Civil Society

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

A Bahá'í-inspired NGO that focuses on training programs for strengthening civil society, UNIDA has seen an upsurge in interest in its programs since the Argentinian economic crisis began last year

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 began to create "neighborhood assemblies" to talk about what they can do to solve their own problems. Neighborhood assemblies have undertaken projects ranging from the community purchases of food at reduced prices to organizing neighborhood banks.

Whether or not the phenomenon persists, the spontaneous organization of people in neighborhood parks and plazas in this city of 12 million people 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 Bahá'í-inspired non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses extensively on training programs aimed at strengthening civil society and promoting participatory development models. UNIDA has seen an upsurge in interest in its programs since the crisis began, reaching its highest level of enrollments ever by early June.

"These neighborhood assemblies were started because the people now believe that they must take responsibility for action into their own hands," said Haleh Maniei, coordinator of students and promotion for UNIDA. "And, accordingly, 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 Bahá'ís, 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.

Participatory methods

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 early this year. 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, explaining that the core of each program is built around participatory decision-making and strategic planning methodologies that are designed to empower local organizations.

More specifically, UNIDA teaches in all of its courses a specific method of non-adversarial decision-making known as "consultation," the principles of which are derived from the Bahá'í 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 a powerful and practical formula for social empowerment.

"It was extremely useful, especially due to the concept of human scale economy and the systemic approach, and some others tools for planning," said Fabian Roman, head of Plan21, an environmental management NGO in Buenos Aires.

An adjunct professor of tourism, development and environment at La Plata University, Mr. Roman took a UNIDA course on environmental management and sustainable development in 1999. 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."

Genesis at 1992 Earth Summit

UNIDA grew out of a response by a group of Bahá'ís in Argentina to the 1992 Earth Summit. Mr. Capalbo and others were participants in the Global Forum at Rio, and saw firsthand the enormous power of civil society - but, at the same time, the lack of coordination, and, to some extent, a divisive partisanship.

An engineer by training, Mr. Capalbo felt that NGOs concerned about the environment could be given better tools for organization and cooperation.

The group that founded UNIDA began by publishing a magazine, Ecology and World Unity, which achieved fairly wide distribution in Argentina. "When we came back from Rio, we wanted to make a publication to show that there are important connections between environmental matters and models of development, and between development models and the kinds of institutions we have, and, finally, with cultural and spiritual matters," said Mr. Capalbo.

In 1994, the group began to organize a series of annual "Global Change Seminars." Each seminar consisted of five to seven meetings held on consecutive Saturday afternoons, with three to five panelists discussing topics related to environment and development, human rights, world order, global change and spirituality. Each seminar drew from 200 to 300 people, from many levels and sectors of Argentine society. Since 1999, the seminar has been held in association with the United Nations Information Center for Argentina and Uruguay.

The success of the seminars led the group to create an on-going training program, giving birth to UNIDA and its program of post-graduate offerings. The first year, the program had 22 enrollments. Today, UNIDA has its own building and two satellite programs, with total enrollments of 128.

Because of the difficult economic situation in the country, UNIDA has been forced to cut its tuition and fees, and the staff has taken a cut in pay. But Shahin Said, UNIDA's treasurer and one of its founders, believes the organization will survive. "There really is no similar program on the market, with the concept of creating unity in diversity and offering a new point of view on how to serve society," said Mr. Said.

Added Horacio Russo, UNIDA's coordinator of cooperation and development: "In the models of development the world has now, power is generally concentrated in a few people, and corruption has more opportunities to appear. In the model UNIDA offers, where the consultation is properly used, you have more people participating and involved in the decision-making process - especially the people that are affected by those decisions. This doesn't mean everybody will have the same responsibilities. But everybody will contribute to the final idea, so that the community becomes the protagonist of its own future."

For its faculty, UNIDA draws on a wide range of experts - including sociologists, economists, environmental engineers, and lawyers - with a core group of some 15 professors and about 70 affiliates. The majority are not Bahá'ís.

Gender Equality a common thread

"One of the reasons I participate in UNIDA is because of their concept of 'development on a human scale' that is the backbone of all its projects," said Millaray Riquelme, a psychologist with the Argentinean Centre for International Cooperation and Development (CACID) who has been teaching at UNIDA for three years. "And the fact that in all of their courses there is a chapter about the equality of women and men. No other organization does this as systematically."

Ms. Riquelme was the lead professor in the IDB-sponsored course for local women leaders, held in the spring and titled "Ethical Models for Leadership with a Gender-Related Perspective for Local Development." One evening in March, about 15 women gathered at one of UNIDA's classrooms for the course and Ms. Riquelme presented the history of various models for development as they related to women.

The students were all leaders of local NGOs. For many, it was their first experience with a UNIDA course, but in interviews many said it promised to be extremely valuable, especially the ideas about how to consult and develop better cooperation among groups of people.

"The most important thing is to obtain good training in group dynamics, training to be able to suggest objectives for the group and to make a project work better," said Lila Luna, an anthropologist who runs a small women's group based in a local public library.

Likewise, Maria Rosa Fernandez Lemoine, director of Conciliar, a community mediation NGO, expects the methods taught by UNIDA to be helpful, especially in the current crisis. "The people have many complaints but they are disorganized and don't listen to each other," said Ms. Lemoine. "So this type of training and methodology will be useful to implement projects for training women and men in the communities about communication and negotiation skills."