Traveling to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador I began to think about how IRI’s work has evolved over the nearly 35 years that we have been working in the Latin American and Caribbean region.
That evolution occurred naturally as a response to changes in regional social and political trends that required different kinds of innovative programming. In the early 1980s, the bulk of the Institute’s work focused primarily on political party and electoral process strengthening, which was in high demand as the governments of many countries in the region transitioned into fledgling democratic systems.
The free market and political decentralization reforms of the 1990s ushered in an era of economic development and a series of free and fair political processes that resulted in the election of countless new leaders at all levels of government, many of whom had little or no experience in governing. At IRI, we recognize that democracy is more than elections. What happens between elections – governing – is equally important for a vibrant democracy. Where government is unable to listen and fulfill citizen needs – democracy is undermined and citizen trust in government deteriorates. The end result is an erosion of democratic institutions and processes. As a result of IRI’s extensive democratic governance work in the region, IRI published a book – Democratic Governance in Latin America: A Regional Discussion that presents experiences in and reflections of democratic governance.
IRI has pivoted to the demand for local level democratic governance to increase citizen access to government and helping government being more responsive to citizen needs. For example, one area of work is our Smart Governance initiative which is helping to utilize technology to help with create more improved and transparent government processes. For example, in El Salvador, we are working in Antiguo Cuscatlán and Santa Tecla to create online portals for citizens to be able to report and request repairs to city infrastructure.
We worked with the city of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to improve service delivery in conjunction with a business software firm, to develop an online tracking system to process thousands of citizen requests. Similarly, our Violence Prevention work in the Northern Triangle is permitting us to work with often marginalized groups to establish and strengthen Municipal Security Commissions, composed of citizens, civil society leaders and municipal/security officials, to develop strategies to prevent violence in their own communities.
The NED’s Georges Fauriol sums up the importance of democratic governance well: “Grassroots citizen engagement and sustained, effective, local democratic governance allows the process to build roots and strength.” If government moves closer to citizens becoming a more responsive, transparent and effective institution that is accountable then citizens will have increased trust democracy will continue to thrive in the region.
In other words, I look forward to returning to the region and seeing the impact IRI’s work is having on helping partner’s enhance democratic governance.