Antidotes to neocolonial “development” in Central America

Santa Marta’s school, church and a greenhouse

Following on my post yesterday about the Biden Plan: what would it take for a development plan to work for Central Americans? We need to unwrap that word “development.”

Over many years, it has been my joy to work with organizations created by people in the region who talk about their aspirations in ways that are different from the White House or the World Bank.

In May 2018, I found myself in conversation with one of the founders of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) in the northern part of Cabañas department in El Salvador. ADES sometimes describes itself as a “social movement that is organized as a non-governmental organization” (NGO).

I asked one of the founders, Alonso, about the word “development” in the organization’s name. In response, he gave me what he called the “A-B-C-D of all of this.” The roots of community organization in the area were in the growth of base Christian communities (CEBs) in the 1960s and 70s, he said. Because of persecution during the civil war in the 1980s, the people of Santa Marta fled to Honduras. As the war came to an end in the late 80s and early 90s, and as the people of Santa Marta returned in October 1987, ways had to be found for the people “to defend themselves” against local and national governments. Alonso said: 

“We had to create conditions for life. We wanted development in rural areas. We sought water, land, health. Later, this was organized in a more intentional way [with the creation of ADES in 1992]. The first thing we did was to build a community centre for events, parties, weddings, and meetings.” 

Over time, people—especially women—began to see different possibilities for changing their conditions. Women began a small store that they owned cooperatively. Other projects began and spun off: micro-credit, community radio, the regional AIDS committee CoCoSI, among others. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were supporters from the outset. Alonso added: 

“For us development means to improve a the conditions of the people a little bit: having water in the communities, sharing land, getting access to health care and education, and transportation.”

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes. More than 100 people graduate from high school each year. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas. Even so, about half of the young grads choose to leave each year to continue their educations or to work in other cities, but they leave with a huge educational advantage.

Leaders of ADES in 2016

Throughout Central America, churches and NGOs support a wide variety of initiatives that benefit small farmers, emphasizing good ecological practice including reforestation. They also work to strengthen the voices of women in community and in their churches.

The challenges are growing. Climate change has meant both prolonged drought and more severe storms, including two hurricanes this past November. Part of the problem, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is high levels of violence that is partly related to the illegal drug trade and to the growth of street gangs. Those are factors leading to migration away from the region. 

In the face of violence in El Salvador, churches work to build a “culture of peace.” For example, Emmanuel Baptist Church (IBE) in San Salvador backs a program for youth led by youth. In a meeting in June 2019, 17-year old Laura said: “The way to achieve peace at the national level is to start from what is small. Begin with childhood. If someone beats a child, tell them not to, that’s not good. You have to treat them the way you want to be treated.” Peace, then, is the way of non-violence, providing people with the skills they need so they need so as not to be subject to the logic of the gangs. 

“Perhaps we are just a few people,” said Laura’s friend Michelle, also 17. “But if we come together, not just as church, not just as school, not just activists, but everyone, and if the government would support us, peace can be achieved.”

Yes. And:

In a conversation around the same time with another friend, Jorge, a leader in Guatemala’s LGBTI community, I said that it seemed to me that the violence in some Central American countries had to do with the failure of the peace accords that ended the civil wars, and the failure to provide some sort of authentic development across the region. 

But Jorge replied: “No, in fact, it has all worked out exactly the way that the elites and the big business-owners wanted: people are fighting with each other, too afraid to raise their voices, and they are afraid of their neighbours.” 

In that sense, the work of ADES and IBE represents signs of a future still to be attained. Part of the logic of ADES was for the people to live as if they had won the war: land was re-distributed, people were empowered for change.

But on the larger scale, our efforts for peace and a more inclusive vision of human development were largely defeated by a U.S.-backed military strategy and then by the imposition of a toxic development model, the one that has resulted in incredibly high rates of violence and unconstrained migration toward Mexico and the United States.

