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1999 NCC News Archives

CWS-Sponsored Workshop: Searching for New Options for Latin America's Poor
Church-Related Development Experts Explore Sustainable Economic Alternatives

See Sidebar: "Development Case Study: Bolivian Village’s Lesson for NGOs"

By Paul Jeffrey*

April 21, 1999, TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- With the gap between rich and poor growing wider in the Americas, a group of church-related development experts gathered in Honduras in April to explore sustainable economic alternatives for poor communities.

The April 6-12 gathering, sponsored by Church World Service – the relief, development and refugee assistance ministry of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches – brought together 26 people from 11 countries throughout the region. They shared their own experiences, visited several projects in rural Honduras, and plotted new strategies they hope will help improve the lives of the poor whom they serve.

"Every day in Latin America, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer," Fredy Murillo, an advisor to the Honduran Central Bank and an active lay member of the Reformed Church of Honduras, told participants in a keynote address about the region's economy. Murillo said that economic globalization, along with structural adjustments prescribed by international financial organizations, have exacerbated class differences in the region.

Murillo blamed the region's "illegal and immoral foreign debt" for much of the problems, reporting that many new loans or grants made to governments in the south, rather than remaining there to foment economic development, "are returned the same day to a bank in Miami as payment on the foreign debt."

Murillo called for wider participation of civil society in economic decision making. "These issues are too important to leave in the hands of government officials," Murillo said. He said Christians have a particular role in fomenting new values in societies "where the political leaders are either corrupt or anachronistic."

In a final declaration, participants stated that the effects of globalization and foreign debt on the region have been "catastrophic," leaving the poor feeling "demoralized and powerless." They said this was especially felt among young people, who "see no options for the future."

They observed that many people in the region only find hope in the possibility of immigrating to another country, a factor they said underscored the need to encourage strong local organizations that work to improve the quality of life in poor communities.


Participants in the meeting discussed several projects that have shown positive results in helping the poor build a space for life despite the hostile environment that surrounds them.

During two days in the Honduran countryside, participants visited several communities in western Honduras where the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) has carried out successful projects with residents of rural villages.

In the community of La Majada, for example, they spoke with women who run a communal lending bank that has been so successful that it has been duplicated in several other nearby villages. CCD provided seed money and training to the community when they began the program. Since then, villagers have administered their own loans to each other.

Jose Enrique Espinoza, the director of CCD's microcredit program, told participants that the program works "only when it's developed on a foundation of years of education and organizing." He said another element to success was the participation of church leaders, who in his experience "help maintain an ethical character to the program."

Yet while microcredit works in some places, in others it isn't appropriate. "If they know the money comes from the churches, the people we work with think that it's a gift, no matter what kind of paper they sign, and they simply aren't going to pay it back," said Conrad Mason, a development officer with the Caribbean Council of Churches in Barbados.

Participants shared success stories of poor communities in their own countries where positive change had taken place.

Fredy Urroz, a provincial director of the Nicaraguan Council of Churches, told how 13 people in Comejon, a small town near Masaya, decided to start gathering spoiled fruit and other natural waste from the municipal marketplace. They composted it, and now sell 200 tons a month of organic fertilizer to coffee growers in the area who sell organic coffee to Europe. The coffee growers pay the small cooperative $40 a ton for their fertilizer, one-sixth what they would have to pay for chemical fertilizer.

"They identified something no one else thought was valuable," Urroz observed, "and found a way to make a living off it. They aren't rich, but they're surviving."

Gabriela Silva Leite, a Brazilian sociologist who founded an association of prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro, told participants in the Tegucigalpa meeting how economic control of her city's Carnaval celebration has been taken away from the residents of poor neighborhoods where the yearly Afrobrazilian festival has its roots.

She said the poor used to make the fancy–and now costly–costumes that Carnaval participants don for the nightly revelry, but today much of that production has been taken over by the wealthy. "The control of Carnaval began during the military dictatorship," Silva Leite said, "and has worsened in recent years. Carnaval and its economic benefits are today controlled largely by mafias."

