Peru: outing the NGOs

John Crabtree
22 November 2006

A law regulating the work of non-governmental organisations in Peru, now awaiting the signature of President Alan García, has sparked concern that the new Peruvian government is resorting to illiberal means to silence its critics. Ministers claim that this is not so, and that NGOs must become more accountable to the country's elected rulers. The controversy has focused attention on what NGOs contribute to democratic governance.

The law will make it obligatory for NGOs to register with a government agency (the Agencia Peruana de Cooperación Internacional / Apci) and empower Apci to outlaw those NGOs it deems not to be working towards the stated goals of the government's development plan. NGOs and others - particularly in the press - have lobbied hard against proposals that they see as an egregious attempt to extend state control over private institutions.

NGOs claim that the draft law violates the 1993 constitution in various ways, not least with respect to freedoms of expression and association. Issues of constitutionality apart, they say they already give detailed information of their activities to a range of state institutions, including Apci.

It is not clear exactly how many NGOs operate in Peru today, nor is the amount of money they channel to projects around the country. The official tally is some 3,000 institutions, but the real figure may be closer to 900. What is certain is that they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny grassroots initiatives to nationwide organisations. They also vary greatly in terms of their political outlook and in the wide range of the types of work they undertake. The new legislation's remit includes not just local NGOs but also international ones, like Oxfam, with substantial spending programmes in Peru.

John Crabtree is a research associate at Oxford University's Centre for Latin American Studies. He is the author of Peru under Garcia: Opportunity Lost (Macmillan, 1992), Fujimori's Peru (ILAS, 1998), and Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (Latin America Bureau, 2005). He is the editor of Making Institutions Work in Peru: Democracy, Development and Inequality since 1980 (Institute for the Study of the Americas, London University / Brookings Institution, 2006).

Also by John Crabtree on openDemocracy:

"Bolivia's retreat from civil war" (June 2005)

"Peru: the next Andean domino?" (June 2005)

"Bolivia on the brink" (October 2005)

"An Andean crisis of democracy"
(November 2005)

"Evo Morales's challenge"
(January 2006)

"Peruvians prepare to bite back" (April 2006)

"Peru's chessboard" (April 2006)

"Bolivia stakes its claim" (May 2006)

"Peru: the institutional deficit" (May 2006)

"The return of Alan García" (June 2006)

"Evo Morales: the force is with him" (July 2006)

"Alan García's second coming" (July 2006)

"Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds"
(18 September 2006)

The context of a clash

In the past generation, NGOs have come to play an important role in Peruvian politics as bridges over the wide gulf between the state and society. They first appeared in any number during the early 1980s as the country emerged from twelve years of military rule. The return to civilian democracy under Fernando Belaunde Terry (president from 1980-85) provided new scope for action at the grass roots. Many NGOs adopted a critical stance towards Belaunde's centre-right administration, reflecting the growth of leftwing party politics at the time. A number of them were also supported by the Catholic church.

Peru's deteriorating human-rights record in the 1980s brought clashes between government and NGOs, both local and international: Belaunde famously remarked that he threw Amnesty International's reports on Peru into the rubbish bin. At the same time, many local organisations - especially those in the poorest parts of Peru where the Maoist-inspired Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) held sway - fell victim to the savage war of intimidation and violence that Sendero perpetrated.

The authoritarian Fujimori government (1990-2000) saw the collapse of many of Peru's main political parties, particularly those on the left. NGOs sometimes became havens for displaced politicians, both local and national. The demise of effective political parties made it more difficult for civil society to voice its concerns. To some extent, NGOs took their place as links between people and the state.

Consequently, the Fujimori government - and in particular Fujimori's powerful intelligence factotum Vladimiro Montesinos - kept a close watch on what he and his officials saw as a subversive threat. Most clearly in the firing line were those NGOs upholding human and civil rights. A number managed to protect themselves by making use of their church connections or their links with foreign governments and funding agencies. The Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Coordinator of Human Rights) is a case in point: it was tolerated by Fujimori only because of the support it enjoyed in Washington.

Spheres of influence

The disgrace and fall of Alberto Fujimori in 2000 opened new opportunities for NGOs as a community. During the interim Valentín Paniagua administration (2000-01) and the first part of the Alejandro Toledo government (2001-06), NGOs became influential actors in policymaking circles. Indeed, many NGO figures assumed leading roles in government. The influence of NGO thinking was particularly striking in policy areas such as decentralisation and local development.

The human-rights NGOs also made their mark with the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission / CVR) whose 2003 report shocked public opinion by detailing the scale of the human-rights atrocities that had occurred between 1980 and 2000. The CVR estimates that the Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian military had between them been responsible for nearly 70,000 deaths over these two decades (see Lisa Laplante, "The cloud of fear: Peru's anti-terror lesson", 7 March 2006).

