Some development workers circumnavigate the globe pursuing their career goals. Luis Chavez, Chemonics director for Latin America and the Caribbean, began his international development career in his home town of Norwalk, Connecticut.
Although he was born in Costa Rica, Chavez’s family migrated to the United States when he was eight years old. Only later, long after he had entered the workforce as a controller in the accounting field, did he realize that his adopted hometown of Norwalk was the headquarters for TechnoServe, a business-oriented international anti-poverty organization.
After seeing a TechnoServe job ad in the local newspaper looking for a bilingual finance expert, Chavez applied and ended up rising to senior vice president for Latin America.
After many years with TechnoServe, Chavez moved to Chemonics, where he now helps direct Latin America operations. Devex met with Chavez in Managua, Nicaragua, to discuss Chemonics’ work with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corp. as well as their strategy for partnering with local organizations. Chavez also discussed his unusual international development career path.
Development business with MCC and USAID
Who are Chemonics main funders in Nicaragua?
Chemonics tends to focus pretty strictly on U.S. sources of contracts - USAID and to some extent the Millennium Challenge Corporation. When Nicaragua signed the compact with the MCC, whether that was related or not, that seemed to signal a reduction in funding from the USAID pipeline. This [Nicaragua] USAID mission has had a much lower portfolio than they have historically. If you were to look at the funding that the agency gets here you’d see that it’s flattened out or even decreased.
And parts of the MCC contact [$62 million of $175 million total] have been cut. There’s a chunk for agricultural development which is the area we are working in. We are working with eight [MCC] value chains in Leon and Chinandega that haven’t been disrupted at all [by the MCC reductions].
The MCC in turn works though the Cuenta del Milenio, which is the local counterpart. The way MCC works is that when a country gets approved they have to set up a local semi-autonomous agency that includes a board of directors with [local] public, private and civic representatives. That board has the main responsibility for implementing the program that was negotiated with the U.S. government. So our contract is directly through the local entity called Cuenta Reto del Milenio.
MCC is just focused on Leon and Chinandega. The way that works is the government puts forward a proposal and they define what they want to do with the money. [Leon and Chinangeda] during the 60s and 70s were the breadbasket and the main generator of employment for this country, but when [the price of] cotton went down [nothing replaced it].
A lot of different things were tried … but it’s still a very poor region characterized by a lot of failed projects… The [Nicaraguan] government picked that area to invest in because in theory it has a lot of potential.
USAID I’m not as familiar with, but they have a more national scope and some of their work has been focused in the north on coffee producers in the Matagalpa, Jinotega and Estelí regions and their health work has a national scope.
How do you work with local partners through your MCC work in Nicaragua?
There are two ways. At the proposal stage we identify organizations that have the operating track record and presence in the area that add value to the proposal. They will be on board from the get-go.
In this project we are doing now we are adding some new partners that we didn’t know when the project started 18 months ago, these are some small local NGOs that are doing some interesting work on agricultural practices with an environmental bent to them.
We ran into them in the field where we were working in the same region. Some of our technical people started mentioning that they were doing some interesting work and we got in touch with their leadership. We are in the process of negotiating a collaboration agreement to work jointly in the areas where we are both present.
We work with NGOs, cooperatives and farmers associations, and of course with the private sector. What we are trying to promote is the value chain approach with the private sector [as] the buyer/exporter and the small producers [as] the suppliers in the chain. [We are] trying to connect them and add some value in the process.
Since Chemonics is working only in Leon and Chinandega in Nicaragua, where is your headquarters and how do you staff a project that’s located outside the capital city in terms of local staff?
Our headquarters is right in Leon [about an hour and half northwest of the capital, Managua]. It’s just basically a residential neighborhood where we rented a house and turned it into an office. It’s common here.
Our team here numbers about 30. But day-in, day-out we have maybe 12 of those in the office.
The rest are field technical people who come through when they need to, like when they need to file some reports. Their work is doing training and technical assistance with farmers. So they are out in the different communities working with the producers. Monday is their staff meeting day and that’s when they catch up with their expense reports and other administrative stuff. All of them are Nicaraguan.
We have one U.S. staff member. He’s helping out with the marketing linkages. There are definitely a lot of qualified people here. You have highly skilled people, bilingual with advanced degrees. In a typical Chemonics project maybe only the chief of party is an expat, but the rest are locals.
A development career: From Norwalk to Nicaragua
How did you end up doing development work in Central America for Chemonics?
I was born in Costa Rica. My family migrated to the States when I was around eight years old. We settled in a small town in Connecticut because my dad got a job there. I grew up there … I was a controller for a small company in town. At that time, accounting and finance was my field.
Then one day for whatever reason I woke up and I had a hankering to find a job where I could use my Latino culture and Spanish skills. It wasn’t a driving thing, but I kept on thinking more and more about it.
It just so happened that all these years, I didn’t realize the town I lived in was the headquarters for TechnoServe. They had an opening for a finance person who was bilingual in Spanish. Just on a lark I applied, interviewed, and got hired.
And then what happened is I came in on the finance side; but one of my early assignments was developing a computer-based accounting system for field offices in Africa and Latin America. I got to travel to all the countries to help install it and train the local accounts on it. After I saw what it was all about the development bug got into me.
A few years later the vice president for TechnoServe retired and the CEO and board asked me to change to the development side because at that time I was the CFO at TechnoServe. I had some friends who over the years had migrated to Chemonics and whenever I was in [Washington] DC we’d get together and they kept telling me great things about the company and one thing led to another and I ended up moving there about five years ago. I was senior vice president for Latin America at TechnoServe for 12 years.