Civic Participation, Step by Step

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 MAKING A DIFFERENCE
OmetepeIsland1Red de Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil de Ometepe (ROCO), located on the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua, got started in 1997, thanks to an award from a German foundation toward furthering civic participation, local organizations and development compatible with the responsible use of the environment. In 2001, a Canadian donor gave ROCO funding toward forming a network of groups that shared its mission. In 2005 the IAF awarded ROCO $145,003 to improve the network’s communication, train its members to articulate feasible ideas for development, manage $50,000 as a fund for subgrants, and collaborate with the local government on forums and meetings with grassroots groups. Another Canadian donor, Solidarité Union Coopération (SUCO), contributed $48,378; ROCO committed $24,328. ROCO started work in a legal context supportive of civic engagement. Nicaragua’s Law 376, enacted in 2001, for example, required municipalities to include in their budgets resources for funding proposals from communities toward improving conditions. However, civil society had little experience communicating residents’ priorities to those in charge of municipal resources.

Findings

ROCO’s IAF funding ceased in 2008 and, the results are mixed:

By 2008, ROCO had become legally constituted and, as an effective network of 13 community organizations, was playing a prominent role in local development. Its leadership rotated among the members. ROCO successfully encouraged civic engagement and residents participated in town and community meetings. With technical assistance from ROCO, the network’s membership identified priorities and raised funds for 15 development proposals submitted by each member. But by 2014, ROCO had become less active due to changes in the central and local government. Newly elected officials enacted laws that created confusion. While ROCO’s volunteers still address community demands, advise the island’s two municipalities on a limited basis, collaborate with local authorities and use the same approach to civic engagement, ROCO no longer has the influence that it used to have. Its members are rethinking its mission and its role in development in the new legal context.

Impact

ROCO helped residents organize and identify ideas for development. Some groups have remained more engaged than others. One committee conducted a community clean-up and helped 24 poor families benefit from a public housing program.

The network became recognized for its successful application of ROCO’s approach to civic engagement. In an event organized by the official Association of Nicaraguan Municipalities and the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies, ROCO and a member organization collaborated with two municipalities, a public university and the German aid agency to draft Ometepe’s development plan and to oversee its implementation over the next five years.

ROCO continues assisting local officials. In 2013, one municipality held five town hall meetings to introduce the annual budget to residents, discuss it, ratify it and present an accounting at the end of the fiscal year. Two such meetings in rural areas reached more residents. Recently elected officials of another municipal government met with residents on its investment plan for their four years in office. Local leaders called for community assemblies. In 2014, residents of Moyogalpa municipality protested the appearance of corruption attributable to the mayor. When an investigation resulted in a recommendation to resign that mayor ignored, residents continued to demand his removal.

Sustainability
GDF pyramid displaying society, organization and individual level.
Results were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). ROCO trained 107 Nicaraguans representing its member organizations, local government and community boards in topics that included law, civic participation, leadership, teamwork, planning, the rights and obligations of citizenship, and the inclusion of women and young Nicaraguans. It acquired land from a municipality and built an office. Members of its associate organizations cleaned up the land and donated their labor to construction; some now manage the office. The members’ organizations support each other with, for example, training in disaster preparedness. ROCO’s members appreciate the network’s value on working together. ROCO’s efforts reached beyond individuals and the network; residents participated in town meetings and other fora and drafted proposals to improve conditions. ROCO helped civil society play a more significant role in the development of Ometepe.

ROCO continues to mobilize resources from other donors and sees itself as self-sufficient. Because the network maintains its volunteer spirit, its office is a clearinghouse for information on civic participation and development, which is available for residents and government officials. ROCO lacks significant funding but the network still rotates its leadership, works to further the rights of indigenous Nicaraguans and clarifies new laws.

ROCO’s adaptability and varied membership has helped it survive. The network includes successful youth groups that offer opportunities to participate in sports, which ROCO believes might encourage them to remain in their communities rather than migrate to cities or abroad. This is a priority for the local government which, in response to residents, allocates a percentage of its budget to soccer. ROCO is recruiting girls into its sports leagues.

Lessons

What worked?
Training network members to adapt to the new laws encouraged ongoing civic engagement in the island’s development.

Leadership that rotated among the network’s 13 members, transparency in the management of the subgrant fund and the presence of local officials in ROCO’s meetings resulted in relationships based on trust and respect.

A mayor from Ometepe attended the Inter-American Mayors’ Conference sponsored by IAF and Dade County, where he learned more about involving residents, which he later applied.

ROCO’s rotating leadership became a model for some island institutions; its effort to keep moving forward under adverse circumstances provides an incentive for civic engagement.

What did not work?
Inconsistent application of the new Nicaraguan law transforming Comités de Desarrollo Municipal (CDM) to Consejos del Poder Ciudadano (CPC) created confusion for local authorities and civil society. Politicization of the committees reduced participation.

Conclusions:

ROCO had a high profile throughout the period of its IAF funding but is now less prominent. To increase its outreach and its goal of coordinating Ometepe’s development would require more members and more partners. Nicaragua’s Network for Democracy and Local Development (RDNNL) publicizes the results achieved by ROCO and its member organizations that want to complement the government’s efforts to improve conditions in Nicaragua. ROCO’s gradual evolution, its flexibility, transparency and vision assure its relevance.

Contact: To request the full text of the evaluation of ROCO (available only in Spanish), send an email to inquiries@iaf.gov.