In 2005, the Inter-American Foundation awarded Asociación de Productores de Leche de Paysandú (APLP) of Uruguay $298,245, to be disbursed over three years, toward improving the quality of life of its dairy farmers by developing their production and encouraging their participation in mesas zonales, literally zonal tables, akin to neighborhood boards, where rural residents meet to identify community concerns and negotiate solutions. The process of citizens’ participation through mesas zonales was established in 2000 by Consejo Económico Social (CES), a council comprised of representatives from grassroots organizations, businesses and academia. Before the IAF awarded APLP a grant, participation in mesas zonales was sporadic and inconsistently representative. The proceedings were never documented.
A founding member of CES, APLP was to change that by using its IAF award toward improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the mesas zonales as a means to address health, education, infrastructure and other needs. Some 1,500 residents in eight communities of Paysandú were expected to benefit from better functioning mesas. Practical training in animal husbandry and the best use of agricultural land would reach 90 APLP members, who would also have as access to a revolving loan fund.
The results of APLP project were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). The GDF measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organization or grantee level, and the community or society level. At the lower level, the project positively impacted six communities and their residents in Paysandú as measured by indicators such as training, acquisition and application of skills, income and conflict resolution. At the mid-level, APLP reported on planning grant activities; new approaches; long-term goals; credit; partnering with other organizations; and dissemination efforts. At the upper or community level, APLP reported on the effect grant activities was having on public policies, decisions or actions.
The six mesas zonales active when IAF funding ceased in 2009 are thriving in 2014. It should be noted that the government of the department of Paysandú has officially instituted a participatory process for allocating three percent of its annual budget, or $500,000, to grassroots initiatives. Residents involved in mesas learned to draft proposals for development and advocate successfully for funding in public discussions of these departmental resources. The Uruguayan government relies on the mesas as it devolves centralized programs and responsibilities. The mesa in the community of Porvenir is now represented on Uruguay’s official Rural Development Board and others have joined the Commission on Family Farming (REAF), MERCOSUR’s advisory body on the role played by family farming in food security.
Another consequence of the IAF grant is greater deference to community leaders, who also have more say. Sergio Filgeira, an APLP member, is currently the president of the National Institute of Milk, representing all unionized dairy farmers in Uruguay. He meets with government and dairy industry representatives to set the price of milk nationwide. APLP has expanded its service. In 2009, for example, APLP’s commissary sold some 10 products?seeds, fertilizers, work boots. Today, its inventory tops 100 products at prices that it guarantees are lower than its competitors’. In a 2013 survey, 90 percent of APLP members interviewed reported that they shop at the APLP store.
APLP succeeded in making mesas zonales effective and viable. Six of the eight mesas envisioned at outset of IAF funding continue to provide residents with a forum for addressing community needs and bring them together in a united appeal before local authorities. The mesas have also benefitted from the receptivity of local government to citizen participation in deliberations on development initiatives.
Participating communities continue to benefit from the APLP’s subgrant fund supporting initiatives selected for financing by mesas zonales. In Porvenir, residents use medical, educational and recreational equipment purchased with subgrants and continue adding to the inventory using their own funds.
APLP’s partnership with the municipality, the department (intendencia), civic organizations and the local university remains strong. Proposals from mesas zonales are voted on by community residents and are considered in the budgeting process. A government website that publishes budget allocations offers evidence of transparency and official accountability.
APLP members expressed great satisfaction with the results of IAF funding: inclusion in the budgeting process, official validation of mesas zonales as public forums, training and technical assistance for dairy owners, and the management of the subgrant fund, which offered government authorities an effective example of the benefit of a participatory process of allocating public resources.
What Did Not Work?
APLP did not sufficiently include young people in its training and the young people were not interested anyway. Their preference for urban life does not bode well for the future of the association as the leadership ages.
Brochures, posters and a website to disseminate results and information failed to materialize because APLP’s leadership preferred word of mouth. They still do.
The revolving loan fund fell short of its goal of extending credit worth between $500 and $2,000 to more than 100 farm families. Only 45 families received loans to invest in infrastructure or agricultural inputs.
APLP’s effort was distinguished by willingness across the board to pull together and put aside personal interests and party affiliations. Local and national elections had no detrimental effect on APLP’s work. New elected officials authorities made good on the commitments of their predecesors, an element essential to the success of the initiatives emerging from deliberations in the mesas zonales.