Observations on Civil Society

26 08 2010

One of the reasons I was most excited to work with FSD in Argentina was to learn more about civil society here. (I know, between this and the last post on the economy, my love for all things GSPIA is really showing…) Based entirely on my own experiences, these are my observations so far:

Two Waves of Civil Society Growth

As far as I can tell, there were two events in recent Argentine history that spurred booms in civil society growth: the dictatorship and the 2001 crisis.

Out of the dictatorship, a huge number of human rights organizations were born. Arguably the most famous civil society group in Argentina, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo is made up of women whose children “disappeared” in the late 70s and early 80s. Similarly, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo has recovered more than 90 children who were forcibly adopted after being “disappeared” or born in captivity. But these two organizations are not alone in their pursuits. It seems like there is an endless supply of human rights organizations, particularly in and around Buenos Aires. Some of these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) want to bring justice to the military leaders who committed human rights violations, some work to create an environment where such atrocities can’t happen again and others yet have committed to the broader ideals of human rights on a global scale.

It seems that Argentina saw another boom in civil society associations after the 2001 crisis. This time the organizations were created to help people meet their basic needs. One type of organization that has its roots in the crisis is a comedor, a community center where meals and academic support are provided to community children. Also born from the crisis were hogares, or shelters, cooperatives and, to some extent, microfinance organizations.

Of course, not all civil society associations came out of these two times and not all fall into the categories I’ve listed here. For example, the work of our partner organizations in and around La Plata is quite varied: empowering adults with physical and mental disabilities, counseling teenage girls with eating disorders, promoting environmentally-friendly public policy, providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation for young people, etc.

And when we look at civil society as a whole, and not just the formally-registered nonprofit organizations, the picture becomes more complex and the sector becomes even more active. Argentina sees a fair amount of informal associations, and, like in most Latin American countries, people are very involved in protests and demonstrations.

Civil Society Challenges

There are two primary challenges we have faced recently when working with our partner organizations: the voluntary nature of the sector and the negative impact of the national subsidy program.

First, the NGO sector differs from that of the US because almost all NGO workers are volunteers. From the executive directors and founders to the part-time student helpers, almost everyone works for free. The implication of this is, of course, that most people have “real” jobs that pay their bills and take priority. NGOs here tend to keep shorter hours because of this and scheduled meetings and events often get cancelled at the last minute (although, this is clearly not unique to Argentina). This also means that the interns who come sometimes feel as though they aren’t working enough hours, which can be remedied with out-of-office work like research or lesson planning or by allowing the intern to work part-time in another organization. Regardless, it can be difficult to get the commitment and dedication required of staff members in these fields because there is no salary attached the work that people are doing. There are certainly people who will work from sunup to sundown with no pay if they are doing something they are passionate about, but many people aren’t in a financial position to do that even if they had the motivation.

On top of this challenge, the national subsidy program also has a negative impact on the work of some nonprofits in the area. First of all, the history of clientelism and the decentralized nature of subsidy distribution have allowed some of our former partner organizations to become politicized to the point of complete ineffectiveness. Furthermore, the average Argentine has access to a fairly significant amount of social welfare funding. This presents a challenge for our partner organizations trying to catalyze local entrepreneurship through the development of cooperatives or the disbursement of microcredit. Oftentimes, it is primarily the immigrants living in these communities who involve themselves in these initiatives because they do not have access to the same government assistance as Argentines. Even in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve seen several cooperatives struggle because its members do not need to work to survive and because they have grown up in a system in which their parents and their grandparents have lived on subsidies. Many of these people also lack a formal education, further complicating the picture.

It will be interesting to see how my understanding of civil society evolves over the rest of my time here. It seems as though the biggest question facing us is this: How can we better equip ourselves to help organizations and interns secure consistent commitment on the part of both the local staff and the beneficiaries? If we can make progress in this area, our development efforts will be even more effective and more sustainable as we move forward.





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