(Hornbill Unleashed, 2009)


While the explicit and implicit nature of activity on the part of non-governmental organizations or "NGO's" in the field of development is certainly an ongoing debate, one cannot dispute the fact that they do indeed play some role. In many cases, NGO's have interwoven their organizational history into the infrastructure and fabric of the developing world. Thus, it is difficult to suggest that any substantive progress can be made without some action on the part of NGO's. To clarify, the term "action" does not carry with it any specificity. Latin America is a region of the world that has, for better or worse, recieved substantial attention from NGO's. Consequently, the region provides an excellent case study in both positive and negative influences of the organizations. This page will attempt, through the scope of the major issues in the reigon, to provide some context on the role that NGO's play specifically in Latin America, as well as the role that they play more generally speaking. The reason for looking at NGO's through the scope of the major issues, is primarily to be able to focus on specific strenths and weaknesses of NGO's rather than a general indictment or approval. Moreover, many NGO's are compartmentalized into these key areas and can concievably be effective in producing positive outcomes in one area, while being ineffective in others, relatively speaking. Thus, it should be natural to approach them through this framework.

History of NGOs in Latin America

In Latin America, NGOs have historical roots to the Catholic Church. In the 1950s, the Church established Caritas, a social assistance organization composed mainly of Catholic laypeople, in varoius countries of the region (MacDonald 1995). During the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of military coups swept the region and NGOs became to be one of the only available forms of organization in civil society. NGOs during this time expanded and were active in supporting the victims of human rights abuses and military dictatorships (MacDonald 1995). In the wake of structural adjustment during the 1980s, NGOs provided assistance to those impacted by neo-liberalism and the decline of state-based welfare (Petras 1997). They became to be seen as a way to not only fill the gap caused by cutbacks in state services, but also as a way to contribute to democratization through support for civil society. As well, during this time a new form of neo-liberal NGOs also emerged that promoted a variety of macro-economic efforts and were supported by large institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Petras 1997). Today, NGOs in Latin America number in the thousands and have evolved from simply providing charity and relief, into community organizing and local development and more recently toward lobbying and advocacy work (MacDonald 1995). Although NGOs are fundamentally centered around the values of "non-governmentalism" and "non-partisian," in Latin America, these organizations have their roots in political involvement and that legacy exists today.

Access to Clean/Sanitary Water

Water is often the crux upon which life is built. Any functioning society for things such as sanitation and agriculture effectively depend upon a supply of clean water. It can effectively be argued that it is the single most essential goal that local governments, foreign governments, as well as NGO's can potentially focus on when attempting to lend a hand to a developing country. Thus, it is an essential area to address in the context of NGO's and a few such organizations with a stated focus on water will be looked at to understand their contributions.

Global Water

(Global Water, 2009)
(Global Water, 2009)

Founded in 1982 by former American Ambassador John McDonald and Dr. Peter Bourne, Global Water is an NGO with a stated emphasis on clean water projects in several developing countries. In its mission statement, it lists “lack of access to clean drinking water” as the single most important cause of poverty in developing countries. (Global Water, 2009) While this claim is debatable, it is not surprising to see it in the mission statement of a water-focused NGO. Moreover, it should be reiterated that it is difficult to overstate the importance of water in a functioning human society.

In Latin America specifically, Global Water has projects and planned projects in Nicaragua and Guatemala. A quick overview of the types of projects listed on the site include: well drilling; spring pumping; rain catchment systems; latrines; hand pump repair on wells; water treatment systems; and washing facilities. (Global Water, 2009) What is particularly impressive with this organization is its diversity of water projects. This point can be made particularly about latrines. It is not necessarily intuitive to include latrine improvements to drinking water. It is, however, substantially important to ensure that an otherwise functional well is not contaminated by poor waste disposal. In this sense, the two projects seem to go hand in hand and Global Water seems to embrace the comprehensive nature of this issue.
Visit Global Water://

Haiti Outreach
(Haiti Outreach, 2009)

The NGO Haiti Outreach was created in 1997 by a group of Minnesotan volunteers. It lists water projects in the country as nearly 90% of its developmental efforts. The website claims that the NGO has provided clean and accessible water to 110 000 Haitians (mostly rural). These projects included community wells as well as other water projects. Among some of the major accomplishments that they list relating to water include; emergency water distribution for stranded Haitians in the city of Gonaives in 2004 and 2008 due flooding caused by hurricanes; reparations to the municipal water system in Gonaives after the hurricanes; the reparation of 8 irrigation wells near Gonaives; and improvements to the electrical systems on 20 of those irrigation wells. The organization currently has 3 drilling rigs which it uses to drill water wells, and also cites the importance of implementing water systems which do not use electricity if possible. (Haiti Outreach, 2009)
Visit Haiti Outreach: //

Environmental Sustainability

The dichotomy between the previous section on water and the notion of environmental sustainability is not immediately evident. While environmental sustainability necessarily includes water-related issues, it could arguably be construed as a more holistic and long term approach to a development effort. What is meant by holistic and long-term is that the preservation of human life in the short term (the immediate goal with many water projects), in the context of environmental sustainability, is not the singular goal of development. Environmental sustainability includes more long-term, comprehensive issues such as; deforestation; pollution; agriculture; and wildlife preservation. The concept can also be said to include the cultivation of human relationships within the environment in perhaps, a different context than the typical western “resource” mindset. Again, a few NGO’s will be looked at to begin to gain some insight as to what NGO’s citing environmental sustainability as their focus are doing in Latin America.

