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Supporting Democracy in Latin America: Eight Approaches

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Prologue: Mesa Grande

In the mid-1980s, on a three-man mission looking into health conditions, I spent a few days at Mesa Grande, the isolated United Nations camp in southern Honduras for Salvadorans fleeing their country’s civil war. We interviewed refugees as well as medical personnel and volunteers from around the world, and visited clinics the refugees ran themselves. What most impressed me, early one morning, was the sight of two women meticulously sweeping a length of the dirt road that ran for hundreds of yards between the shelters. I’d never seen people sweeping the middle of a dirt street before, anywhere. That’s what the wind is for.

We’d spent the previous day marveling at the level of organization in the camp. Daily activities—cooking and serving food, sanitation, health care, washing and drying clothes, school, church, local government, news, entertainment—all organized, with lists of everyone’s duties, by the refugees themselves. The women with the brooms underlined the civic energy of the place. I remember musing about the impact these people would have on their communities and their country when they eventually were able to go home.

The IAF and democratic practice

For 45 years, the Inter-American Foundation has supported development by responding to grassroots and nongovernmental organizations and funding their creative ideas for reducing poverty. Implicit in IAF’s responsive approach is a belief in the ability of poor people to associate, to plan and undertake projects to improve their lives and to participate democratically in their societies. In recent decades, countries in Latin America have led the world in creating opportunities for direct democratic participation, particularly at the local level. This raises the possibility that the democratic potential emerging at the grassroots might connect with the political arena, which should make government more responsive, more in touch with its citizens—in a word, better. Beginning around 2000, under the rubric of local development, or development involving a basic unit of government, the IAF began to support participation in the newly-created political spaces, where people could interact with local elected officials, the private sector and others. The outcomes, IAF believed, would be more effective development and stronger democracy.

To test that belief, in 2014 IAF examined eight grantees in seven countries whose projects had the goal of encouraging civic participation at the local level, and for which funding had ended at least five years before. Beyond conclusions about success or failure in terms of the original goals, the resulting evaluations offer a wealth of data on how civic participation has spread and deepened in Latin America. The findings, therefore, have important implications for funding development, for the practice of democracy and for academic research.

The fundamental question was sustainability. Did the increased participation the projects encouraged last? Evaluators found seven of the eight grantee organizations continuing their activities, although for the one in Nicaragua the nature of participation of had changed significantly. Only for the Bolivian grantee could it be said that few of the activities generated were visible seven years after funding stopped. These findings, however, must be qualified by the variables affecting each organization, which included both funding history and local circumstances. Of significance was whether the grantee aimed to help prepare grassroots groups for more active participation or to train government officials to welcome their input and work with them. Most of the grantees did both. Two, in Argentina and Peru, focused on helping officials respond effectively to increased participation by residents of their municipalities, although both ended up working with groups of residents as well. The other grantees emphasized helping grassroots groups take advantage of new opportunities.

Organizing the findings

The main findings of the evaluations are organized around themes drawn from previous research on democracy in Latin America and on a review of the literature of political science. In most of these countries, political trends have veered since the mid-20th century through formal democracy, revolutionary movements, military dictatorships and the return of representative democracy. Over the same period, a little-noticed but steady spread of grassroots organization brought people across Latin America together to deal with problems that affected their lives. This experience with what Alexis de Tocqueville called the habit of association led to changes in political culture, as more horizontal relationships began to replace the vertical relations of a patriarchal society. Expanding grassroots democracy, as well as overtly politicized mobilization, led to pressures for more involvement of those previously excluded, and this pressure made opportunities for participation necessary. As they moved into those spaces, the new participants began to see how their demands and expectations connected, or articulated, with the political system. Variations on that progression—increasing participation, changes in political culture, opening of spaces, articulation—play out in the eight approaches and reveal much about the nature of democracy in Latin America today.

The democratic progression
The world is dotted with the graveyards of foreign assistance, where development projects funded with large sums and undertaken with high hopes left little but disappointment. What is notable in the evaluations of these eight IAF-funded projects is the number of accomplishments enduring five to seven years after the grants ended. Even the most short-lived contributed to bolstering the association that continues to represent the interests of elderly Bolivians. Taken together, the eight projects offer multiple insights into the deepening of democracy in Latin America and into ways to support it. All aimed to expand civic participation at the local level, that juncture where grassroots organizations meet the political system. The outcomes add both data and new perspectives to recent academic work on this subject.


