Wednesday, October 11, 2006

recommendations for NGOs


I've been working on a first draft of some recommendations for
Unitedstatesean charities and development projects which are planning
to work in Nicaragua. This makes an even longer than usual entry, but
I'm posting it here just in case anyone's interested.

First, disclaimers: I don't claim that what I'm writing here is
generalizable to all of Nicaragua. I've been working on the
Spanish-speaking Pacific side of the country, specifically in the
northern mountainous region (the poorest region of the country,
according to the census), around Matagalpa/Jinotega. However, my work
also has relevance for other areas in Latin America with a similar
combination of agriculture for export by small-scale farmers and heavy
NGO concentration. (Sorry if I sound like a research proposal here.)
As you will be able to see, also, I'm focused on programs which bring
services to small agriculturalists in the countryside, not urban
inhabitants. But that out of the way, here are some observations and
some tentative recommendations.

Project Location and Logistics
There is a heavy concentration of development organizations and
international aid projects in Nicaragua. However, it is important to
know that this does not mean that poverty and underdevelopment are
being solved, even for the recipients of multiple forms of aid. And
this is even less true for people who live off the beaten track.
Transportation is an enormous logistical challenge in Nicaragua, even
in relatively central places. Paved highways are usually full of
dangerous, axle-breaking potholes. Dirt roads of varying degrees of
terribleness are the norm in rural locations, and many communities can
only be reached by muddy foot paths. Many rural inhabitants have
access to a bus route to the city, but this often will run only once
or twice a day, and may sometimes be cancelled when the roads become
impassable, especially in the rainy season (May-October).
Perhaps understandably, therefore, many development projects plan to
locate their projects in small cities or in rural communities
relatively near to cities, with relatively good roads. But this means
that far-flung rural communities are very underserved. I'd recommend
that projects consider locating projects further out in the rural
countryside, away from the cities, and that the logistical
difficulties be planned for from the very beginning (for example,
greatly increased travel time, hiring of heavy-duty vehicles for
transportation of equipment and personnel, possible need for
electrical generators, and depending on the project resources the
possibility of constructing lodging for personnel in the project
location or improving the roads).
Other logistical issues to take into account are frequent electrical
blackouts (it's been about 3-4 hours daily, recently) in areas where
there is electricity, and the lack of electricity in many rural
locations. Also, in cities there are frequently times when there is
no water in the taps, and in many rural locations access to potable
water is difficult. Communication with rural inhabitants is almost
always only possible through face-to-face contact: in other words,
usually by going to their homes. Next, there is a dual currency
system: some things (usually more expensive items) can only be bought
with U.S. dollars, and people are always planning for inflation of the
Nicaraguan cordoba (loans made in cordobas always include a provision
for the borrower to pay, not only interest, but "value maintenance",
or any slippage in the value of the cordoba against the U.S. dollar).
Finally, there are high levels of illiteracy or only functional
literacy in the countryside, especially among women.

Project Design
Many projects arrive to their intended recipients with the design of
the project already elaborated. Recipients are invited to participate
or not to participate, but are not often offered a genuine role in
planning the project. This is true even with many projects which
claim "grassroots" status (see section below on the local leader
paradox) or to involve a local planning component. People are used to
this model of aid, and this is what they will probably expect.
However, this causes people to take a relatively passive role towards
projects. Often, when a project involves the delivery of a material
benefit (donated goods, relatively low-interest credit, etc.) along
with an educational or training component, some people will
participate in the training just enough to get access to the material
benefit. This should be understood as a rational response to an
atmosphere in which projects are designed outside with an agenda not
necessarily shared by the participants, (greater gender equality,
environmental conservation, organic agriculture, micro-businesses,
etc.), and are typically present for a few years and then leave again.
The trainings and educational components are often seen by
participants as hoops that must be jumped through in order to get
access to the aid, and they take time away from other economic
(agricultural work, wage work, small business activities) and
community (church, community committees, political organizing, other
projects) activities.
I believe that organizations should therefore carefully consider what
is their most important goal before beginning a project. Is it mostly
to convince people of a certain agenda, mostly to solve a particular
problem, or mostly to provide people with badly-needed material aid?
If either of the latter two, the project should be open to the
possibility that their intended recipients may have other ideas about
how the problem may be solved or what type of aid is needed, and
provide genuine, culturally appropriate venues for people to express
those ideas before the project design is finalized (see section below
on democracy and disagremeent).

