A Discussion with John Briggs, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Guatemala
November 11, 2015
Background: John Briggs, head of programming at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Guatemala, has spent over a decade observing change in Guatemala. In this interview with Carlos Martínez Ruiz in Guatemala City on November 11, 2015, he details the many and varying social and environmental vulnerabilities that confront Guatemala. He describes CRS programs in Guatemala and coordination mechanisms with other organizations. He argues that the dialogue and communication between faith-inspired organizations (FIOs) and non-FIO development organizations is strong, but dialogue requires effort and time before lines of communication and understanding can develop among diverse ecumenical and development groups. However, Mr. Briggs finds reasons for optimism in the joint work of development and church actors and in Guatemala’s recent political changes.
Can you please tell me about your background and what brought you to Guatemala?
I was born in the United States, but my parents moved to Guatemala when I was a child. I grew up in Guatemala and returned to the United States for undergraduate and graduate school. During my graduate studies at Fordham University in Political, Social, and Economic Development, I interned with CRS and then joined the organization as an employee after graduation. I came back to Guatemala in 2012. I have enjoyed being back and working with CRS Guatemala.
How long has CRS been involved in Guatemala?
Catholic Relief Services is a U.S.-based NGO; we are a member of the Caritas International network, and we are here in Guatemala at the invitation of the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference. CRS has been in Guatemala for over 50 years. We have worked in food security, education, health, emergency response, agriculture, among others. Currently we are working in agricultural livelihoods, food security, education, and disaster risk reduction and response. We also work with HIV/AIDS programming through the local Church and with migrant shelters and the Human Mobility Pastoral Association.
We are currently finalizing our five-year strategic plan for CRS Guatemala, which includes four pillars. The first pillar is agricultural livelihoods, including areas such as saving and lending communities, soil and water technical services, and extension services.
The second pillar is youth and childhood development, and includes work with at-risk youth and bilingual literacy and education. The work with at-risk youth centers around a three-prong strategy of building life and employability skills, forming savings and lending groups, and strengthening relationships with families and youth.
The third pillar is emergencies, including disaster risk reduction and resiliency creation. This pillar focuses on working with families before, during, and after a disaster. One of our focus areas is the use of market-based responses.
The fourth pillar is local institutional development.
From your perspective, what are Guatemala’s distinctive environmental vulnerabilities?
Some of the major natural vulnerabilities include recurring flooding, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and droughts.
For example, we see increased droughts in the dry corridor of the country. It is now a yearly phenomenon; it’s reoccurring and it’s prolonged. Right now we are responding to drought in the dry corridor of the eastern part of the country. Clearly climate change has a major impact on these communities and it’s important to help families be resilient to it; just as families can implement simple techniques to improve resilience to floods, they can implement simple actions on their farms to make them more resilient to droughts.
There are also a lot of man-made activities, which can lead to landslides, increased erosion, or flooding. A lot of times those come from manmade activities; for example, building where they shouldn’t because of lack of governance by local authorities.
What about resource extraction?
Mining has been an issue for many years in Guatemala; it’s very common here. There are a variety of mining companies. Often, it is an area of conflict and tension with communities. Certainly, it is something that is continuously reoccurring here. The indigenous communities and mining companies are often at a deadlock in their willingness to communicate or find a resolution to the situation.
Can you speak about your healthcare programs?
Our food security program takes an integral approach to the issue of food security that includes working with families to improve their health access and knowledge. There’s a tremendous amount of malnutrition in the country, particularly in rural or indigenous communities. We are working with those communities, in the western highlands specifically, to create a package of services and approaches that lead to reducing malnutrition. That includes a number of programs, some of which are agriculture-based, some of which are savings groups for resiliency, some of which are about small business development, and some of which are health-focused.
What role does faith play in your work?
Our guiding principles, based on Catholic social teaching, are very important to us. For example, one of our principles is an option for the poor, or in other words the preference to target the most vulnerable population in any intervention. Another example is subsidiarity; if someone is capable at the community level of implementing a project, we certainly don’t want to come in and do that job. Our mission, strategic planning and program designs are very closely tied to these principles. We try to regularly reflect on these principles and ensure that we are headed in the right direction.
Do you work with volunteers from the U.S. that come to Guatemala on short-term missions?
