The Tragedy of Clientilism and Gifted Development in Latin America

Sustainable development is founded on the principle that development projects must be designed and built by the very people for whom they are intended. From the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas Mexico in 1994, to the 2000 Cochabamba “water wars” in Bolivia, to the recent Ngobe protests against the proposed copper mine of Cerro Colorado in Panama, it appears clear that Latin American peoples want to choose the direction of their development. However, promoting sustainable grassroots development projects that are designed, built, and maintained by impoverished communities in Latin America face a tragic obstacle: clientilism and gifted development.  

Clientilism refers to political figures obtaining political loyalties from voters by providing them with access to state jobs, infrastructure projects, and sometimes straight cash. Given this system of politics, impoverished communities quickly become accustomed to gifted development projects that put no emphasis on community education and community led development. While clientilism uniquely pertains to government actions, NGOs are just as guilty of gifted development. Rather than incorporating local communities into the development plan, these projects are simply handouts that require no involvement by the people and ultimately lead to a form of dependency. This dependency is unlike the dependency theory so often mentioned in development debates whereby poor nations remain the cheap labor and raw material exporters to richer nations who produce value added products at high wages. Instead, impoverished Latin Americans have become dependent on their governments as well as NGOs for these gifted development projects. Rather than being trained and educated to pull themselves out of poverty, they have become all too comfortable with simply waiting for the next project to come their way. 

Evidence of this can be seen throughout Panama where infrastructure projects such as gravity fed water systems have become damaged due to a combination of being poorly built and badly operated due to a lack of involvement in the initial design and no maintenance education for the locals for whom the project is being built. Local communities have no idea how to fix these systems and thus return to their former inadequate water collection systems and await the next government or NGO project to renew this unfortunate cycle. 

Instead these communities need to be empowered and trained to believe and rely on their own collective action to improve their living conditions and take development into their own hands.  Governments and NGOs need to put more emphasis on training and education so that when an infrastructure project such as a water system inevitably has problems, local communities are prepared to address them. Infrastructure projects that sit in impoverished communities unused due to being damaged further hurt the local community by reminding them that they lack the skills and education to develop their own condition. 

True sustainable development provides impoverished communities with the knowledge and skills needed to pull themselves out of a state of poverty.   

Photo CreditTreehouse 1020

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Charles Walker

Charles Walker is a Environmental Health Volunteer serving with the U.S. Peace Corps in Panama. He is currently working with a rural indigenous village to promote potable water and sanitation facilities. He graduated in 2010 with a B.A. in International Political Economy at Western Washington University in Bellingham Washington. Charles has studied and interned in Mexico and Ghana, and traveled extensively throughout Latin America.

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