Silva Leite's organization, DAVIDA, began four years ago to chip away at that monopoly, training the children of prostitutes how to design and sew the costumes. By last year, the group had garnered contracts for more than 600 costumes, many of them costing hundreds of dollars apiece. And, like the Nicaraguan garbage composters, they get much of their raw material for the costumes by hustling around after the parades picking up discarded costumes.

This year, Silva Leite reported, the 70 children in the program collected almost 900 pounds of clothing, feathers, and other costume material. It will be recycled into costumes for the next Carnaval, she said.

"While we're helping the children learn a marketable skill and generate money for their families, income that in many cases will lure them away from the easy money to be made from running drugs," Silva Leite said, "we're also helping them learn about the cultural roots of Carnaval. With them we're fighting to recover the Samba Schools as genuine neighborhood organizations, which is what they were before the mafias came in and took over."


According to Margarita Banda, an Argentinian economist who participated in the Tegucigalpa meeting, projects like those in Comejon and Rio de Janeiro provide good examples of the poor having "a nose" for finding niches in the economy where they can make a profit. "Their success comes from their astute business sense, from being able to smell opportunities that others cannot," Banda said. "Sometimes it's as simple as planting your crops a little earlier or a little later in order to sell your harvest at a better time. It means being creative, and it means being flexible, because as soon as you're successful someone will imitate you. And these are almost always small initiatives." Banda said non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with the poor need to learn from these examples as a way of helping communities discover new alternatives.

According to the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, the director of CWS programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, successful projects have several factors in common. "The initiative for the project has to come from the community, not from someone sitting at a desk in the city," Bolioli said. "The project also has to make use of resources at hand in the community. In other words, the members of the community have to contribute to the project."

The mark of a valuable project, Bolioli reported, is that it "offers people permanent and sustainable alternatives, and returns to people their self-esteem while building their capacity to resolve their own problems."

He warned there are no magic formulas, however. "What works well one place may not work in another," Bolioli said. "There are wide cultural differences throughout the region. While there are some technological advances that can often be adapted across cultures, such as improved cooking stove designs, we have to avoid the temptation to copy what was successful elsewhere, and we need to look hard at the process by which successful projects are developed. That means rethinking who we work with, how we work with them, and who really benefits from our work."

Bolioli said NGOs in the region are undergoing an identity crisis. "Are NGOs facilitators of change for the poor," Bolioli asked, "or are they merely consumers of a product that's available, people who take advantage of poverty to earn a living?"

From his New York City office, Bolioli oversees CWS funding for projects throughout the region. "It's obvious when you read the proposals that many are written by people behind desks, in comfortable offices far from the poor," he said. "The proposals are well written, well-presented. Yet they come from agencies where people may spend a third of their time writing reports for funding agencies, where the organizational machinery consumes a large part of the money."


Bolioli said the Tegucigalpa gathering helped reveal "the need to reevaluate the role of NGOs, the need to democratize NGOs and help them really accompany the poor and foment alternatives for the poor."

The need for NGOs to change is accentuated by the withdrawal of several European agencies from Latin America in recent years. "There has been a massive, at times sudden and even brutal disappearance of support from European partners," Bolioli said.

While he acknowledged that this stems in part from the Europeans' analysis that situations are worse in other parts of the world, primarily in Africa, Bolioli suggested foreign funders have to work harder to understand the cultural and political nuances that dampen the prospects for change. He claimed the Europeans grew disenchanted with "a region that no longer seems as exotic as before, where the revolutions are over and where people just go on being poor."

Bolioli said that while CWS has not reduced its assistance to the region, neither has it increased. "For three years we've maintained the same level of funding, which because of inflation means our real support is slowly declining," Bolioli said. "Given the way poverty is growing worse throughout the region, the organizations with which we work must do a better job of being effective, of using the same amount of money and achieving more. That's what we came to Tegucigalpa to discuss."

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* Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America.

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