We do receive visitors. For example, we may have a group of visitors coming to see a project, to see how it’s going or to better understand the contexts or needs in Guatemala. We have visitors coming from the Church or our headquarters. Some of those come to help us accomplish part of our mission, which is to share the work being done here with Catholics in the U.S. and to improve awareness and knowledge about what’s going on in Guatemala.
We also have visitors coming that provide technical assistance. We have a team of technical staff, at the local, regional and HQ levels, that are able to come in and provide very specific technical advisory support.
Given that you are a faith-based NGO, and given the religious composition of Guatemala in the last 30 years, what are your relations with the indigenous communities and members of Evangelical churches?
As I mentioned, we are here at the invitation of the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference, and we work very closely with the Church. Many of our local partners are diocesan Caritas. But we also work with non-Catholic local partners. At the community level our goal is to work with everyone and ensure strong inclusive participation. This includes traditional and formal leaders as well as Mayan and indigenous leaders. Through our local partners we are able to better understand not only the context, but also the religious and traditional practices and beliefs. This enables us to incorporate elements into our program activities that are more inclusive and participatory. We are very careful in our selection criteria for how to choose who to work with, in order to make sure that those we work with are able to identify with and help those who most need the help, regardless of whether they are Catholic, Evangelical, or Mayan.
For example, in a recent disaster preparedness program we worked closely with the Catholic and Evangelical churches and local community leaders to identity who we could train and certify to respond to disasters. We recruited youth from a variety of different churches and frequently held trainings in the local Evangelical churches, Catholic churches, or municipal offices.
What it all comes down to is that we want to do the best job that we can to work with the poorest and most vulnerable in any given community. That means working with everyone to ensure that we are able to achieve that.
In general, how do you see the relationship between secular and religious development groups and actors?
There is always room for improvement, certainly: there is duplication, there is competitiveness, but there is also coordination.
There is a lot of good coordination with the local government. Of course it is challenged by political change and any election year is going to be unpredictable.
Between NGOs, definitely there is cooperation/competition. There’s competition for funding and for work. For example, if one group wants to do research and have control groups, and then another NGO is working in those same communities, it makes it much more difficult to do any rigorous evaluation or research. We’ve had times where we’ve been working in the same community as another organization doing similar work. However, we worked together to develop a work plan with specific actions and steps, with key lines of communication and coordination, and key elements where we were going to work together, and agreed to different areas where they would focus and where we would focus in terms of technical areas.
In Guatemala, there is WHIP, the Western Highland Integrated Program, with many organizations, different missions and visions, and different indicators that they are reporting on. WHIP is a move in the right direction. As a result of WHIP, in several departments, we have implemented joint projects to test new ideas out. I think this is the first stage, and I hope there will be a second stage building on these lessons learned to improve this coordination.
Outside of this, there are many other types of coordination as well. For example, our education program, which is USDA-funded, coordinates closely with the USAID-funded education program in Guatemala. We share tools, technologies, and methodologies, and work together towards a shared policy agenda to achieve the same goals in terms of national policies and laws. I would say the biggest challenge is time: it takes a lot of time to coordinate at that level.
To achieve significant structural/policy changes, coordination is essential. We can’t influence alone as CRS; we have to work as a collective network of organizations. First we need to coordinate with the public sector to understand priorities and the political context. Then we need to work with other organizations and the public sector, generate evidence, and then take that together to influence policy changes.
Has the new focus of Pope Francis on the environment changed your philosophy or approach?
We are very excited about the increased dialogue on the environment. Although our environmental and climate change work has been ongoing for many years, this focus invigorates our team and validates our efforts. We have certainly seen an increase in interest and excitement around the topic, both locally and internationally. For example, CRS has seen an increase in invitations from different government departments to share the work that we are doing with soils and water.
Given the political turmoil in 2015, what is the outlook you see for Guatemala’s future, along with the roles of NGOs and FIOs?
I think that the outlook is very positive. The political turmoil was a peaceful process of demonstrations, marches, and civil society actions that led to the change in the government. They were surprisingly peaceful and effective. It’s astounding that civil society was able to peacefully create so much change in one year. I think it’s pretty new for Central America to see this type of change, specifically when dealing with themes like corruption.