Moreover, foreign governments in the post-Fujimori period increasingly turned to working with NGOs as the most effective way of channelling assistance to the 50% of the Peruvian population living in poverty. Many NGOs had much better working relationships with local communities than state institutions, which had an unfortunate reputation for authoritarianism, inefficiency and corruption.

The scale of corruption under Fujimori in particular pushed many international-development agencies to look for alternatives to official channels, keen to empower institutions at the local level involved in the fight against poverty.

Areas of tension

Relations between government and NGOs have soured again in recent years, most particularly in two spheres. The first has been human rights, always a politically sensitive topic. The legacy of past violations still looms over the present. Many of the violations that took place during Alan García's first period in office (1985-90) have since come under re-examination, not least in light of the CVR's findings. The armed forces, widely criticised for their complicity in corruption under human rights, have also regained some of the political muscle they lost after the downfall of the Fujimori regime.

García, in particular, has been accused of bearing responsibility - political if not operational -- for massacres that took place in the highlands in the war against Sendero Luminoso, as well as for other violent acts like the 1986 killings of Sendero inmates in three Lima prisons.

The current vice-president, Luis Giampetri, a retired admiral, was in charge of the naval detachment involved in the killings at El Frontón, an island prison (subsequently closed down) off Peru's main port of Callao. Giampetri is also widely seen as the mainspring for a recent offensive against the Instituto de Defensa Legal (Legal Defence Institute / IDL), a respected NGO working on judicial matters.

The second area of tension concerns NGOs involved in protests against various natural resource development projects, chiefly in the mining sector. The current high price of minerals on world markets, coupled to Peru's rich resource endowment, has led to massive investments in new mining projects over the last ten years. Communities living in the ambit of these projects claim that their social and environmental interests have not been properly protected, either by the companies concerned or by the state. Some NGOs have been actively supporting communities in conflicts with mining companies.

Partly as a result, NGOs have been accused of a range of offences: standing in the way of national development objectives, being irresponsible, unaccountable and lacking in transparency; and acting autocratically towards those with whom they work in civil society. The charges can extend even to involvement in terrorist activities. The NGO community vociferously rejects such allegations, arguing that they are simply pretexts for a clampdown on their freedom of action.

openDemocracy writers analyse Peru's politics:

Ricardo Uceda, "Fantasy Island"
(September 2005)

Ricardo Uceda, "Peru's election: a second leap into the void"
(January 2006)

Lisa Laplante, "The cloud of fear: Peru's anti-terror lesson" (March 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (April 2006)

Fujimorismo revisited

Although there have been attempts in the past to rein in NGOs, the new legislation is seen as more draconian. It stems from the change of government and the inauguration of a new congress in July 2006. The proposal was originally an initiative of the pro-Fujimori bloc in the congress, and in particular congressman Rolando Souza. Souza, now head of the parliamentary foreign-relations commission, was previously Alberto Fujimori's lawyer. Fujimori is still in Chile, pending his possible extradition to Peru on corruption and human-rights crimes.

The Fujimoristas - known as the Alianza por el Futuro (AF - also Fujimori's initials) - number only thirteen in the single-chamber congress, but they exercise considerable leverage. Their main aim appears to be to exonerate Fujimori of the charges levelled against him (perhaps with a view to facilitating his return to the frontline of Paruvian politics). The ruling Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (Apra) party of Alan García - which has thirty-six seats in the 120-member congress - needs their support to ensure its congressional majority.

The AF initiative on NGOs was therefore backed by Apra congressmen, as well as those from the centre-right Unidad Nacional (UN), led by Lourdes Flores. The bill, endorsed too by prime minister Jorge del Castillo, passed its second reading in congress on 2 November 2006 by sixty-five votes to forty-three. Once promulgated by García, it becomes law.

The alliance between Apra and parties to the right reflects Alan García's determination to be seen turning his back definitively on the sort of radicalism that ended his first government so disastrously; at that time, Peru defied the international financial community on the debt issue and abandoned the liberal economic policies espoused by the IMF and World Bank. Peru ended the 1980s in hyperinflation.

García is now keen to underline how he has changed by pursuing orthodoxy in both his economic and foreign policies. In the economic sphere, he is pushing the liberalising agenda that he once opposed, seeking in particular to attract foreign investment (not least in the mining sector). In foreign affairs, he is giving primacy to establishing a close rapport with the United States and to shunning Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. So far, a majority of Peruvians - if not NGOs - seem to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData