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1999 NCC News Archives

Latin American Agencies Chart New Course
CWS Sponsors Four Day Meeting in Santiago

By Chris Herlinger *

SANTIAGO, CHILE - Meeting under the banner "Seamos Luz en Los Tinieblas" (We are Light Amid the Darkness), representatives from a dozen non-governmental organizations in Latin America spent four days here discussing ways they and others can strengthen civil society in their region.

The Oct. 26-29 meeting, sponsored by the Latin America and Caribbean Office of Church World Service, was the fourth and final meeting this year of representatives of CWS partner agencies in Latin America who are charting new courses of development and relief work as part of the Sao Paulo Process. CWS is the humanitarian response ministry of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Begun in 1986, the Sao Paulo Process has been a way for CWS-member partner agencies in Latin America to work with donor agencies in the North in a more equitable relationship.

The Santiago meeting was a forum to discuss ways to "fortify" civil society - groups not affiliated with governments and that represent different sectors in society, such as women, farmers, workers and children.

Such groups are working amid a complex set of realities in Latin America, where often-fragile democracies are trying to be strengthened while also implementing neo-liberal, or free market, economic programs. In doing so, nearly all Latin American governments at the national level have eliminated social programs, often ceding them to local governments or to NGOs.

This has placed added pressure on civil society, and in many cases local governments, to deal with the burden of worsening poverty. As one example, 90 percent of the worst poverty in Uruguay is now found in the shantytowns of the capital of Montevideo, where huge numbers of young people now live. Few of them have expectations of meaningful employment.

"We have a time bomb on our hands," said Belela Herrera, a representative of the Montevideo government who spoke at the forum. "What happens three to four years from now, when the young people who are 14 turn 18?"

Complicating the issue is the process by which many Latin American governments - such as the government in Chile - are trying to democratize their societies following long periods of military dictatorship. In Chile, these efforts have been slowed because the military retains much power and, as a result, have often excluded popular social movements from full democratic participation.

This, said Mario Garces, an historian at the University of Chile who spoke at the forum, has postponed major political reforms within Chile. "The Chilean transition has demonstrated enormous limitations," he said.

The Chilean example is but one of several in Latin America. "Many countries are coming out of periods of violence; in some cases, war, in some cases dictatorship," said the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, who heads the CWS/NCC Latin America and Caribbean office. "What is needed is a chance to restore society, and to be able to help new models of political organization emerge.

"The question today is: We have health groups, we have groups dealing with popular education," the Rev. Bolioli said. "How do we build on this? What do we build? What are the roles of NGOs (non-governmental organizations)? And what is the role of NGOs in society?"

"Strengthening civil society is an absolute necessity," said Mabel Filippini of the Ecumenical Solidarity Action Center (CEASOL) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who said the job is particularly challenging since many people have lost faith in most public institutions. One exception, though, is the church - both Protestant and Catholic - which is the one institution people feel they can go to with social concerns and discuss alternatives to "free market" ideology.

One point on which participants agreed, Ms. Filippini said, is that the day of grand social utopias -- "the era of revolution" -- over. In its place is the need for civil groups to focus on realistic and immediate social goals, often at the local level but also working in concert with other sectors of society.

In fact, one of the conclusions of the Santiago meeting was that NGOs need to act as "bridges" between various groups, be they local community-based organizations or even government bodies -- though NGOs, the participants concluded, need to remain cautious when working with government institutions and not be used for political purposes.

The recommendations made at the Santiago forum and the previous meetings held this year will now be presented to regional groups that will articulate them at the regional and local level.

Previous meetings this year dealt with the issue of children at risk (Montevideo, Uruguay in February); economic alternatives for the poor (Tegucigalpa, Honduras in March); and human rights (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in September).

The Santiago forum included representatives from church- and secular-based organizations from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

(* Chris Herlinger is public information officer for the Church World Service Emergency Response Office.)

-end-

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