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Video: Is there any road for civil society in Nicaragua?

It feels like the lights are turning off for civil society in Nicaragua due to political and financial crises.
Karen Cerna
10.2.2016

Nicaraguan civil society is strugling. Government criminalizes CSOs' activities, and is using its capacity to make them quit their work. At the same time a large number of citizens feel that democratic spaces are diminishing and peace agreements in the country are at risk. There is a tendency to silence voices and close of spaces.

And there is also the financial issue, the big development cooperation withdrawal. In the past 95 % of NGOs were depended of external funding. Now cooperation is ending because of three main reasons.

Firstly, developed countries are focusing their cooperation in Africa. Secondly, there are several budget cuts in development aid in Europe and USA. The world's financial crisis is highly affecting developed countries.

Thirdly - and maybe most worryingly for civil society - southern governments are attacking foreign funding of civil society. Lately nicaraguan government announced that the state will decide about development cooperation funds and avoid intermediaries. All this gets worse: there is a lack of trust and quality of information, which reduces the capacity of citizens to act.

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Years ago it was not necessary to think about NGOs financial sustainability, there were international compromises in high level forums like Accra, Ghana and Busan to keep and increase development aid, in order to support enabling environment for civil society.

It seems that all those agreements stayed in the high level forums - and at the same time opened a road to private sector to strenghten corporate social responsibility. Now the private sector is able to receive aid funds. Most of them are used to social programs such as health, education and business; leaving aside human, citizen and environmental rights defense.

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In Nicaragua NGOs and social movements are joining efforts to analyze their context and trying to find solutions to these challenges. They have created spaces to talk about innovations and better ways to cooperate with each other. Kepa has been supporting these initiatives.

Even now, when Nicaragua's political context is changing in a way that is difficult to follow up, CSOs have identified some alternatives to survive and continue doing their job.

These examples show that CSOs are not giving up on their most valuable resource, hope for change. Let me share them with you.

1. Create innovations

It is now clear that NGOs must change the ways they have been doing their work such as tools, methodologies, investigation, common learning, institutional communication, advocacy, and staff training among others. There must be changes on traditional funding and ways to show quality in their products.

2. Find alliances with friend organizations to become financially sustainable

Financial dependence of donors has to end. Governments that traditionally supported civil society, are now supporting business and private sector.

It is necessary that NGOs manage this “phase out” in their projects toward INGOs and eventually break the dependence relationship.

INGOs can support projects to strenghten the generation of income through infrastructure, capacities to sell services like consultancy, training, campaigns and crowdfunding, and exchange to learn about new financing opportunities. This way local NGOs are able to have an alternative to survive and finance their social activities.

3. Map private sector and foundations in the region

NGOs must be careful on mapping possible foundations and companies in the region to start an alliance with. This is a very polemic point in most of the countries, but there is a possibility to explore companies that are aligned with human rights principles.

However, partnerships should be considered carefully. Kepa has promoted spaces to talk about this and supported an event to include MOs partners. 

NGOs have lot of expertise that can be supported by private sector; but of course, it is easier to find support and alliances for health and education programs than defending human rights and citizenship.

It seems that small local companies are becoming a better option to make alliances instead of big international companies. On the other hand a big number of NGOs do not consider alliance with private sector as a good alternative.

4. Improve networking

Improve coordination between platforms in order to influence, establish a dialog between NGOs and identify new allies for political support. Networking can complement and improve synergy, trying to learn from others about their strengths and avoid political polarization.

Some NGOs are learning to share not only administrative expenses but also expert human resources; in fact South -South cooperation learning is increasing and the next meeting organized by the CSO partnership alliance for development effectiveness will be about measuring effective South-South cooperation.

5. Develop human resources and voluntarism

Another important element that CSOs have identified as one of the most useful alternative are volunteers. Many young people and professionals that worked in NGOs in the past are now serving as volunteers.

NGOs are looking for strategies that allow them to have an updated diagnostic of necessities in volunteers and staff, and cheaper ways of training in all the areas. Some alternatives for training are to improve relationship with the academia to find support and catch collaborators, promote international exchange, find sponsors for educative programs for volunteers and free online training.

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The most difficult challenge remains: to start a dialogue with the government. Nicaraguan CSOs have concluded that there is a need to become stronger as a sector. Some NGOs fear that they may lose their legal capacity or even need a political asylum for human rights defenders.

However, the number of CSOs in Nicaragua can be reduced and transformed but they are aware that all the earlier struggles for justice and peace in the country have been difficult, so they do not surrender easily.

There will always be hope among civil society.