Neo-colonial inertia and development plans for Central America

The shopping mall model of development (Honduras, 2009)

In October 2008, in a classroom in Ciudad Juárez—one of the most violent cities on the planet but on the border with the richest country—an international ecumenical group considered the latest official development plan for Mexico and Central America.* 

After hearing from Raúl Moreno, an economist from El Salvador long active in the Hemispheric Social Alliance of groups that questioned free trade and other top-down, capital-intensive development schemes, I wrote in a report:

“When you look at the extreme violence occurring in Juárez, the de-population of rural Mexico, the official development plans in Central America (and consequent dislocation of rural populations), and the extreme violence carried out in Colombia to drive rural populations from their land, you come away with the impression of a development model that has been continuously applied since the days of the “wild, wild west” in the United States. The model is now extended all the way to Colombia and beyond: drive Indigenous peoples on to ever more marginal lands; destroy small farmers; insert mines and hydro-electric projects where convenient to the interests of large capital; and reward allies by granting them the lands of the displaced.”

I suppose it’s progress of a sort that the masters now see the need to incorporate ecological goals into their development plans.

But these plans have at their core a neoliberal notion of development: cut protection for workers, reinforce free trade agreements, and protect private-sector investment. 

The latest plan, promoted by President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, does not correspond to the real needs and aspirations of the people: land redistribution, legal reform, ecological justice, human rights, and for Indigenous peoples: full implementation of free, prior and informed consent.

On Monday, April 26, the same day that Harris held a video conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, the progressive Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada questioned the U.S. approach. During the U.S.-led Earth Day summit that was held a few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support. 

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on ejidos and other community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power between 1988 and 2018 in Mexico.

In her meeting with Giammattei, the Vice-president Harris announced $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This is in addition to $4 billion announced by President Biden on the day of his inauguration that is intended to “address the root causes of migration” from Central America.

Graffiti in Honduras, 2009: “Long live the people in resistance.”

“Without strong collective action, this will mean MORE money for militarization and neoliberal economic policies that will continue to displace people from their lands and communities,” said a statement from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). CISPES, joined by other solidarity and religious groups, demanded an end to U.S. police and military assistance in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and an end to development policies that “promote climate change, privatize natural resources and public services, violate workers’ rights and destroy Indigenous and communal lands.”

One of the last people I met before the pandemic lockdown began in mid-March 2020 was Giovanni Batz (G’io B’atz), a U.S.-Guatemalan researcher. He was in Toronto for a two-day conference about Central American migrants and refugees at York University. In this essay, he denounces the latest U.S. plan and explains why it will fail. By supporting further militarization and neoliberal development in Central America, the United States contributes to displacement. “When discussing climate change, hunger, and poverty as causes of migration,” he writes, “land redistribution, reform, and rights must be discussed as solutions.” 

La Jornada’s editorial noted that Biden-Harris roll-out is through a series of bilateral meetings. “The White House has not accepted multilateral treatment of human displacement and the environmental crisis, the newspaper said. 

It reflects the historic preference of the White House to negotiate individually with each country, a terrain in which the superpower can more easily impose its terms and conditions. As it confronts the migration issue, we hope that the Democratic administration will go beyond the colonial inertia that shapes every foreign policy action from a position of advantage over and against the other, and that it will recognize that behind the migration flows there are economic and social components apart from climate change which must, nevertheless, be confronted with the same urgency as global warming.

* Plan Puebla Panamá had just given way that year to the Proyecto Mesoamérica (the Project for the Integration and Development of Mesoamerica), which would later become the Comprehensive Development Plan and then the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS).

Standing up for gender justice: the case of Development and Peace

As I write on Monday, March 29, I am listening to world leaders and heads of international financial institutions talking about the need for lasting solutions to foreign debt, which constitutes a severe impediment to pandemic recovery and the potential to live better in the world’s so-called “developing” countries.

I remember with pride the collaboration among churches and their development agencies in the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in the late 1990s as they gathered 640,000 signatures to demand cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

Among that campaign’s enthusiasts were the people of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP, or D&P). Over many years, I have worked alongside D&P staff, volunteers and partners in Canada, Africa and Latin America to seek justice for people who affirm that another world is possible. 

