By Jennifer Brookland
In one of the towns in the Honduran province of La Paz, no one can say what the government chauffeur really does during the day.
It is easy to imagine that he spends his time shuttling officials to meetings, perhaps taking a cloth to the windshield while he waits outside in the sun. Maybe he swerves to avoid a pothole or stops for a hot pupusa as he drives home.
Apparently, he does none of these things. A close examination of this municipality’s budget reveals the government pays the full-time salary of a driver, but has no vehicle for him to captain.
Certified public accountant Santos Manuel Lara knows. With diplomas in fiscal policy and transparency, he is trained to make sense of real and suspicious public expenses.
As the head of a grassroots civil society organization in the province of La Paz, he also understands how these line items translate into illiteracy, poor health and hunger.
“It is a challenge to create a budget that really promotes human development,” he says. “There is a high rate of illiteracy [in La Paz]. There is malnourishment in the population. My town … is sick.”
With 95 percent of this particular municipality’s budget dedicated to salaries, little is left for other needed services. Lara sees children in some border communities crossing each day into El Salvador to get an education due to “subhuman” conditions in his region’s underfunded public schools.
He drives on poorly maintained city roads whose gaping cracks and holes hinder commerce and deter tourists. Lara even sees the insecurity plaguing La Paz —the kidnappings, assaults and murders—as a result of this lack of government accountability.
With support from Counterpart International’s Citizen Participation for Responsive Governance Project, Lara is trying to change this. He coordinates citizen observatories in five municipalities in La Paz that monitor local budgets and expenditures for potential fraud and corruption.
The project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and known locally as Impactos, is a five-year initiative to increase the capacity of civil society organizations like Lara’s to advocate for more transparency and accountability in public institutions.
“We are building their capacity so they are the ones who advocate and work closely with the anti-corruption institutions who are responsible for making sure that the plan for transparency and anticorruption in the country is actually achieved,” says Gloria Manzanares, Counterpart’s Director in Honduras.
Impactos works through two intermediary support organizations and 12 other grantees to train and give technical assistance to a network of 60 civil society organizations.
These organizations are working on budget transparency, human rights and service delivery—problems that all stem from the nationwide corruption and lack of transparency plaguing the country.
Honduras was ranked 133 out of 176 countries on the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Iran and Russia.
People are leaving the country, unwilling to put up any longer wtih the injustice, impunity and corruption.
“I’m sure a lot of families in Honduras are dealing with this– where people just don’t think they can live here,” says Manzanares.
“This is the worst threat to humanity and the worst threat to our society.”
Looking behind the numbers
The time may be ripe for Hondurans to take a stand on these issues, according to Dina Eguigure, Senior Program Officer for Counterpart’s Impactos.
“The situation in Honduras is very delicate in terms of the use of public funds by the government. And this is more accentuated in the past few years since the transition of government that we had in 2009,” she says. “Since then, a space has opened in which semi-organized civil society can put before the government and the public the need for greater transparency in the use of resources.”
Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Social Forum on Honduras External Debt (FOSDEH), the first think tank of its kind in Honduras, is collaborating with Impactos to train citizen observers in La Paz and elsewhere to decipher government budgets and spending—and to hold public officials accountable.
Sandra Amador Mazariegos had never paid much attention to government budgets.
As a sociology student, her work was in people and observation, relationships and behavior. Why would she have paid attention to the cold spreadsheets of a government budget? Leave it to the experts, she thought.
But when Amador started volunteering with a nongovernmental women’s support organization, she realized the need to ensure adequate government funding for domestic violence issues. Amador knew that programs to assist women were supposed to receive as much as 2 percent of the budget. However, no one was monitoring it.
FOSDEH, with support from Impactos, was offering the solution. Amador took a three-day course once a month for 11 months until she learned what to look for among the daunting rows and columns of the state financial reports.
“Budgets are not just numbers. I think that was one of the most important lessons of the entire process,” says Amador. “That numbers are numbers but behind those numbers is a mountain of politics.”