Iwokrama International Center for Rain Forest Conservation and Development

(ICC, 2009)

(ICC, 2009)

In 1996 through a mandate government of Guyana the Iwokrama International Center for Rain Forest Conservation and Development (ICC) was created to manage the Iwokrama forest, which comprises of 371 000 hectares. While Iwokrama is not the typical example of aid-based NGO work, it is an interesting case study nonetheless. It is highly integrated and unified with the local communities. One heading on the website reads “Combining People, Science and Business”, which it seems adequately represents the mission of the center. The not-for-profit group includes a focus in; sustainable forestry; eco-tourism; scientific research; and community integration. It lists 7000 members of 16 local communities who retain shares in the abovementioned areas as part of the inclusive nature of the program. The area allotted to the ICC is divided into two sections. The two sections comprise of one which is used for sustainable development and one which is used as a wildlife preserve. The commercial/scientific forestry program of the center, which started in 2007, produces 20 000 cubic meters of timber per annum. The program was recognized as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council in 2008. The center also cites important work in climate change science and a booming eco-tourism industry. (ICC, 2009)

Seemingly, the largest positive which can be drawn from the example of the ICC is its emphasis on community integration and feedback. It ostensibly lacks the paternalistic nature that can encompass other NGO philosophy and is an exciting and innovative example of sustainable development. Eco-tourism and economic development represent potential drawbacks however. Cultural and indigenous identity loss, as well as commodification must be seen as of the utmost importance for NGO’s to avoid when creating programs analogous to the ICC.
Visit the ICC:
Amazon Watch

(Amazon Watch, 2010)

(Amazon Watch, 2010)

Amazon Watch, an NGO formed in 1995 and similarly to the ICC, is an A-typical NGO in terms of the nature of its structure. While it does provide aid to environmental projects, the organization characteristically provides funding for organization, legal action, and lobbying for pro-environmental causes. The mission statement lists its primary objectives as both rainforest protection, and advocating for indigenous rights. Three major foci which Amazon Watch cites as means to carry out these goals include communications, mega-project monitoring, and support for rainforest peoples. These three arms of action ostensibly work together to make sure any major economic projects in Latin America which have the potential to be harmful to the rainforest do not go uncontested. The website lists the communications arm as having the means to equip indigenous peoples with the ability to create awareness of any improper practice. The monitoring arm is relatively self-explanatory in that it is intended to monitor the environmental effects of practices in the region and in the rainforest. Finally the support arm includes legal, financial, technical, and public relations support for indigenous peoples who wish to protest improper practices through these avenues. The organization cites, among other successes: support for a class-action lawsuit against Chevron for dumping toxic waste in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest; forcing Occidental Petroleum to withdraw from drilling in Peru and Columbia; prevented attempts by ConocoPhillips and Burlington Resources to drill in Peru and Ecuador. (Amazon Watch, 2010)

Regardless of a position on large economic projects like resource extraction in developing countries or environmentalism, this organization can and should be considered a positive influence on the system. In a western legal context especially, it is a common held belief that all parties should be represented fairly and adequately. It is then difficult to suggest that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, as well as the environmental movement without an organization such as this one, would be capable of accumulating adequate representation and support in the face of large enterprises. Moreover, it is commonplace for large industrial entities to prey on the less stringent environmental regulations in a developing country than that of such an entities origination. Thus, it seems only just that some light be shed on such practice.

Visit Amazon Watch: //

Medical Care

NGOs working in the sector of health care have a significant presence in Latin America. Medical NGOs may provide basis health care, vaccination campaigns, HIV/AIDS treatment and awareness, as well as emergency medicine in the wake of conflict or natural disasters. Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) is an international NGO dedicated to providing medical assistance to those in need. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was established in 1971 by a small group of French doctors who had worked in the South-East Nigerian region of Biafra. Upon their return, they were determined to find a way to respond rapidly and effectively to public health emergencies (MSF 2005). MSF offers assistance to “populations in distress, to victims of natural or man-made disasters and to victims of armed conflict, without discrimination and irrespective of race, religion, creed or political affiliation” (MSF 2005).