Much of the material in the eight evaluations and in this summary report was organized around a framework for democratic progression growing out of the experience of grassroots development. The progression starts with people participating in efforts to find solutions to their problems. Out of those experiences, especially when they are at least partially successful, come changes in political culture as people become more confident of themselves and each other—de Tocqueville’s habit of association, referenced above. Such changes make people more ready to create, demand or seize opportunities. One way or another, they “articulate,” or come together, with the political system, that is, they find ways to express their preferences and goals in venues for decisions on the use of public resources. This progression seems consistent with the experiences described in the evaluations that form the basis for this report. The framework that emerges offers guidelines for analyzing future proposals for increasing civic participation:


  • The nature of participation matters;
  • Changes in political culture are pivotal;
  • The kinds of opportunities and their originator matter;
  • “Articulation” must be based on some rough equivalence in the legitimacy and power of the citizens and the authorities. 

The progression can be derailed at many points. What keeps it going? or could block it? should be taken into account in arriving at decisions to fund organizations working in this area. 

The currents of increased participation that have swelled in Latin America since the 1980s can be attributed to at least three sources: political mobilization centered on inequities and social problems, government-inspired attempts to build support or channel protest through opportunities for participation; and, predating both, more than a half-century of grassroots development—not limited to the initiatives supported by IAF—that have encouraged people to organize and work together to solve their problems. Most academic literature misses the importance of this history of grassroots organizing in the region.


The evaluations used in this report shed light on the discussions in the academic literature, showing in detail, for example, how governments, at the municipal or national level, have affected the process. Governments in El Salvador and Uruguay provided a hospitable context for the experiences described in the evaluations. The involvement of the Nicaraguan government, on the other hand, seems to have distorted some of the gains in the region served by the grantee. The evaluations also detailed examples of how democratic progression can begin in grassroots organization aimed at solving local problems, such as the decline in farmers’ income and prospects in Uruguay, or the need to provide structure for young Argentines in metropolitan Buenos Aires.

The specific history behind each case of increased participation is likely to influence the reaction to opportunities available, and even the creation of opportunities. Presumably, experience with voluntary participation in grassroots organizations should help people become more discerning and sophisticated when they interact with government. In evaluating proposals to further democracy, the IAF and other funders should be aware of the history and quality of the communities’ previous experience with participation. Have those experiences prepared them to be effective citizens? If training is part of the proposal, does its format and content grow out of a grounded assessment of gaps in preparation?

Political culture
The importance of political culture to effective civic participation is often left out of academic discussions. One exception is a study of three neighborhoods in Montevideo concluding that the success of participation depended heavily on local traditions of mobilization and attitudes toward the state and political authority. The Uruguayan grantee mentioned above bears this out. The habit of association in Paysandú has roots going back to the 1950s. Communal experience in Honduran refugee camps also seemed crucial to the formation of cooperative and participatory relationships when Salvadorans forced from their country by war returned home.


The habit of association can be acquired and developed. Research in Brazil found that when decentralization created settings where claimants could be part of the negotiation of demands, the legitimacy of the process, and of the government, was reinforced. The evaluation of ALTERNATIVA’s project in Peru pointed to greater awareness of the pressures on elected officials when citizens participated in training and budgeting. These examples suggest that the strength of the habit of association may be a key indicator of success in democratization efforts.

Some grantees had problems involving young people in their work; they were just not interested in following in their elders’ footsteps. In Suchitoto, for example, the distractions of contemporary culture and social media were blamed. In other cases, the gains achieved by one generation’s struggle became the unexciting norm for the succeeding generation. The challenge for proponents of civic participation is to continue to motivate across demographic groups.

Where people actually participate in decisions affecting them reveals much about government and citizenship. Physical spaces typically include public areas, squares and streets, where protests or rallies may occur. Metaphorical spaces, meaning opportunities for participation, such as elections, referenda, recalls, plebiscites and inclusion in meetings where decisions are made, can be more important. As we have seen, in the aftermath of the economic crisis of the 1980s, several Latin American governments legislated new spaces at the municipal level, mainly through participatory budgeting, and devolved revenue and authority to them.


The association of dairy farmers in Paysandú, Uruguay, showed that effective participation could take place outside the structure provided by government. Success brought the organization weight, leverage and a seat at the table with local government. In general, though, opening spaces for participation has been the prerogative of government. The important questions about spaces have to do with the degree of real influence permitted to the citizens who become involved. In Paysandú, for example, only 3 percent of the budget is negotiable in public exercises, but local officials cannot override the result. At the other extreme, civic participation in Ometepe, Nicaragua, declined with the public’s realization that decisions had already been made on the political level and that the government was using structured participation to mobilize support for top-down programs and priorities rather than to respond to needs expressed from the bottom up. An analysis of the degree to which effective participation is possible in the spaces government opens should help donors predict the outcomes of experiments in civic participation.

