Just as COVID-19 strained individuals, families, and communities around the world over the past two and a half years, it also challenged governments. Local and national governments struggled to maintain information flows to citizens during the pandemic.
In the face of the crisis, USAID in the Dominican Republic saw an opportunity to support civil society organizations and journalists in the country in advancing a productive dialogue with the Dominican Republic's newly elected local government through USAID’s Innovation for Change initiative, an activity that works through regional innovation hubs to support, strengthen, and sustain civil society. The project supported budgetary and fiscal transparency around COVID-19 resources and training for journalists on investigative reporting related to the pandemic.
As a result of the realities of COVID-19, it soon became clear that the implementation of the project would have to be as innovative as the project itself. Limitations on travel meant that the project would be transformed into a nexus of virtual inter-regional partnership and collaboration within the Latin America and the Caribbean region, including organizations from Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala, all sharing expertise with colleagues in the Dominican Republic.
The initiative was unlike a typical USAID project in terms of that level of regional collaboration, partly because of the innovative, collaborative design of Innovation for Change and partly because of the unique capabilities and network that the project‘s primary implementing partner—Ecuador-based FARO—brought to the effort.
“I’m proud that the teams took on this ambitious project in uncertain times and made it work,” said Ana Patricia Muñóz, Executive Director of FARO.
FARO brought in other organizations from its extensive regional network in Latin America and the Caribbean in order to supplement its expertise. In this arrangement, FARO found itself in a unique position: “We had three roles,” explained Muñoz, “first, the funds came through us, which required a close relationship with the organizations receiving funds; second, we provided connections between local organizations and regional capacity support, and third, we were implementing portions of the project ourselves.”
On the transparency and government accountability side, the project’s activities included a capacity-strengthening workshop with young leaders, and a Dominican Republic National Youth Volunteer Fair led by Alianza ONG (a network of civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic) to raise the visibility of 48 Dominican civil society organizations working to promote transparency. The project also organized a series of workshop sessions on fiscal transparency and the Dominican Republic budget-making process, as well as designed public awareness-raising campaigns on critical public needs during the pandemic and on the importance of monitoring public COVID-19 resources, in collaboration with Participación Ciudadana, a Dominican organization, and Jóvenes Contra la Violencia, a Guatemalan nongovernmental organization.
“[We brought] combinations of people together to share what works across Latin America, in terms of promoting government accountability and transparency, and campaigning to those ends; to build capacity of the local Dominican Republic partners, but also those external to the country and to really strengthen that network of activists working together. Those are always our three mutually reinforcing objectives,” said Albert Cevallos, Innovation for Change Program Manager at the Tides Center.
For the investigative journalism portion of the project, FARO worked with Connectas, a Colombia-based organization that helps journalists from throughout the Latin America and the Caribbean region collaborate and learn from one another. Connectas provided virtual training to Dominican-based journalists on investigating and writing stories about transparency and the use of COVID funds. Afterward, FARO and Connectas held a contest for stories published about the government’s pandemic response.
Overall, Muñóz noted that the regional collaboration and knowledge sharing developed through the project was fruitful and an example for future efforts that could even expand to other regions globally. She stressed the importance of collaboration with other organizations in the Southern Hemisphere: “South-South cooperation allows us to share [our] concerns and to learn from each other.”
Paradoxically, COVID-19 has even resulted in some benefits to collaboration: “We could have staff in different places,” noted Muñóz. “It has put all of us at the same level.” She pointed out that the shared language and basic shared cultural foundation helped to streamline the collaboration within the region in ways that might not have occurred if capacity-strengthening efforts had been directed from outside the region, for example, from the United States.
Muñóz emphasized that this is exactly what the Innovation for Change network in Latin America does every day: implementing a shared leadership and collaborative approach through four organizations from Argentina (RACI), Dominican Republic (Alianza ONG), Guatemala (Jóvenes Contra la Violencia), and Ecuador (FARO), who jointly make strategic decisions to strengthen the network.
“We need that excitement and that hope,” remarked Muñóz, “because it’s easy to get frustrated—there are just so many problems that come at you. All organizations around the world are facing the same level of frustration and anxiety of not being able to do more, but I think that the hope that we can change the power dynamics makes us wake up at 6 a.m. and try to build something together.”