ASONOG provides technical and service-based assistance to many small non-governmental organizations working at the grassroots level in Honduras. An interesting read on poverty reduction strategy can be found here.
Seventy representatives from Honduran civil society — small farmers, women rural leaders, agricultural farm workers, church activists, cooperative members, NGO representatives, and government officials — discussed and analyzed the efforts (to date) of the Honduran government to distribute the benefits of debt relief to local communities.
The purpose of the forum was to review the process of debt relief for the poorest indebted nations and to host a critical debate with civil society members in order to understand the government initiatives that will implement debt relief in Honduras.
Government officials defended the decision to channel aid to municipal governments as part of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, while some civil society reps had other ideas.
So, the question at the heart of the two-day conference was how much debt cancellation should be implemented and exactly who benefits?
Honduras was one of five Latin American nations included in the 2005 G-8 debt deal.
Latin America perspectives were included from Nicaragua and Bolivia, two other nations included in the 2005 G-8 debt deal.
The conference organizer and director of ASONOG, Francisco Machado, was very active in Jubilee 2000 in Latin America and Europe.
Honduran activists and NGO’s have spent the past five years working on the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which is required by the World Bank as part of HIPC: Heavily Indebted Poor Countries.
The Honduran government approved the final plan in August 2006 and funds were expected to be released to sectors of the country that had been crippled, in part, because of debt payments.
Some participants argued that 700 million lempiras —18 lempiras to 1 USD — is a drop in the bucket given the need.
From government documents it appears that the bulk of the “debt benefit” goes to the regular national budget paying for health care and education workers, which indirectly benefits the community.
The reality is that as of December 2006, only 280 lempiras out of the 700 million has actually been distributed.
NGO activists charge that only 139 million lempiras is in the 2007 budget for debt relief projects, not the 700 million lempiras that the government says that it intends to distribute.
The Honduran minister in charge of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) program is the Secretary of Culture, Art and Sports, certainly not the most powerful post in the government.
The political struggle continues as small business makes demands on the PRS funds. For example, an article in the December 16 El Tiempo reported that the small coffee grower association wants funding from the Poverty Relief Strategy Fund to assist this struggling product.
Overall, NGOs are very critical of the government plan. They would like to see regional commissions comprised of grassroots organizations to advise the national Poverty Reduction Strategy and Transparency Commissions and direct funds to community organizations, not municipalities.
AT THE FORUM
One speaker noted that mayors frequently appoint friends and family to local transparency committees, thus defeating the very purpose of its creation.
Others complained of a lack of notice when transparency committees convene and suggested that the government produce popular education materials via radio and small pamphlets that explain the funding criteria and decision-making process.
Mauricio Diaz of FOSDEH, the debt cancellation NGO in Honduras, summarized the dilemma that Honduras faces: “The debt has not really diminished, nor are there additional funds to combat poverty.”
In other words, funds freed by “debt relief” should be directed toward fighting poverty, but are instead going into the regular budget due to huge deficits.
The public doesn’t know the particulars of the agreements surrounding debt cancellation or how they were negotiated.
Both Hondurans and Nicaraguans are concerned about new external debt as well as a rapid increase in internal indebtedness.
Two Nicaraguans described their country’s experience with the Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Cirilo Oterno, an ardent critic of this process, exclaimed that “poverty is a business between the white North and the white South!”
Georgina Muñoz Pavon, from the Nicaraguan Civil Society Coordination, which represents 50 grassroots organizations, discussed the outreach the do to 15 communities over the past five years by involving local people to prioritize anti-poverty projects.
The NCSC presented 20,000 signatures to president-elect Daniel Ortega outlining the needs to use debt relief funds for the poor and asked him to commit to this community plan.
Pat shared the history of Jubilee 2000 (now called the Jubilee USA Network), based in the United States, and plans for the 2007 Sabbath Year.
She also invited Honduran NGOs to participate with Jubilee USA in their efforts to get a hearing on the JUBILEE Act and to collaborate on strategies of education and advocacy so that the Honduran challenges can be heard in the U.S. Congress, and the World Bank and IMF.
”Si, se puede,” concluded Francisco Machado at the end of the forum. Translation: “Yes, we can confront corruption, monitor transparency of funds and most important, conduct a social audit of how debt relief monies are spent. We need to press our legislative deputies to take responsibility for how these funds are spent.”
It is exciting to see how Honduran civil society members are committed to make their government and society more open, responsible and more democratic.
This is indeed a long-term process in any society but people like Francisco, Mauricio and the other Forum participants are working hard to make it happen.
Yes, together, we are able!
—post by Pat Rumer