‘At some point, the country has to look for new options’

Mercy Corps works in 11 cardamom-producing villages outside Coban in northern Guatemala, helping families diversify and increase their incomes through beekeeping, citrus trees, plantains, and pineapples. The project, supported by Tazo Tea, is also establishing health committees in these mostly Mayan villages so they're eligible for government funding. Photo by: Mercy Corps

Finding a job in one’s area of expertise is difficult in Guatemala. Coming out of college, Borys Chinchilla experienced this himself. Hoping to become an elementary school teacher, he ended up working with the government’s national forest institute supporting Peace Corps volunteers’ community-level reforestation efforts.

“I didn’t study to be a development worker, but I was 21 years old [in 1985] when I started working with the communities,” Chinchilla said. “And also being from a rural area makes it easier to understand what’s going on, and that’s why I got involved.”

Today, Chinchilla is Mercy Corps’ country director for Guatemala, where he manages a $63 million budget and a staff of about 70, conducting health, agriculture, microfinance and civil society programs in eight of the nation’s 22 departments. He is one of only two Mercy Corps country directors worldwide that are local country nationals.

Devex sought Chinchilla’s perspective on development in Central America’s most populous country. Chinchilla described Guatemala’s development funding trends and major international development supporters. In this first part of the interview, he discussed the current socio-economic and development challenges facing the country.

What sort of socio-economic background are development agencies facing in Guatemala?

More than 60 percent of economy is based on agriculture. That has created a lot of problems because there are not too many job opportunities. Lately, there are more foreign countries trying to develop industry in the country, especially in the maquilla sector, making clothing and all these kinds of parts to export. But the main income sector is still agriculture. That creates a lot of low payments [salaries], a lot of poverty. People are not making a good living. A lot of [socio-economic] indicators are not that good.

We have some of the worst indicators in education and health in Latin America, [so] something is not working. We have too much dependency on agriculture. It creates problems generating income and jobs. At some point, the country has to look for new options, new market opportunities - maybe more industry, getting involved in technology; maybe in services, so that people can access [new] jobs or open their own small companies.

What are the major development sector funding trends in Guatemala?

Justice is definitely one because we have a huge crisis with corruption. Also, drugs are going around this country with no real system to secure or capture the people involved because it’s so easy to get out of the justice system. The judges, the courts, the people don’t have any trust anymore.

There has been a huge investment in the justice system in the last 10 years. But still, there is a lot of work to do to change the mentality of the people and to build the capacity to make sure the rule of law is in place.

Right now, it’s like if you are poor and you are in trouble, you go to jail. But if you have the financial capacity to get out the system, it will be easy for you. I’ve seen a trend of the U.S. government supporting the training of judges, supporting the police academy, trying to change that trend.

Health is also a major issue in Guatemala. We have some of the worst indicators of mortality for children and women. The sector has a lot of support from UNICEF, from the U.N., from USAID, and the European Commission.

One emerging sector now is food security. There are a lot of problems, and climate change is creating a lot of shortage of grains. So, we have malnutrition indicators going up. People are trying to invest in agricultural capacity, so households can at least produce what they can eat and reduce malnutrition.

What are the current development funding trends, and how are organizations adapting to these trends?

It goes in waves. In the last five years, it has been decreasing a lot. Donors are more detail-oriented now. They are also questioning if what they are supporting for so long has any results or any effects. Everybody wants results. NGOs are trying to catch up on how to measure impact.

Now with the economic crisis, everybody is losing the access to private funds. The trend is reducing funding opportunities, and, at the same time, there is pressure to show more impact. Only NGOs that are proving results are surviving.

[NGOs are trying] to be more connected to what the people need, what they are looking for. Before, there were a lot of top-down programs: Someone in an office decided on a program, and they do it without even [asking] the [community] whether they need it or not. So, in the end, the people are participating, but they are not involved, not engaged. You have nice amounts of activities, but no results at all.

So, I think it’s [best when] local staff, people that know the culture … take into account what’s going on in the area, and then can sell the idea, and can have a balance between what people need and what the donor approach is and try to … deliver something that people think is useful for them.

[When I was with Care Guatemala,] that’s why we got involved in land conflicts. We were providing a lot of education, a lot training in agriculture, but people were more afraid about the land conflicts. If people are not secure in the land they are planting, they will not be motivated to do any improvements. You can spend millions of dollars training them how to harvest better, but if you have the land insecurity, you don’t know if someone is going to kick you out. You don’t really have any motivation to invest. Maybe you listen but don’t really pay attention. When you have security to work on what is yours, you are more motivated. So, the first thing to do was solve the land conflict.

The key issue of any NGO is to understand the reality of where every community is, so you push the right button instead of trying the general recipe for everybody. Maybe you have a nice idea that works in China or in India and you try to replicate it here, but it won’t work. Your staff has to have the capacity to understand, be able to listen, and read from the people the signs of what exactly they need, instead of you trying to provide everything.

Who are the major development funders in Guatemala?

The European Commission. The Japanese government has a huge investment in the country in infrastructure, in building roads. That’s the main sector that they support. I think the Japanese are one of heaviest investors in Guatemala because the projects that they choose are expensive.

Holland, Norway, Switzerland try to invest in democracy, good governance, and strengthening municipal capacity.

But the biggest are European Commission, USAID, JICA, and we have some good support from the Taiwanese government. Guatemala is one of the few governments in the world to recognize Taiwan as an independent country, that’s why we have a good connection with them.

Part two of Devex’s interview with Borys Chinchilla examines Mercy Corps’ unique field-based organizational structure and collaborations with local organizations, as well as the realities of living in Guatemala as a development professional.

About the author

  • Andrew Wainer

    Andrew Wainer is director of policy research for Save the Children. He was formerly a senior immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it. He has also worked as a journalist and social researcher in Latin America and the United States. Andrew’s research and journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and is fluent in Spanish and proficient in Portuguese.