January 15, 2014

The Evo Morales Government and the ONGs, Foundations, Not For Profit and Religious Orgs.


If you followed events in Bolivia recently, you cannot have missed the expulsion of a Danish ngo which had been working in Bolivia for the past 30 years. In a process already seen before, the Morales government expelled IBIS Bolivia from the country. It alleged the organization "conspired and interfered with the process of change and divided the social organizations" (which form the bases for the MAS). What is more, Evo Morales, did not even accept the public and formal apologies from Vagn Berthelsen (Secretary General of IBIS Denmark, the main organization), who travel to Bolivia recently and went ahead to officially expel the ngo from Bolivia. Morales himself said that his Government Minister (Quintana) explained Berthelsen how "his" money was being spent and that he was surprised. For those of you who remember, the Bolivian government already expelled one other ngo from Bolivia for identical reasons. In May 2013, "Morales accused USAID, which has been in Bolivia since 1964, of political interference with peasant unions and other social organizations and conspiring against his government."

Is this a trend setting in the relationship between the Morales government and the ngos working in the country? Should these worry about these seemingly isolated cases?

In my opinion, there is reason to worry but not to panic.

First of all, it is nothing new, nor has it been a surprise. The Morales government has been long, let's say, warning anybody (among them ngos) not to interfere with the process of change. Actually, as far as I remember, since the beginning of his presidency. Of course, he was able to almost defeat his mightiest opponent, the political opposition. He actually managed to seriously weaken the Half Moon and the various regional opposition groups that emerged around Bolivia. Once he was able to consolidate his power, he took up quarrel with the press, which was another group that had been criticizing him since he got to power. Once again, he was able to tame the most critical companies and, at the same time, create his own network of TV, radio and newspapers to have a counter weight.

Second, one might say indeed there is a reason or reasons. In this case, for the government, interference, means not to do anything that may cause any kind of delay to the mentioned process of change. One illustrative example might be the work of USAID, which, among other things, had financed projects on education, agriculture, health, alternative development, and the environment. However, the help itself is not the problem, the problem is the underpinning aims the organization has had, that is to support liberal democracy around the world. And, as we all know, Morales is a critic of liberalism. So, it was obvious that he did not want anyone (especially foreigner) funding projects that make it their raison d'être bringing to light what is wrong with the government and what can be better. That, what in the rest of the western world is called constructive criticism, is more than a nuisance to Morales and his political project. One other thing Morales does not want is to share the attention of the social movements. Once ngos begin to work with these, the attention (I might even go as far as to call it control) Morales has over these groups is shared with the people working in that particular ngo. And, the problem is not the work itself, once again, but the criticism that might arise as a result of the work being conducted. More importantly, because people working close with the ngos might develop another point of view, which might not be necessarily in accordance with what the government wants them to think.

Third, there are actually formal efforts by the government to much closely control the work of the ngos. The latest efforts are two norms, one law (Law N. 351) and one decree (D N. 1597), which should register how many ngos are active in the country, what kind of work do they want to do and who provides the financing. In principle, this type of regulation is not necessarily bad. After all, I think every ngo should disclose what type of work do they do, who is involved in the conduction of the work and where does it get the money to operate. That is what I call transparency. However, some aspects can be funny. For example, every foreign ngo which wants to operate in Bolivia has to register and has to draft a framework agreement of basic cooperation. This agreement should be in accord with the government's policies and plans. The tricky part is at the moment when the government is not happy with the work of the ngo. The law lists a number of reasons to revoke the operation permit. While most of the reasons are foreseeable, e.g. when the ngo does not do what it said it wanted to do or when it does other things or when it does something illegal, some reasons are left vague, such as the statement "for necessity of public interest" or for not obeying sectoral laws and policies. Such vague conditions leave plenty of room for interpretation and thus establishes an uncertain playing field for the ngos, most of which want to do the work anyways.

In summary, we are dealing with a government who wants to be able to somehow control the amount of criticism that is generated in society. It is a government that moves very dangerously along the grey lines of politics. It is a government that very well knows the power of criticism and political perception and the effects these may have on the political support at its bases. Here is the reason why this government follows the principle of "compromised with the change" (I wrote about this before), where compromised basically means not to express criticism and agree with all that is decided by the national conferences where the MAS meets its bases, the social movements.

On the other side, political critics or the opposition accuse the government of not wanting any type of control from civil society. However, this criticism is not as politically effective as the ones that might arise from the work of the ngos because this last type of criticism rises from within the social movements and therefore have more legitimacy than what the opposition has to say.

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