One-On-One Communication
There are a number of cultural barriers which often prevent good
communication between rural and non-rural people in Nicaragua (people
from the United States count as non-rural people in this schema, but
so do middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans). The following are some
tips that I have found useful.
• Be patient. It is frequently impossible to give people notice that
you are coming, so expect to find people not at home. Be prepared to
have to make several return visits. Be prepared to do a lot of
hiking. Be prepared to be forced by circumstances to change your
plans (for example, I always carry what I'd need in case of being
forced to stay overnight unexpectedly etc.)
• Arrive at a good time of day. If you want to talk to a man, it's
best to arrive in the mid- to late- afternoon, when the agricultural
work of the day will be finished. If you want to talk to a woman, I
have found that it is frequently more productive to visit when a
husband/brother/son is not at home, to prevent him from taking over
the conversation. A good time is at mid-morning (after breakfast,
before lunch preparation begins). I also believe that in order to
talk to a woman, it is better, if not sufficient, to be a woman.
• Indirectness, patience, silence. Some people will immediately start
talking to outsiders with no problem, but others may seem shy and
non-communicative, even after relatively long acquaintance. This does
not mean that they are incapable of communication, or necessarily even
that they do not want to communicate with you. In order to draw out
less-communicative people, it is often helpful to foster a gradual
approach to initiating conversation. It is perfectly culturally
acceptable to show up at someone's house with no specific objective,
but just to "pasear" or visit. So don't feel like you have to
announce a purpose the instant you walk in the door. Start out by
talking about the weather, inquiring about people's health, the crops,
etc. (Politics, however, is not a neutral topic to bring up—see
below.) In general, it is more comfortable for people if you ask
questions indirectly. So, instead of asking "What did you think about
developments at last week's meeting?", you can ask "I have been asking
myself what people around here are saying about the developments at
last week's meeting." And if you ask several questions on the same
topic indirectly, and people don't open up, allow the subject to drop
and move on, or retreat to more neutral talk about the weather, the
crops... Finally, allow silences to develop in conversations. This
may be very uncomfortable at first: a two-minute silence may feel like
an awkward eternity. But stick it out, and people may start talking.
• Accept small gifts and favors. There is a huge economic gap between
almost all outsiders, especially gringos, and most rural inhabitants
who will be recipients of development projects. In the beginning, I
was very uncomfortable with accepting the gifts of food, hospitality,
fruits and vegetables, and small services, which I am frequently
offered. However, I have come to see these gifts as an attempt to
establish a relationship of reciprocity and equality. When one person
gives and the other receives without ever offering anything in return,
this is a purely asymmetrical relationship. It is an undignified
position for the receiver and makes personal relationships and
communication difficult and awkward. But when both parties are giving
and receiving, they maintain a more nearly symmetrical relation,
making communication and friendship possible. (I have tried in vain
to convince people that them talking to me is a huge gift—because my
listening to them is usually interpreted by them as a gift.)

Democracy and Disagreement
North Americans with a specific idea of how democratic
decision-making works within an organization should be aware that
while many of the structures for this type of decision making are
similar in organizations in Nicaragua, some cultural factors may be
different. Specifically, debate and open disagreement are very
distasteful. The point of view which usually prevails is the one
which is expressed by one or two leaders with the most assertive
personalities. Often, a minority view will never be expressed in a
meeting, because the holders of this view will believe that they will
not prevail, and do not want to create needless open disagreement.
This may create the false impression of unanimity—dissension, rather
than being talked about in meetings, is more likely to be expressed by
people leaving an organization, or ceasing to participate and giving
other reasons (ex: I don't have time any more). [I have been told that
this reluctance to disagree is related to the circumstances in the
countryside during the Contra War of the 1980s. Both Sandinista and
Contra forces would show up and demand to know the allegiance of the
people they encountered, without necessarily divulging which side they
represented. However, this may also represent the necessity of
getting along with others in small communities in which people may
live their entire lives.] An organization hoping to start a process of
democratic decision-making in a rural community should therefore not
limit this process to meetings. Just as one suggestion, it might be a
good idea to attempt to gather a diverse range of opinions in
one-on-one conversations before a meeting. Prepared ahead of time in
this way, a meeting leader might be able to facilitate a
less-contentious expression of contrasting opinions during a meeting.
In contrast, politics in Nicaragua are contentious and rancorous.
Maybe as a consequence, many people in the countryside (and the
cities) express strong distaste for politics and politicians,
associating them universally with corruption, despite any claims to
the contrary by the politicians themselves. Also, all or nearly all
government institutions are partisan. It is a good idea, therefore,
for international organizations to steer clear of involvement with
government and/or politically affiliated organizations unless they are
prepared to deal with the consequences of this perception.

