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Steps toward Participation: Corrientes, Argentina

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The goal of IAF grantee Centro de Iniciativas para el Desarrollo Local “La Choza” was to train officials of five municipalities to identify development priorities for public investment. La Choza later received additional IAF funds to train 150 residents to interact with municipal authorities.

Formal agreements committed the municipalities to encouraging participation by providing venues, materials and meals during classes and workshops. La Choza coaxed into existence “propuestas barriales” a forerunner to budgeting based on residents’ input, and mesas de gestión, where neighbors could formally present proposals for public funding. Over the course of the grant, municipal officials became more open to listening to residents’ claims and ideas and to their participation in decisions and their implementation. In some cases, actual negotiations between officials and citizens occurred, whittling away at the clientelism and paternalism that typically characterized the relationship.

Before La Choza received its IAF award, class played a significant role in defining participation among civil society organizations in Corrientes. An elite sector, made up of merchants, planters and professionals, was part of the local power structure. So were philanthropic institutions and church groups involved with child care or food programs. Neighborhood organizations generally lacked the skills necessary for effective participation. La Choza used its supplemental funding to focus on these grassroots groups, particularly youth groups.

Opportunities began to open up in 2002 when the Argentine government, responding to pressure from the Catholic Church, decided to involve representatives from business, the church and labor unions in discussion of local issues. This led to the creation of consejos consultivas municipales (CCM,) or councils to help identify local priorities. By 2005, municipal officials were conducting surveys and mapping barrios to gather information, which brought communities and cooperative leaders, teachers and unions into the process. The authorities, however, had little experience including residents in decisions and in general didn’t welcome their input. And residents, especially the poor, knew little about participating in discussions of public policy to improve their lives.

La Choza proposed to step into the gap. The original focus of its two-year proposal was the “supply side” of development: municipal authorities and members of the CCMs. Additional funds allowed the grantee to add a “demand side” by training citizens. The CCMs gradually expanded to draw in more representatives of nongovernmental organizations but they were eventually sidelined as opportunities to participate increased. La Choza proved adept at maintaining its important intermediate role in this fluid situation. Its strategy was to broaden the kinds of groups that could participate, for example, secondary-school students, some of whom emerged later as community organizers, and to generate new opportunities. At different points, La Choza was instrumental in creating supra-municipal spaces for municipalities to coordinate solutions to problems even, in one case, across provincial borders.

La Choza’s basic approach to navigating the obstacles to increased participation was to avoid the polarizing position that “all politics is corrupt” and all civil society is good. It tried to overcome pejorative stereotypes of those on the other side of the negotiating table. The goal should be “everybody wins,” La Choza argued. For politicians, for example, the opportunity to project a positive image of dealing with constituents could be a powerful inducement. Officials interviewed for the evaluation reported that La Choza’s training had made them better at their jobs and better at relating to the community. On the “demand” side, several participants said La Choza had taught them more about what it meant to be a citizen, to participate, to have rights and obligations. They said they had become more confident that by working together they could influence government policies. They learned to collect information, deliberate in public, think of alternatives, present ideas and projects to the authorities.

La Choza fell short of some of its goals. It had little success with opening the municipalities’ financial books or creating a system of oversight of public expenditures. Accountability, as a result, is still limited. Lessons from the project underline some of the inherent problems in funding work with local government. Generally, officials have the legitimacy that comes with being elected or working for an elected government. They don’t always see why they should share authority with constituents between elections. Therefore, many advances in civic participation can be halted or reversed if officials so decide. Elections can also mean turnover, sometimes wholesale, in those holding office, so that progress in patiently winning official support for increased participation may be washed away by the next election, and proponents must start from scratch with new personalities.