REVIEW: Article

Partnering to Find the Formula for Sustained Development in Nicaragua

The driving force behind US bilateral assistance programs is, of course, the desire to empower partners and improve the lives of individuals. This is particularly true in a country like Nicaragua, where the United States maintains uneasy relations with a government that is suspicious of our motives and antagonistic to many of our core values. 

I recently met three individuals who I hope represent the future of Nicaragua.

Isidro Leon-York is the kind of citizen-farmer development specialists dream about. Since 1991, he has re-built and expanded his family coffee farm in northern Nicaragua and now employs close to a thousand permanent and seasonal workers and professionals, including young Nicaraguan-educated professionals like agronomists and engineers. He is an active and articulate participant in public policy debates through his membership in agriculture and national export promotion organizations. His efforts to prevent the exploitation of child labor through a program to replicate his own best practices among coffee growers in his region earned him this year’s United States Department of Labor Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.

Like Leon-York, the Suazo sisters, Zoraima and Karima, are highly engaged in advanc­ing a public cause. On their own initiative, they engage a network of schools and com­mu­nity organizations in Nicaragua’s northern mountains to increase public knowledge about the rights, laws, and government obligations related to human trafficking and gender vio­lence. Their work subsists not on international assistance, but their own resources and the oc­casional help they get from other Nicaraguan human rights and development organizations.

A critical mass of individuals like Leon-York and the Suazo sisters would take Nicaragua far down the road toward its development goals, considerably strengthen the country’s fragile and fragmented civil society, and provide a bulwark against the rise of the endemic crime and violence that afflicts its neighbors—all priority US goals in Central America. Unfortunately, leaders like Leon-York and the Suazos remain in short supply in Nicaragua, which is the second poorest country in the hemisphere and is still dealing with the legacy of decades of dictatorial rule. Until a formula is found that provides for sustained economic growth, and creates an environment where democratic values and institutions flourish, it will be difficult to cultivate strong leaders who are able to strengthen the partnerships and capacity necessary to implement change.  

After the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government in 1990, the United States actively partnered with successive democratic governments for a decade and a half in the search for the right mix of state, private-sector, and civil-society initiatives that could cultivate a class of smart, committed individuals. 

Since 2007, however, a returned Sandinista-led government under President Daniel Ortega has taken the country’s young and fragile democracy in a decidedly authoritarian direction. Concerns over governance issues led to our winding down direct assistance to the government. The lack of transparency in the disbursement of substantial Venezuelan aid led us to further cut the majority of our assistance to government entities in 2012 and shift our focus toward civil society and private sector organizations. 

Although we share several points of common interest, and work with public sector players in the areas of trade and investment promotion, energy, and security, for the foreseeable future we will be working more in parallel to the current government, rather than in tandem with it.

Investing in People

One of the soundest investments we have made in Nicaragua has been in the bright young people with potential from all social classes who might otherwise be left behind by the country’s chronically under-funded education system. We identify and work with as many budding Leon-Yorks and Suazos as our resources allow and help them find the right formula to fuel “development from below.” 

We continue to build on the more than two decades of scholarship programs that provide technical training and vocational development for low-income and rural students in Nicaragua. Most recently, we concentrated attention on Atlantic Coast communities, which are particularly vulnerable to the corrosive effects of poverty and lawlessness. Isolated from the rest of the country, the multicultural and linguistically diverse Afro and Indigenous communities of the region offer unique development challenges.  

Through USAID and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), we are addressing these needs by providing scholarships and other support to at-risk students, fostering greater community and parental participation in the classroom, and encouraging greater business community involvement in programs to provide jobs to graduates.   

Exchange programs, like the Fulbright Fellowships and English scholarships for disadvantaged youth through our ACCESS program, forge partnerships based on interchange and learning that benefit communities and expand the pool of talent in Nicaragua. Activities that develop the skills of Nicaragua’s young innovators and entrepreneurs stimulate job creation and the application of new technologies that can fuel economic growth.

