This post was guest written by Hans Nusselder, a Senior Consultant for Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Rural, and our consultant during our time in Nicaragua.

In April, we went on a series of fact-finding missions. We wanted to explore the possible effects of the proposed cuts to foreign assistance in the President’s FY19 budget. In Nicaragua, we investigated the effects of the cuts on democracy and governance, especially civil society. You can read our report here.

As part of our research, it was revealed that the United States is one of the only major funders for independent civil society organisations (CSOs) in Nicaragua. In light of our recent research, and the current protests that are going on in Nicaragua, we thought this would be a good time to examine the history of Nicaraguan civil society.

Before 1979, CSOs were primarily aimed at providing basic public services to the Nicaraguan people. The first major growth in CSOs occurred in response to the devastating earthquake that happened in December 1972. They were mostly non-profit, private and religious. With overseas support, CSOs grew in number after 1979 and the coming to power of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). During this time, they tended to be large organisations almost entirely affiliated with the government. They worked in conjunction with the government’s social programs and projects, during the so-called Contra War (1981-90) waged between the Sandinista government and the US backed Contra rebel groups.

The post-Sandinista years

In 1990, the Sandinistas lost the election, and a more right wing government took over. Following IMF advice, the new government, led by Violeta Chamorro, reduced funding to various social services. This saw the number of CSOs grow significantly, to fill the gap and meet the needs of the people. CSOs at the time were staffed primarily by former FSLN workers, and remained sympathetic to the Sandinista cause.

From 1997 to 2006 the Liberal Party was in power, and viewed the predominantly left leaning CSO community as in opposition to the government. A concerted effort was made to shrink the sector, but pressure from international donors, NGOs and the opposition FSLN party slowed this progress. During this time, CSOs began distancing themselves from party affiliation, and became more independent. This was particularly true for women’s organisations.

The Ortega Administration

When current president Daniel Ortega’s FLSLN gained power in 2006, efforts were made to subsume many CSOs under the banner of the party, as had occurred in the first Sandinista regime. This process steadily extended to numerous institutions in the public sphere, including the judiciary, police, Supreme Electoral Council, municipal governments and the National Assembly.
During this time, and particularly since 2012, many international bilateral donors have either entirely pulled out or have significantly reduced their funding to Nicaragua. Combined with a government order that all money flowing in to the country be channelled through them, this has resulted in a significantly reduced CSO community.

The United States is now the only major bilateral donor that is able to independently fund organisations directly, and not send money through the government. Because of this, a disproportionate amount of the independent CSO community in Nicaragua depends wholly on US foreign assistance to remain in existence. In the research we conducted, we found that there were two distinct groups of CSOs currently operating in Nicaragua. There are the service providers, such as food banks and healthcare providers. These organisations have been left largely to their own devices in recent years, filling a much-needed gap in government services. Then, we have more political organisations, such as women’s advocacy groups, which have come under significant pressure to either become affiliated with the government, or to close.

Our Nicaragua Brief concludes that to withdraw funding from the country at the level proposed by the Trump Administration would seriously undermine civil society – in particular organisations that support marginalised or disadvantaged communities.

To read more, download the brief here: The Impact of Proposed US Foreign Assistance Cuts: Nicaragua’s Civil Society