The Local Leader Paradox
Many development aid organizations administer their programs by
employing "local leaders"—people who originate from the beneficiary
community (or even just the same country), but perhaps through higher
than average levels of education and/or an articulate and assertive
personality are seen as leaders. This strategy, I believe, is usually
a good-faith attempt to deal with the problems of cultural
communication barriers and democratic decision-making. The idea may
be that a "local leader", as a representative of the beneficiary
community, can participate in planning on its behalf and be a quicker,
and therefore less expensive, substitute for democratic
However, it is important to recognize that this is not always the
best strategy, and that the mere fact of origin does not mean that a
person values local knowledges or even always has the interests of the
community at heart. Employment with NGOs is one of few opportunities
for upward class mobility in Nicaragua. Even low salaries, paid in
U.S. dollars, put NGO employees a step above their families and
neighbors. And people all over the world with aspirations for upward
mobility frequently reject values and expectations that they grew up
with, instead embracing the values and expectations of the class to
which they aspire. "Local leaders" who hope to find employment with
NGOs are in the paradoxical situation of needing to claim affiliation
with the local community in order to escape from it. This sometimes
puts these "local leaders" in a position in which their personal goals
conflict with the goals of their employer.
On the other hand, an organization may want to consider whether the
employment of local leaders, improving their economic situation and
perhaps their rise into the middle class, may actually be an important
part of the goals of the program. If so, perhaps an acknowledgement
of the legitimate aspirations of these employees, together with a
democratic planning process within the community which does not place
all the burden for planning on the employees, may be helpful in
working within the constraints created by the local leader paradox.

Charity and Legitimate Need
A frequent assumption of North American charities is that the giving
of free aid to people fosters an unhealthy dependency and that
accepting charity indicates a shameful condition of need. In
contrast, wage work is dignified and fosters healthy independence.
Perhaps for both of these reasons, many charitable programs are
structured to be opportunities for people to earn the aid, rather than
just being "hand-outs." For example, medical clinics may charge a
nominal fee, or housing programs may donate construction materials
with the condition that recipients donate their labor to complete the
project. Two factors in Nicaragua, however, maybe ought to affect how
charities think about their work. First, the condition of need is not
shameful among most poor people in the countryside. [Although the
condition of need is not necessarily shameful among most poor people
in the countryside, many middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans do
consider need to be shameful or dishonorable. These people will
generally discuss charity in ways which much more closely resemble
North American assumptions. It is important to be sensitive to the
cultural differences between people from different economic situations
and not to assume that "Nicaragua" is a single cultural unit.] While
asking for charity may be embarassing, accepting charity does not
indicate a condition of dishonor. There is a popular saying that goes
"it is better to ask (for charity) than to steal". This saying poses
two possibilities for ways to acquire something that is needed:
(honestly) accepting charity or (dishonestly) stealing. In recognition
of the extremely limited employment opportunities for people in the
rural countryside with relatively low levels of formal education, a
third possibility (earning the thing by working) is not posed.
Second, there is not necessarily a strict black-and-white contrast in
Nicaragua between charity and work. Jobs or opportunities for
share-cropping are often given to people out of pity, rather than
because the labor is strictly needed, for example. And there are
almost no charities or development aid programs which just hand out
things without an expectation that something will be done in return.
Even a program which distributed food during an economic crisis
several years ago was described to me by recipients as having the
objective of "giving us strength so that we could work"—preserving
people's lives and health for the sake of their labor, rather than out
of an abstract valoration of life and health. This final section is
more an observation than a preliminary to any concrete
recommendations, but it may lead an organizers of projects to reflect
on their underlying assumptions.

I would be very interested in any comments anyone has, or thoughts
about whether what I've written here might be constructive/useful for
North American organizations.


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