In Argentina, a Baha'i-inspired NGO works to strengthen civil society in a time of crisis

9 July 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Last November, the people of this vast and cosmopolitan city took to the streets, banging on pots and pans, protesting the sudden economic collapse that sent one of Latin America's richest countries into a deep and continuing crisis.

In January, the protests took on a new form as people in many areas created "neighborhood assemblies" to talk about what they themselves can do to solve some of the problems troubling the society. Neighborhood assemblies have undertaken projects ranging from the bulk purchase of food at reduced prices to the creation of neighborhood banks.

Whether or not the phenomenon persists, the spontaneous organization of people in neighborhood parks and plazas in this city of 12 million reflects an increasing conviction that only with the active participation of civil society can Argentina's economic and social problems be addressed.

It is an idea that has long been advocated by UNIDA, a Baha'i-inspired non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on training to strengthen civil society and promote participatory development. UNIDA has seen an upsurge in interest in its programs since the crisis began, reaching its highest level of enrollments ever in June 2002.

"These neighborhood assemblies were started because the people here now believe that they must take responsibility for action into their own hands," according to Haleh Maniei, coordinator of students and promotion for UNIDA. "And, accordingly," she said, "people know they need more education in this area of strategic planning for NGOs, how to start up their own projects, and so on. So many more people are calling and asking about UNIDA's programs nowadays."

Founded in 1996 by a group of Baha'is, UNIDA - Universidad de la Naciones, Integracion, Dessarrollo, and Ambiente (University for Nations, Integration, Development, and Environment) - offers post-graduate courses in four areas: sustainable development, social anthropology, human development, and organizational processes.

The four programs take up the study of "human scale" development and the accompanying methodologies for grassroots, participatory decision-making that UNIDA's founders say are key to effective social action.

"Those four subjects are really just different gates to enter into and arrive at the same place," said Lucio Capalbo, general coordinator of UNIDA and one of its founders. "At the heart of what UNIDA strives to do is to help make civil society stronger by training its leaders to use new consultative and participatory methods of decision-making that can help people function better in groups. And this is at the core of the empowerment of civil society."

Last year, even before the current crisis, UNIDA won several significant grants. In November, it was one of eight NGOs to be recognized by the Women in Equality Organization in a competition for grant money from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In that competition, UNIDA received US$8,900 for a program aimed at giving local women leaders training in ethical leadership.

Earlier in the year, UNIDA received funding from the European Community to offer training in conflict resolution to local leaders serving impoverished communities. Also, the City of Buenos Aires offered a subsidy for a "New Labor Roles" project, aimed at training 20 unemployed persons in furniture recycling.

Since its founding, UNIDA's enrollment has risen steadily, reaching a high of 128 students recently. And, despite the economic downturn, it has managed this year to expand its offerings to two other cities in Argentina: Rosario and Viedma.

"Our training programs are exactly what the country needs at this moment," said Mr. Capalbo. Specifically, UNIDA teaches in all of its courses "consultation," the principles of which are derived from the Baha'i teachings.

At its core, consultation is a highly participatory process that encourages a diversity of opinion and yet seeks to unite various constituencies. Among its key principles are: the primary goal is always the good of all; information should be gathered from the widest possible range of sources and points of view; the exchange of ideas should be full and candid, while courteous; any ideas put forward become the property of the group; and once a decision is made, it will be supported by all participants.

"Once people understand the process of consultation, they start to think in a new way," said Mr. Capalbo, explaining that UNIDA's founders believe many of the problems in society today stem from adversarial decision-making models that set various groups against each other. "They think in the way of unity in diversity, not partisanship or fighting or conflict. And what UNIDA teaches is how to make decisions and work with others in a consultative way, how to design, execute and evaluate participatory programs, built with the cooperation of everyone."

According to UNIDA graduates, the result is an effective, practical formula for social empowerment.

"It was extremely useful, especially due to the concept of human scale economy and the systemic approach, and some other tools for planning," said Fabian Roman, head of Plan21, an environmental management NGO in Buenos Aires. Mr. Roman took a UNIDA course on environmental management and sustainable development in 1999. An adjunct professor of tourism, development and environment at La Plata University, Mr. Roman said he now teaches consultation in his courses.

Mario Daniel Caputo, a judge in Buenos Aires Province, took UNIDA's course on human rights in 2000 and is now working to start up an NGO to help refugees and undocumented immigrants in Argentina gain access to education, health care and employment.

"The tools offered by UNIDA, such as the new concepts of development, the conceptual technique of consultation and other elements, have served me well for the planning of the project," said Judge Caputo. "They accompany me like new baggage in a way that allows me to apply such concepts in a concrete manner."