At the same time, through training for young civic leaders, we aim to increase their capacity to connect with citizens, represent their interests effectively, and foster a new generation of democratic leaders who are substantively engaged with their communities. (The Suazos are graduates of an NDI Democratic Leadership Development course funded by USAID, for example.) Our support to economic associations, public policy advocacy centers, and nongovernmental organizations is aimed at strengthening the backbone of civil society and promoting a healthier interface between the government and governed, even as the current administration seeks to extend its reach and power throughout Nicaragua’s society and political system.

Creating Jobs, Adding Depth to Civil Society

Our efforts in Nicaragua, however, need to be accompanied by an even more robust promotion of economic growth and further strengthening of civil society. The educational pathways we are providing need to actually lead to greater opportunities for employment. For fifteen years, USAID’s Economic Growth program in Nicaragua built a solid track record of connecting producers like Leon-York to US markets. (The CAFTA-DR free trade agreement has fueled export growth of 120 percent since 2006.) It catalyzed important policy reforms through its support for growers, business, and export associations. It then leveraged its own successes by drawing in other development and investment funds, such as loans in the neighborhood of $50 million the Inter-American Development Bank extended to small coffee growers last year. Trade and focused trade development programs have been fundamental to the modest but steady growth in formal sector employment that Nicaragua has enjoyed since 1990. 

Budget cuts have forced us to drastically scale back these worthy programs. It may be time to consider bringing the more successful ones back.    

At the same time, making the most of our support for civil society organizations means more than just helping them keep the lights on. Two new USAID programs are aimed at not only boosting the organizational skills of their leaders, but improving the quality of their outreach to the Nicaraguan public, including the business community.   

Public interest groups must do a better job proving their worth to the business community through their active promotion of the democratic values and institutions that enable economic development and opportunity. For their part, business leaders must understand that their own bottom lines, not to mention the country’s future, ultimately depend on their joining with civil society organizations to advance broader causes. 

A novel CARSI-funded program we have on the Atlantic coast, which is administered by Project Concern International (PCI), combines civic education with economic development in 30 municipalities. It is designed to empower citizens to develop security plans that help them to more effectively advocate with local, regional, and national authorities for improved services and crime reduction. PCI is also engaging local small and medium businesses and developing community micro-financing associations to generate resources to implement these security plans. We need to consider how to increase such public/private partnerships to make civic programming and advocacy more independent of international largesse in the future.

Optimism in the Face of Uncertainty

Nicaragua’s economy faces mixed prospects in coming years. The roughly four and a half percent growth registered annually sounds impressive by recent global standards but is simply not enough to bring the majority of its citizens out of the poverty they have been mired in for decades. Moreover, one of Nicaragua’s mainstays—Venezuelan assistance to the tune of more than a half billion dollars yearly—could shrink due to the economic challenges faced by Venezuela. It could be decades—or never—before much hoped-for infrastructure projects, such as a second trans-isthmus canal rivaling Panama’s, materialize and help ignite real growth.       

Meanwhile, individuals like Leon-York and the Suazos are proof that a union between public and private interests is possible.  I had a chance to speak to Leon-York at a reception the Embassy held to mark his receipt of the Iqbal Masih Award. Despite a few tough years of declining prices, unpredictable weather and debilitating pestilence, he remains confident that producers throughout the country can be convinced to join him in preventing the exploitation of under-aged Nicaraguans through the types of education and incentive programs he developed and is championing.  

“We have been able to build excellent local-level relationships, leading to a real buy-in by the community. This was a large part of our success and will be key to replicat­ing this progress in other regions,” he said.

For their part, the Suazo sisters are convinced that businesses and NGOs are natural allies and can work together. “The biggest challenge is finding a common cause,” said Karina, “but once that is identified you are able to unite diverse sectors, from community businesses to different churches.” Zoraima added, “In our own work, we have been supported by many social actors, from church leaders to teachers and local authorities. Involving all parts of a society is essential to expanding the impact of civic work.” As the Leon-Yorks and Suazos of Nicaragua work together to forge the democratic, prosperous and secure country they and their countrymen deserve, they will continue to have a committed partner in the United States of America. 

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United States Ambassador to Nicaragua