Though she lives in Choloma, she volunteered to review the budget for the neighboring city of San Pedro Sula.
Just getting access to those numbers proved a challenge. When Amador requested a copy of the budget—which itself is uncommon—she had to prove that she was legally entitled to see it. On a return trip with the legal justification, the advocate was told there was no money to print it.
Overall, it took four trips and a flash drive to get the entire budget. Then she went through it, page by page, until all of its secrets were revealed.
Amador finally realized why so many needs in Honduras’s second-largest city went unmet. To her surprise, pages revealed that the largest segment of the budget is used to pay off the municipal debt.
She hopes public knowledge about the budget will allow communities to advocate for spending where it’s most needed.
Bringing corruption to light
The endemic lack of transparency and the potential for corruption in Honduras affects state budgets and public institutions, but it also seeps into people’s daily lives.
Civil society advocates cite a long list of abuses.
Academic exam results are overlooked as some families pay bribes in exchange for spots at the best schools. “Ghost teachers” collect salaries but never show up to teach. Officials demand money, or even sexual favors, from government employees seeking to move into the cities. Medicines disappear from health departments.
One civil society organization is making it easier for people to report such violations.
The Assistencia Legal Anticorrupcion (ALAC)—a legal assistance center in the capital of Tegucigalpa established jointly by Counterpart and the local affiliate of Transparency International—provides a way for citizens to bring forward allegations of corruption.
Since its February 2012 opening, ALAC has received 261 complaints—a high number that would likely be even higher were it not for fear and a lack of greater public awareness.
Some of the allegations people bring to ALAC are small administrative cases but others concern millions of lempiras. The goal is to get people to report corruption, says one of the center’s lawyers. It doesn’t matter the size.
“People are not getting involved as they should, and they are accepting corruption as part of a normal part of life, but we want to send a message that corruption is not normal,” says Ayala.
The ALAC in Tegucigalpa is one of the most successful centers in Latin America, and the organization plans to open additional locations in the north of the country. But in Honduras, where corruption is too often viewed as insurmountable and even normal, just getting people to voice an allegation is a victory.
“It’s not easy. It’s really sad to see what’s happening,” says a grey-haired man who has brought three corruption complaints to ALAC. “There are things that I can say here that I cannot say outside.”
Some in the private sector are also tired of corruption in Honduras, and want to play a role.
The owner of the country’s largest drugstore chain, also a member of San Pedro Sula’s chamber of commerce, donated commercial space worth more than $50,000 a year so that Impactos can expand ALAC to the northern part of the country.
As people are empowered to take more personal responsibility for Honduras’s corruption problem, ALAC views itself as their support system. Counterpart reinforces ALAC with technical support, training, information management and stronger connections with partner organizations.
Several institutions were working in the fight against corruption, but all doing different things, says ALAC attorney Ludim Ayala. “Now it’s like all of us can have a common front, a course to follow.”
Driving a change
Everyone knows that the course will not be smooth. It will be riddled with potholes and roundabouts, dead ends and unpaved surfaces.
But more and more, people across the country from public institutions to tiny towns are realizing that it is they who must get behind the wheel.
“Society in western Honduras is demanding more transparency,” says Roberto Carlos Chinchilla Sorto, Deputy Mayor of the municipality of San Nicolas Copan. “Not only at the local level but nationally.”
Those demands are starting to make an impact.
“We have seen substantial changes in attitude within civil society, as well as the process that local government authorities understand that civil society has a voice, has rights, has a vote and has a right to decide and also has ideas beyond what occur with a team of local officials,” Sorto says.
Manzanares is also optimistic about the way ahead.
“I think this program in five years will make a difference in having a more responsive government. We will have citizens able to have all the tools to practice those mechanisms and advocate for a government that’s more transparent.”
Behind the guarded gate of ALAC, Ayala smiles at the thought of Honduras without corruption.
“There is so much potential in the country, in every way,” says Ayala. “Without corruption, Honduras would be a country that could reach unimaginable heights.”