How has participation actually worked in the spaces opened for IAF-funded initiatives of recent years? Effectiveness depends on the government’s creation of structures and mechanisms, in the form of institutions, that invite or accommodate the public, and the response from people and organizations willing to engage with government. This “articulation” between citizens and authorities is almost always centered on the budget process. Usually, citizens have had input in decisions or themselves decide how a defined percentage of public resources for capital investment will be allocated each year. In one of the municipalities represented in the collaborative effort that included Defensores del Chaco, for example, 30 neighborhood forums decide the allocation of 5 percent of the municipal budget and the goal is to increase the percentage.


Effective articulation depends on information, especially information relevant to decisions on public resources. In the example from Peru, the government posts financial information on official websites, often updated daily. Other organizations make the case for oversight by committees of citizens authorized to monitor expenditures and demand relevant information. The main obstacle to articulation on an ongoing basis, which almost all evaluations mentioned, is the power of local officials to frustrate it. As has already been noted, citizens usually participate at their sufferance in decisions on government resources. Even where government welcomes public involvement in the abstract, individuals in the government structure can derail civic participation in decisions formerly left to them. Officials may have a zero-sum attitude toward authority, may be unaware of or unconvinced of the benefits of participation, may dismiss the poor as incompetent or get nervous about revealing their own weaknesses. Entrenched patterns of corruption may also play a role.


Even given strong official backing, there is no long-term assurance that effective participation will continue. That most democratic of institutions—an election—can also upend functioning participation. Local governments hold power but in a democratic system it is power on loan. The next election may withdraw it, and lend it to a new set of officials, who may have no interest in or commitment to previous arrangements to make civic participation effective.


On a more positive note, evidence from the evaluations shows the emergence of ways around this dilemma. Peru offers the example of four successive governments encouraging participation. In one municipality where the IAF-funded grantee was active, politicians who refused to honor promises to further participation lost their seats in the next election. The Uruguayan IAF grantee arranged to have the issue of participatory budgeting raised in presidential debates, forcing candidates to publicly state their positions on the procedure. The examples raise the possibility that over time participation can become part of the political process that politicians ignore at their peril. With respect to supporting organizations working to further participation, donors need to understand the attitudes of politicians in office and in the opposition.

Evaluations and the literature
IAF evaluations confirm many academic findings on civic participation in Latin America: the hesitation of local officials to accept effective public involvement; the tenuous nature of arrangements and even formal agreements when elected officials depart; the tendency of participation to drop when immediate goals are met or simply with the passage of time.


But the evaluations also offer insights into aspects of civic participation that don’t normally make their way into the literature. One example is the central role of continued training in sustaining the articulation between citizens and local officials around budgeting. The projects evaluated confirm the value of training available on a permanent basis to citizens and officials, so that the articulation process keeps going. Conversely, cutting out training can quickly lead to reduced cooperation. The success of Paraguayan grantee Casa de la Juventud is largely attributable to training. When its IAF funding ended, CdJ was able to secure support from other donors and eventually a second IAF grant. In contrast, the results achieved by the Bolivian grantee quickly disappeared when its grant ended, and it collaborators took their training elsewhere. The sustainability of the effort in Peru is aided by the fact that government bodies themselves have the responsibility?and the funds?for training people to participate effectively in the process.


Academic literature concentrates mainly on civic participation in urban settings and disproportionately on one city—Sao Paulo. Very little exists on experiences in rural or semi-rural communities. The evaluations of IAF projects in Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Bolivia offer data not elsewhere available. Touched on in the academic literature, but not included in these evaluations, is how democratic progression proceeds in indigenous areas, where systems of governance are culturally specific. How does articulation work where traditional usos y costumbres coexist with contemporary municipal electoral systems? That coexistence is complicated by the exclusion of women from local office; the deference that tribal elders expect from young professionals; the inability of migrants whose remittances fund their communities to participate in their governance; even whether the issue is the distribution of financial resources or control of natural resources as well as the values, culture and worldviews on which their use is based. The lack of relevant information in the literature suggests that the IAF contribute with evaluations of grantees working in indigenous communities. Finally, the relevance of IAF-funded experiences to serious scholarship suggests a path to stronger connections between the IAF and the academic community via conferences and systematic research undertaken with the agreement of, or in collaboration with, the IAF’s grantees.

Patrick Breslin, former vice-president for external affairs, retired from the IAF after 22 years. He can be reached at

The Case Studies