MSF doctors assisting in Haiti (MSF 2008)

Today, MSF works in more than 70 countries around the world and has 19 offices worldwide. They provide a large assistance in Latin America countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Peru (MSF 2005). In Haiti, MSF has been present since 2001, providing medical assistance to victims of social violence and sexual abuse in the capital and surrounding areas (MSF 2008). In addition to a hospital in Port-au-Prince, MSF runs three mobile clinics in three slum areas offering antenatal, perinatal and postnatal care. Since December 2006, MSF has worked in the slum of Martissant, in Port-au-Prince, to assist a population that is heavily affected by armed violence (MSF 2008). Today, MSF is continuing to provide treatment to those impacted by the January earthquake as well as assist those living in temporary camps and shelters.

Children outside a slum in Colombia (MSF 2005)

Help for the Andes Foundation is a smaller NGO based out of Santiago, Chile. It is dedicated to”improving the lives of the disadvantaged and the suffering by improving health, education, living conditions, communication skills, social behaviour and social adjustment” (Help for the Andes, 2008). Help for the Andes mainly works in collaboration with larger NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Chile and Peru as well as support internationally. The Foundation has a number of programs dedicated to improving medical care as well as social health and education in remote and underprivileged areas (Help for the Andes, 2008).

A training session run by the Help for the Andes Foundation (2008)


According to the United Nations, everyone has the right to safe, affordable housing. Yet nearly 65 percent of the population in Latin America is unable to afford even the cheapest of new homes (Rand 2007). Nearly every Latin American country faces a dire shortage of housing and the inadequate housing situation is a major contributor to the perpetuation of poverty and substandard living conditions throughout the region (Rand 2007). Numerous NGOs work in Latin America providing assistance to low income families who lack affordable housing. A Roof for Chile is an NGO that began in 1971 as a small initiative to build houses for families living in extreme poverty. The organization quickly grew and today it works in a number of regions in Chile including impoverished villages, slums and temporary camps established due to environmental disaster (A Roof for Chile, n.d.). A Roof for Chile is responding to the massive earthquake in that country by constructing temporary housing for more than 20,000 displaced and providing assistance to rebuild communities destroyed (A Roof for Chile, n.d.).
Volunteers from A Roof For Chile building homes after the devastating earthquake (A Roof for Chile n.d.)

There has been an increase NGOs in Central America within the past 15 years that have impacted agriculture in various ways. There are approximately 200 NGO’s who are active in agriculture projects all over Latin America. Declining confidence in public agencies, Catholic and protestant support for social issues and accesses to better technology has been major reasons why NGO’s are becoming more popular in the region. Agriculture Growth increased during the 1970’s through exporting goods like bananas, cattle, coffee, cotton and sugar to places like Europe and North America. Most NGO’s in the 1970’s were catholic affiliated with the Catholic Church for charitable reasons such as CRS Catholic Relief Services. An earthquake in Honduras 1972 brought many international NGO’s that would eventually stay to help develop Latin America. CEMAT was one of the NGO’s that stayed and promoted technologies such as wood stoves, solar driers and medicinal plants. As well many NGO’s ever since the 1970’s has helped farmers explain better farming methods and practices that ensure large amounts of crops. Furthermore, NGO’s finance many alternative technologies used in counties like El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. NGO’s have introduced agrochemicals rather than the method of organic farming because it is more efficient. Donor group’s work with NGO’s in order to conduct agronomic trials and provide planting seeds to farmer's in Latin America. Furthermore, provide training for farmers regarding on grain shortages and agriculture implements. Many NGO’s select para-technicians who have partaken in organization they tend to work within their own communities. NGO’s support farmers with training, food and technical assistance if needed. Agriculture technology is seen as political mobilization rather than an organizational goal. NGO’s search new technological methods to benefit Latin America like agro forestry, pest control and irrigation techniques. Many of the individuals that work in NGO are social scientists, professional staff and national agronomists with post secondary education.
Farmer picking coffee beans (1997)
Women farmers working the land (2002)
Women farmers working the land (2002)
NGO’s that support feminist groups have made an impact in Latin American feminisms during the 1970s. NGO’s were successful to certain early on among feminist groups in some countries. They have helped improve the life conditions of thousands of women and have been important in promoting progressive gender policies in governments to help establish equality among men. There was a major feminist movement during the 1990’s that helped women in aspects such as education and those in poor class conditions. NGO’s that support women rights are made up of paid professional staff and volunteers which receive funding from bilateral and are engaged in political policies. Colombian feminists believe the feminist movement in Latin America would be more impacting through small activist organizations rather than NGO channels. While feminist in Brazil feel NGOs should promote and monitor gender-related legislation. They offer legal training courses for female communities to become leaders and organize specialized workshops on gender and the law for judges and other legal professionals. Generally, Latin American States have embraced some version of gender equality and adopted an impressive number of policies, programs and plans which improve the status of women within their countries. NGOs develop new organizational forms and policy skills in order to advocate for gender justice in regional and global policy arenas. NGOs conduct research on indicators of gender inequality, draft policy statements and or evaluate the effectiveness of social programs that can help improve the status of women.

Latin American omen working with NGO's (2005)
Latin American omen working with NGO's (2005)
The Honduran women's resistance movement working alongside NGO groups (2002)
The Honduran women's resistance movement working alongside NGO groups (2002)

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