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DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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Reginald E. Todd and Chandler Stolp

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Strengthening Democracy in Central America


The University of Texas is a leading force in building democratic institutions in Latin America. The Office of International Programs recently completed a three-year project with the Guatemalan Congress to strengthen its effectiveness in shaping public policy. Our work in that conflict-torn Central American republic was done with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). A similar legislative strengthening project is underway in El Salvador, and other possibilities are being explored in Honduras, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Illustration depicting Democracy in Central America
The University’s approach to building democratic institutions in Central and South America is one that works squarely on its strengths in Latin American studies and on faith in the idealism and energy of its students and those of the countries in which it works. UT’s programs represent a movement in Latin America and elsewhere for “good governance” that has direct parallels with the progressive movement in the United States in the late nineteenth century. These are movements that reflect a popular desire to replace political cronyism with professional civil services at all levels of government, to lend greater transparency and accountability to policy decision making and to root out corruption. The transformation is every bit as historic for Latin America as it was for the United States.

One of the biggest challenges to democratic governance in developing countries stems from long histories of immense imbalance of power among the three basic branches of government in favor of the executive. The concentration of power in the executive branch over the legislature and judiciary in Latin America is a legacy of the conquest that Europeans imposed on this part of the New World. This concentrated executive power lent itself to the waves of military dictatorships that have frequently interrupted the evolution of democracy in much of Latin America since the nineteenth century’s revolutionary wars of independence.

Efforts to strengthen legislative and judicial institutions are an explicit response to this imbalance of power in governance. One of the hallmarks of current thinking among development experts, key international funding institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and foreign assistance organizations like USAID is the conviction that sustainable development is impossible to achieve without strong democratic institutions and without effective popular participation, especially at the local level. As self-evident as it may seem, this new thinking has marked a distinct shift in priorities in international development work since the mid-1990s away from funding bricks-and-mortar projects (highways, dams and other forms of physical infrastructure) toward promoting democratic institutions and strengthening civil society.

The Central American peace accords signed in the mid-1990s brought a close to decades of bitter civil conflict, making that part of the world an attractive setting for applying new institution-building approaches to development. The University of Texas was, at the same time, in an excellent position to play a hand in this. The University boasts the largest and one of the finest faculties in Latin American studies in the United States, including many experts on Central America, and leading schools of public policy and law.

Much of the leadership for UT’s entry into the world of international development work came from top University administrators. Although many faculty and students have been involved in international development work for decades, the University as an institution had never competed head-to-head with Washington Beltway consulting firms to serve as prime contractor for an international development project.

The groundwork for doing so was laid step by step, and not necessarily with this goal in mind. Acknowledging the responsibility that public universities have to the public at large, the University embarked on renewed efforts to reach out in concrete ways to local, regional and international constituencies beyond the traditional boundaries of the University itself. These steps were further strengthened by President Faulkner’s Latin American Initiative, one of the priorities he set in September 1998.

Guatemala Project. The University of Texas was selected by USAID in 1997 to assist the Congress of Guatemala develop and implement its “Master Plan for Legislative Modernization.” We built upon our experience in Costa Rica and pushed our technical assistance program into exciting new areas. Guatemalan upper-division university students and recent graduates were an integral part of the program, initially as volunteers and later as employees of the Guatemalan Congress.

Dr. Richard Lariviere, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Chief of Party Reginald Todd; Dr. Ed Dorn, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs; and Deputy Manuela Alvarado of the Guatemalan Congress
Dr. Richard Lariviere, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Chief of Party Reginald Todd, and Dr. Ed Dorn, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, meet with Deputy Manuela Alvarado of the Guatemalan Congress to discuss the legislative strengthening program that is part of UT’s Latin American Initiative.
The entry point for the students was a newly created legislative technical assistance center modeled after PRODEL in Costa Rica [see Costa Rica Project below]. There, at the request of members and congressional committees, university student volunteers developed top quality legislative studies under the direction of experienced mentors and key legislative staff. They also assisted legal experts in developing new legislation.

As their skills improved and opportunities presented themselves, the more experienced students were assigned to help develop and “incubate” several new programs designed to serve the needs of the Guatemalan Congress. In addition to the program providing legislative technical assistance, new programs were also created for “de-legislation,” budget analysis, training, civic education, legislative liaison and planning and evaluation. A pilot project to establish three legislative outreach offices in the interior of the country was also implemented.

