Every time I visit Latin America, I come back thinking about the important work of nongovernmental (NGO) leaders. This past week I was in Ecuador and met with my colleague and friend, Orazio Bellettini Cedeño. Orazio is a social entrepreneur, public policy expert, and a NGO leader in Ecuador. He is co-founder and currently the Executive Director of the NGO Grupo FARO (FARO Group). FARO is a “think-and-do tank” that promotes the participation of citizens in the strengthening of the state and civil society in Ecuador through the design, promotion, and implementation of public policies that encourage equity and growth. He also is the first president of the newly formed (in 2013) Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organizations. We sat down to talk about the current environment for NGOs in Ecuador, particularly the regulation of the NGO sector and how NGOs in Ecuador are responding. Indeed, the regulation of NGOs is becoming increasingly debated in academic, policy and public spheres. I am always interested in how NGOs are responding to the surge, in some contexts, of government regulatory legislation toward the sector. In Ecuador, NGOs have responded to regulation through collective action. By doing so, NGOs in Ecuador seek to legitimize the sector and promote the drafting of a legal framework that both regulates and strengthens the sector.
The current narrative in Ecuador started with the release of a 2008 regulation coupled with strong government discourse toward the NGO sector. In response, several NGOs started to meet to debate the regulatory framework, in addition to broader questions related to government-NGO relations and the sector’s role in development. The small group of NGOs released a public document that highlighted main concerns with the regulatory framework called Citizen Contributions to the Regulations of Civil Society Organizations. The Citizens Contributions document declared that the NGO sector sought to “work jointly with the state” to achieve objectives set out in the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution and create an enabling legal framework.
These discussions led NGOs in Ecuador consider a sector-level body that would coordinate and debate issues within the sector, such as legalization and regulatory policy; and address relations with government in general. This group of organizations became an informal Collective of Civil Society Organizations and was active in debating the role of civil society in Ecuador during the period of 2009-2013. The group of NGOs quickly included dozens of organizations. In 2011, for example, under Orazio’s leadership, 67 organizations signed a public Manifesto which was described by the Collective as a “unified message with multiple voices” (Estévez, 2011; OSC Ecuador, 2011). The Manifesto publically laid out four agreed on principles for the Collective of Civil Society Organizations that included: better understanding of civil society organizations and the nature of civil society; fostering accountability mechanisms and a culture of transparency; respecting the Ecuadorian Constitution; and developing the state’s role in protecting and fostering civil society development. These objectives set the stage for NGO leaders to further develop self-regulatory mechanisms in response to strong regulatory action by government in Ecuador.
The Collective continued working in 2011 and 2012 and included several dozens meetings, discussing self-regulatory options for the sector and meeting with ministerial representatives across the government. In 2013, the Collective of Civil Society Organizations formalized into the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organizations. Orazio was, of course, an integral part of this process and his leadership led to his selection as the first Confederation’s first president.
Once the Confederation was formally created, after almost five years of no regulatory reform, a new regulatory decree was released. The new regulation adds several new requirements for NGO legal status and the creation of a new registry for NGOs. Under Orazio’s leadership, the The Confederation has publically spoken about the new regulation. Its analysis argues tht NGOs in Ecuador are important to the efforts and knowledge building that foster solutions to problems and encourage national development. NGOs across the country have expressed concern about the regulation’s threat to the right to association and compromising voluntary participation in NGOs. In addition, there is a concern about the discretion by government agencies to request information from NGOs and even close NGOs.
Despite these challenges with new regulation in Ecuador, NGO leaders in Ecuador continue to seek dialogue with government officials but have seen little comprehensive change or progress toward a law and/or broader framework. While the Confederation has recognizes continued challenges with the regulation of the sector, its leadership has centered on strengthening the capacities of NGO in order that they are more effective, more transparent and more informed about public policy debates in Ecuador. NGOs, through collective action and strong NGO leadership in the country, continue to articulate the impact NGOs have on both development and democracy in Ecuador. And having just come back from Ecuador, I continue to be inspired by their work, commitment, and leadership.
Susan Appe, Ph.D.
Department of Public Administration
College of Community and Public Affairs