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Simple lives, complex politics

It was just a snapshot, but Alba Rivera passed it around with pride. It showed her with the mayor of Puerto Cabezas, looking like old friends. It wasn't always that way.

"We used to have fights," said Rivera, coordinator of the government of the northern region of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, whose administrative center is located in the town of Puerto Cabezas. "Such fights! Such jealousy! I was jealous of him, and he was jealous of me. I wanted projects all to myself, so people would say, 'Doña Alba did it'. He wanted people to say that the mayor did it.

"But that's all over. In every project, every program, we work together. Whenever one of us gets money, we give some to the other."

In a region with a history of conflict, war, civil unrest, lingering violence and the politicization of just about everything, reaching hands across ideological divides is a big step forward.

It is also vital for the eventual success of a new IDB program to strengthen the Atlantic Coast's regional governments so that they can manage and direct the development process in their jurisdictions. (See link at right for more about the IDB program.) In fact, Rivera was quick to credit the IDB, and particularly Bank specialist Hans Gatz, who was with her that day, with helping to bring the factions together. "The IDB acts as a mediator, and even more, as a consciousness raiser to help us move the dialogue forward," Rivera said.

A quiet, unprepossessing woman, Alba does not look the part of a political leader. But things are seldom what they seem on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. Several years ago, she resolved a very tense handover of arms by the last insurgents in the region. "As a woman, it was very difficult for me," said Rivera. But she had two key advantages: First, she is a native of the area. And second, she was formerly a schoolteacher, and many of the rebels were once her pupils.

Rivera spoke proudly of what the local authorities have accomplished. Two years ago, she said, Puerto Cabezas was a town of dirt streets. Today, 20 streets are paved. But there's so much more to be done: "We have hundreds of problems," she said. "We need so much. I could make a long list, like for Santa Claus."

One problem is the mentality of the people. "They want to get everything as a gift," she said. "If they need a vehicle, they wait for the government to give them one. Then it will sit there, brand new, untouched, until the government also gives them gasoline."

Another problem is the impact of recent natural and man-made disasters. During the civil war, she said, people nearly lost the custom of planting crops. Only now are they returning to agriculture, she said. In the northern river town of Waspam, farmers produced 40,000 quintals of beans that past season; a very good harvest. But they still have a long way to go. "Even cabbage is brought in from Managua," she said. So are tomatoes. Bananas come all the way from Costa Rica. Before we planted everything."

Needed: job skills. Wherever she looks, she sees problems that her counterparts in more developed countries could only imagine. As a former teacher, she believes that education is a path toward solving many of them. One example is the mounting pressure on natural resources. For example, sea turtles, a staple source of meat, are now growing scarce, and should be protected. Fishermen should receive training in new ways to earn a living.

But even more fundamental is the role of government. Local authorities, in close collaboration with citizens, must have the ability to plan development by setting priorities, managing projects, and providing services, according to Rivera. She expects that the new IDB-financed program will prove to be a turning point for the region.

The program will make its greatest contribution by providing local officials with the skills they need to do their job. A big part of this job will be to work with communities, and here Alba stressed the importance of training members of citizens groups and local indigenous leaders. She also wants to build links between local government and the large number of nongovernmental organizations working in the area. While some of the NGOs do good work, overall the effectiveness of their efforts is impaired by the lack of coordination.

As she spoke, work crews outside her office were putting the finishing touches on a gleaming new building that will house the regional government. "We're going to bring community leaders here—the headmen, the judges, the elders. Here they will receive training, and then return to their communities to teach others," she said.

The IDB's Hans Gatz, who was reviewing a stack of papers, joined in the conversation. "The important thing here is that we create links between different levels of administration–and also among different levels of society. Our job will be to encourage a new way of thinking about politics."

The Atlantic Coast has been through a great deal–wars, natural disasters, neglect, exploitation. Now it is getting the chance to create a new future based on good government and democratic institutions.

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