Nuevas Esperanzas: Going Against the Grain
by Megan Bridges
Although only two weeks have passed since I arrived in Nicaragua, I have already learned un montón about Nuevas Esperanzas, a non-profit organization based in León, the second largest city in the country. I will research the organization over a 12-week span, which will culminate in a senior thesis project on sustainable NGO management using a data collection method called participant observation. That is, I will not only shadow staff and volunteers, but also actively participate in the organization’s ongoing projects. I hope that my experience here will challenge my biases against the non-profit sector, as well as provide me with a more nuanced understanding of why international development projects succeed or fail.
I was drawn to Nuevas Esperanzas due to its community-centered approach to non-profit work. To say I am not critical of existing NGOs would be a flat-out lie; my courses at Penn have sufficiently disillusioned me. I have learned that many non-profit organizations have imperialistic tendencies, and impose Western values on foreign peoples. As Harri Englund writes in Prisoners of Freedom, even “universal” concepts like liberty and democracy–the basic tenets of many empowerment NGOs–are understood in Western hegemonic terms. The recurring theme in international development literature seems to be a preference for a top-down model for project design and implementation, as opposed to grassroots involvement. Again and again we find that this preference leads to unsustainable practice.
During the interview process, my ill feelings toward NGOs were not kept secret. In spite of this, I was offered a summer internship position with Nuevas Esperanzas. Since arriving in León, I can understand why. Through my conversations with staff and fellow volunteers, I have learned that the organization actively promotes self-reflection. As one staff member told me, it is the responsibility of NGOs to introspect due to a lack of accountability from donors. Scholars agree that NGO funding mechanisms are broken. Once a project is funded, for example, there is little interest from donors to learn the long-term effects of the projects they helped support. Without pressure from donors, many NGOs fail to follow up with aid recipients to evaluate the efficacy of their work.
Nuevas Esperanzas is different.
Most staff and volunteers share a background in development, and do not shy away from engaging with scholars’ criticisms of the field. Moreover, staff members have developed their own critiques of non-profit work, and encourage incoming volunteers to do the same during their time with Nuevas Esperanzas. For example, on my first day in the office, my supervisor led me to a bookshelf filled with titles like Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace–or War, among others equally damning. She encouraged me to take some books home to read in conjunction with my own analysis of the organization. Other staff members have been extremely helpful in providing me with questions to guide my research, such as: What does locally-driven or participatory development mean? Whose solutions are considered local solutions? How lasting does change have to be for a project to be sustainable?
Nuevas Esperanzas itself was born out of a desire to revolutionize the way NGOs run. Its founders formerly worked for another NGO in León that was donor and volunteer driven, and therefore largely neglected community interests in an effort to meet the demands of its other stakeholders. After several years, the organization decided to pull out of Nicaragua, leaving many of its projects unfinished and threatening to sever the community ties its staff worked to build. Nuevas Esperanzas was founded in order to continue those projects that would have otherwise been abandoned. It was also an opportunity to start fresh, this time around creating an organization that was committed to long-term community engagement and community-driven projects. After ten years working in León, Nuevas Esperanzas has demonstrated its dedication to these founding values.
I want to believe in the power of NGOs to affect positive change in communities because they are in a unique position to do so. That is, where the government fails, non-profit organizations can fill the gaps to provide essential services to people in need. Among myriad evidence declaring the non-profit sector unhelpful or even harmful to local livelihoods, I hope my research will find that Nuevas Esperanzas is going against the grain by providing an alternative model to international development.