While capitalism’s ideology machines in the metropoles enjoy millions in subsidies to think in our name, any community organization here in Central America has a tough time finding anyone willing to finance meetings with local intellectuals so they can think together from here.

South America is showing us a path

Nonetheless, while militarism and finance capital are advancing, the other globalization—the interrelating of an alternative world that proves different social relations are indeed possible—is also progressing bit by bit. South America is now showing us a path in which the peoples are themselves questioning imperial hegemony, while several national states are recovering their dignity and proposing other forms of integration.

In its support of this other globalization, solidarity cooperation has a fascinating challenge and an opportunity to innovate strategies: its broad experience with alternative world actors on several continents is especially useful in this, Latin America’s hour. Its accompaniment of local organizations could expand, helping reduce isolation and facilitating alliances.

The struggle for more and better development aid to help expand education and health in the South and recover the state’s social role is still very much on the agenda. Nonetheless, aid to Latin America will probably continue to drop, at least in relative terms, and it seems only fair to redirect it to the interminable African drama. Latin America is the region of the world with the most extreme inequity and the most unjust distribution of income and wealth, so reducing external resources could have its positive side, stimulating national struggles for a fairer redistribution.

Lower our aim, but maintain our principles

In these difficult times, solidarity cooperation needs to recognize its limits more clearly and lower its aim, giving up grandiloquent presentations of its objectives and admitting its limited capacity to influence structural changes. To maintain its principles, it is also important to have the courage to say NO to any offers that divert it from its basic values, to governmental or business sponsorships with strong political strings attached, even if doing so means not growing or even shrinking economically.

Solidarity cooperation organizations will probably have to lose space in the market to recover it in solidarity, because at least in Latin America, we won’t change the reality with more money from abroad. And I believe that after a good conversation, Julio and Clara, the Segovian peasant couple, would agree.

Nestor Napal is an economist who works in solidarity cooperation in Central America and Cuba.

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