After a period of incubation, the students were hired by the Congress to staff and direct the programs they helped develop. By mid-1999, twenty-seven former university student volunteers were employed by the Congress. Today, despite general elections which brought a new majority to power in the Congress and resulted in a complete turnover in staff, fifteen of the twenty-seven are still on the job, and there is a good chance that several others will be brought back within the foreseeable future. These developments underscore the success of UT’s efforts to promote a non-ideological professional civil service in Guatemala.

Of the legislative strengthening activities initiated by the University of Texas in Guatemala, the de-legislation project and the legislative outreach offices were “firsts” in Latin America. UT played at pivotal role in the both projects. During the start-up of the de-legislation program, it was soon discovered that no one knew how many laws were actually in force in Guatemala; thus the program’s first assignment was to create an authoritative database of Guatemalan law. After months of effort, the students trained by UT mentors were able to document that the Congress had approved 12,332 laws since 1871. Of all those laws, however, only 2,497, about 20 percent, are actually still in effect.

Costa Rica Project: Strengthening the Legislature

Costa Rica has a longstanding tradition of peaceful democratic transition, middle-class prosperity and progressive policies. At the same time, like most of Latin America, the executive branch historically eclipses the effectiveness of Costa Rica’s legislature in policy decision making. Turnover in the country’s unicameral legislature is high (partly due to a constitutional requirement that legislators are limited to one four-year term in office), staff support for individual legislators is very limited and the notion of fully staffed district offices for elected representatives still remains novel. Despite Costa Rica’s impressive achievements in democratic governance, the legislature clearly plays a secondary role to the executive branch.

The catalyst for the University of Texas foray into building democratic institutions through legislative strengthening in Central America began in 1994 with a three-year legislative technical assistance program in Costa Rica supported by USAID and The Center for Democracy, a non-governmental organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. The specific purpose of the project was to assist the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly in developing and implementing the Master Plan for Legislative Modernization.

Established as the Legislative Development Program (PRODEL after its Spanish title), the effort relied almost exclusively on young people, most of them recent graduates in law or social sciences from a variety of colleges and universities and from a broad range of political opinion. In response to requests from the legislature, PRODEL organized upper division university students under the mentorship of domestic and international experts to produce in-depth studies of the historical, legal and substantive background attending a proposed policy. When it came time for a policy initiative to be translated into legislation, these same students would work with legal experts to draw up a bill.

PRODEL took creative advantage of its Texas connection. Every semester for two years a pair of Costa Rican legislative aides was selected to come to Austin to attend courses in public policy on a part-time basis and participate in internships with the Texas Senate. Similarly, a select group of UT graduate students in public policy or Latin American studies, as well as aides from the Texas legislature, were invited every summer to work side-by-side with their counterparts in Costa Rica. PRODEL also frequently turned to UT faculty to serve as mentors and consultants on projects or training programs and as resources for developing a master’s program in legislative studies with the University of Costa Rica.

An important aspect of the Costa Rican experience was the master’s degree program in legislative studies developed by the University of Costa Rica with technical support from the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The first of its kind in Latin America, the two-year program was modeled to meet or exceed standards set by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs in the United States. Of the twenty-two legislative staff entering the program in 1996, nineteen received their diplomas in 1998 and almost all are still working in the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly.

The Costa Rican program received praise from all quarters. The program that PRODEL developed with UT Austin, the University of Costa Rica, the Texas Senate and the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly integrated educational institutions at every level. Students and faculty at home and abroad participated in an integrated fashion in every aspect of the program—from policy analysis to drafting legislation to training programs to lectures and course work. Most of these activities lie beyond what traditional consulting firms can deliver. The Costa Rican experience helped the University of Texas recognize that it could create an innovative niche for itself in the world of international development work.

After compiling this information and keying it into the database, the students continued their research, completing twenty-five fields of information on each law and scanning the full text of each into the database. They then began the process of systematically reviewing the information to determine which of the laws in force were obsolete and which were in conflict with more recent legislation. Their recommendations were presented to Congress’ technical assistance committee, which developed legislation to eliminate the laws found to be outdated or conflictive.

The Guatemalan Congress started another new and innovative project in 1999, a one-year pilot program to establish three regional legislative outreach offices in the interior of the country. Based on the results of a feasibility study developed by university students supported by UT, the Congress authorized the creation of regional outreach offices in the departments of Quetzaltenango, Jutiapa and Coban.