It was collaboration with D&P staff in the wake of their support for communities in Honduras affected by a gold mine that engaged me more deeply in similar struggles in Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere. D&P continues to work with other allies in the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) to ensure that Canadian mining companies may be held accountable here for their actions overseas.

I write with full appreciation for all of these compañer@s.

But a small band of religious extremists has pressed Canada’s Catholic bishops and D&P leadership into breaking relations with some of D&P’s global south partners.

Since 2009, a far-right “news” site (banned recently by YouTube for posting fake reports about COVID vaccines) has published allegations about some D&P partners. The accusations came from people with no experience of North-South collaboration or of work in coalitions, and tended to focus on groups that empower women or that work in coalitions with women’s organizations. Subsequent developments have been well-covered in French-language media (especially Présence Information Réligieuse). In recent weeks, a stream of news releases and commentaries have also appeared in English, and I will provide some links below.

On Feb. 25, the CCCB and D&P released a news release summarising their review of D&P’s international partners. From a total of 205 global partners, 63 were examined. Of those, funding will be discontinued for 24 groups. Partnerships with 19 others had either ended or was about to end.

Decisions to cut the 24 partners were based on “a lack of clarification to resolve serious questions regarding support for positions or actions in conflict with the Church’s social and moral teachings,” the report said. Names of the groups affected were not divulged.

On March 8, Présence-Info published more detail about the methodology that was used to decide which groups would be cut. 

“The issue of abortion and the sexual health of women, as well as fear of scandal, were the principle reasons that pushed D&P to delist 24 of its international partners,” said Présence-Info after reviewing dozens of pages of internal documents. The partners were pressed to “justify themselves on questions that touched exclusively on sexual morality, particularly concerning women.” No questions were asked about corruption, racism, complicity with violent groups, or other development or solidarity issues.

On March 17, the Canadian Religious Conference (the body that represents members of religious orders) called on D&P to respond the Présence-Info report: 

“Is that what happened? If not, what happened? Development and Peace’s continued silence would be harmful to its credibility, which is already undermined by this lengthy partner review process.”

Canadian Jesuits published a statement of their own on March 22. “We are deeply saddened to learn that so many CCODP partners are losing this vital support from CCODP. We regret that the process to arrive to this decision was not marked by the transparency and collaboration that the Church knows are key virtues to witnessing to the Good News and to becoming a synodal Church,” the statement said.

“It appears that a review was undertaken with the purpose of judging the partners on their adherence to the Church’s teachings on sexual matters.  We believe,  however that the partners should be viewed with gratitude for their demonstrated and consistent commitment to the core richness of the Church’s social teachings. If consulted, lay people and the Religious of Canada, many of whom have worked in the Global South and who personally know many of these organizations and their contexts, could have provided more accurate information on the partners under review.”

On March 24, the Christian feminist collective L’autre Parole said the situation was unacceptable. It has had “particularly harmful repercussions for women in the Global South” and is “contrary to elementary principles of law and social justice.”

Over the years, some groups were targeted by the fake-news outlet, and others came forward themselves to say that they were under investigation. Among them are Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-backed community station in Progreso, Honduras, that I visited in 2009 a few weeks after the coup. Another is Famn Deside, a women’s group (founded in the late 80s by nuns, the Soeurs du Bon-Conseil) in Jacmel, Haiti. I had planned to visit them in February last year, but civil unrest and the pandemic prevented me from travelling. A March 25 article in Présence-Info describes both groups.

Like all development agencies that receive public funding, D&P has a gender policy. It includes a statement from Pope Francis, who is also a target of attacks from the religious and political far-right.

“History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior…. There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of female emancipation. This is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity…. [W]e must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

  • Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (2016)
  • L’autre Parole says that Famn Deside is still receiving its funding. “We are delighted. And we are convinced that the majority of recently excluded groups should regain their funding if the principles of social justice were applied in their assessment.”

    In coming days, I will share more about the vision and origins of Development and Peace. Their work provides lessons for all who strive to build North-South alliances of solidarity.