UT’s legislative strengthening program established the new offices, recruited and trained the staff, developed and implemented the annual work plans and assisted in running the offices during the pilot phase of the program. The offices were developed with three functions in mind: to serve constituents by responding quickly and effectively to their requests for information and support in dealing with public institutions; to develop and implement a civic education campaign to inform the public about the Congress and the legislative process; and to create opportunities for citizens to interact positively and productively with their elected representatives in the Congress.

By every measure, the regional outreach offices were a resounding success. Constituents no longer had to lose two to three days work to travel by bus to Guatemala City to attend to business in the Congress, only to end up sitting in the corridor for several hours waiting for a member to leave a plenary session or committee meeting. In the regional offices, the members attended to constituents at least two days each week. Trained professional staff provided follow-up on both constituent requests and member commitments. Letters were written, phone calls were returned and appointments were set and kept. It was not at all unusual for a single member to attend to twenty to thirty constituents in a single day.

Between September 1999 when the offices opened and July 2000 when the Congress took over operation of the program, the three outreach offices arranged individual and small group meetings with members for 7,662 constituents. They also processed 1,386 constituent cases in writing and countless others by phone. When members were at work in the capital, the regional staffs were at work at home.

Civic education was a high priority in all the offices. During the middle of each week, the staff made presentations to school children and other groups in the departments in which the outreach offices were located. In the one-year trial period, presentations were made to more than 24,000 constituents. Perhaps the best indication of the success of the program was the Congress’ announcement in January 2001 that ten more regional offices will open within the next two years.

El Salvador Project. As the Guatemalan legislative program drew to a close, the UT Office of International Programs won a competitive bid to develop a similar USAID-financed project with the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador. Already the first two regional offices have been established in the interior of the country with two more planned for 2002. And in the Assembly’s offices in San Salvador, UT is developing a full-service legislative technical assistance unit and a constituent service office that will rely largely on the work of local university student volunteers.

Just as the Central American students with whom the University has worked have benefited from their association with the various legislative strengthening programs, so have an increasing number of UT students. With support from USAID, the Hewlett Foundation and the School of Law, the University of Texas has put together a Democracy Fellows Program that enables its graduate students to participate in the development and implementation of international programs like those in Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador. Since 1997, twenty-six graduate students from the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, LBJ School of Public Affairs and School of Law have spent their summers gaining valuable, and often their first, experience working abroad. In 2001 the University sent graduate students to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Bolivia.

The Future. In the past ten years, USAID funding for democracy programs has increased from $165 million to about $750 million, reflecting the priority the U.S. Congress has placed on strengthening democratic initiatives in the rest of the world.

The University of Texas has made major contributions to democratization through its legislative modernization programs in Central America. By sponsoring the U.S.–Mexico Judicial Conference in May 2001 and providing training to Latin American judges and legal practitioners, the University is poised to move into rule of law and administration of justice programming.

Proposals have been developed for legislative strengthening programs, using UT’s unique combination of expert mentors, experienced staffers and university students in Honduras, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

In the new area of the administration of justice, the University of Texas hopes to provide judicial training to state judges in Mexico and to help develop a clinical-case study component for a prestigious new law school in Mexico City. These projects, and others already in development, are all part of the University’s Latin American Initiative.

Reginald E. Todd
UT graduate Reginald Todd is the former chief of staff for Central Texas Congressman Jake Pickle and the Tom Slick Professor for World Peace at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs during the 2000-2001 academic year. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, Professor Todd was conscious of the tremendous potential that youthful idealism can offer innovative social development programs. He was determined to harness that same energy for the legislative modernization project in Costa Rica described in this article and to complement local talent with UT Austin talent. He can be reached at 512-475-8169.
Chandler Stolp
Dr. Chandler Stolp is an applied statistician and economist and associate professor at the LB.J School of Public Affairs. His research focuses on information science, policy decision making and regional development policy, especially as they relate to U.S. relations with Mexico and Latin America. He completed his undergraduate work at Stanford University and earned his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Stolp came to the University of Texas in 1981 where he became an associate at the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Center for Statistical Sciences. Dr. Stolp has served as associate director and, since 1996, as director of the U.S.-Mexican Policy Studies Program (now the Inter-American Policy Studies Program), a joint venture between the Lozano Long Institute and LBJ School. He can be reached at 512-471-8951.

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May 14, 2002
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