Case Study: Democracy & Civic Participation in Argentina
This report evaluates the mini public library project implemented by El Desafio Foundation, a non-profit organization located and active in Rosario, Argentina. Started in April 2014, the mini library project ties into El Desafio’s larger mission to create a more active and integrated society by fighting the root causes of poverty and promoting civic participation. The mini library project is still in progress today with plans to create 30 more in Rosario, including 10 in the next six months,as well as replicate their model throughout other areas of Argentina. El Desafio’smini library project has three main objectives. (1) Promote literacy by providing opportunities for citizens to read and share books,(2) foster a sense of community in neighborhoods by providing an open space that increases interaction amongst neighbors, and (3) promote social responsibility and a sense of civic duty through increased conversation and shared ownership of the mini libraries.
Initiating the mini library project was a challenging, lengthy process as Rosario’s City Council has many institutional and bureaucratic inefficiencies. For example, one root cause of governmental inefficiency is that state officials cannot be fired and therefore have little incentive to work. Ultimately, El Desafio took it upon themselves to begin installing the mini libraries and received post-hoc authorization by the local government after their implementation and accrued public support.
Key findings of the mini library project include:
- The simplicity and marketability of mini public libraries is popular and has generated national and international media attention which indicates that relatively simple concepts can be catchy and effective.
- Though public servants have little incentive to work or promote social change, the government will not actively repress or interfere with a popular social project. However, whether this is to avoid negative press or because interfering requires local government action, which is generally minimal,or both, has not been determined.
- The idea of an open, free public good is a shocking concept that was initially met with great skepticism. However, it has shown that when given the opportunity, communities will take individual and collective responsibility for public spaces, even in the context of a challenging environment with high crime rates and political, economic, and societal unrest.
- Though it is difficult to track, creating open spaces for communication and collaboration will foster new relationships and promote a sense of community within Rosario. This has been evident based on positive feedback, and the organization of book drives and donations for the mini libraries.
- Though social impact is difficult to measure, there is evidence, consisting mostly of participant feedback, that the mini libraries and its effects are changing attitudes and day to day habits of local citizens. Because social change must often first occur in small increments, this is a promising step forward.
- Despite community engagement and support,mini libraries require a special oversight team to ensure their proper upkeep and continuation.
- Given the current political climate of Argentina, disruptive and innovative changed is necessary to inspire civic participation. The mini library success has further supported this idea.
Context & Problem
Argentina has maintained a democratic style of government since the general election in 1983, following political turmoil and periods of dictatorship since the 1950s. Being a new democracy, Argentina’s system is still immature and suffers from bureaucratic inefficiencies, corruption, and heavy mafia involvement coupled with an overall sense of apathy.Additionally, the Argentinian economy has been very unstable, characterized by periods of growth followed by severe recessions. Private estimates from 2010show that 30-35% ofArgentinians live below the poverty level, or below $1.25 USD per day, although the government claimed estimates ofonly about 3% and since 2013 has stopped publishing information on poverty altogether., 
Another major problem is the crime rate which has spiked due to increased drug trade. In 2014, Rosario had the highest murder rate in Argentina.In 2013, the homicide rate increased 76% compared to 2012 and the homicide index further increased by 100% between 2013 and 2015., Organized crime has become increasingly common in Rosario including execution killings that target anyone who opposes their illegal activities including judges, prosecutors, and politicians.Additionally, few criminals are brought to justice due to corruption and incompetencies in local judicial systems as well asthe fact that some police officers are affiliated withthe organized crime, further deteriorating trust in the government and police force which has never fully recovered from the infamous forced disappearances and state terrorismduring Argentina’s Dirty War. This current state has created an atmosphere of tension and fear among residents in Rosario, severely limiting trust, cooperation, and the ability for a community and civil society to develop.
In 2014, the poor economic conditions along with the high rate of crime sparked mass protests focused against the then and current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who has been criticized for high-profile corruption, unconstitutional governance, and overall low political accountability and transparency., For example, in late 2001 the government froze savings accounts, leaving thousands without access to their own capital. According to a poll conducted by Management & Fit in 2014, Fernandez’s approval ratings were at 28% during October 2011.However, despite the dissatisfaction and organized protests, little has changed politically in Argentina and Fernandez and her supporters have barely acknowledged their complaints. According to Mario Raimondi, El Desafio’s co-founder and project director of the mini library project, multiple protests over the same issues occur daily in Argentina so they are no longer raising any additional awareness and have become an ineffective method of opposition and considered more of a nuisance than a political statement.
Coupled with ineffective protests and despite Argentina’s economic, political, and criminal problems, many Argentinians are content to call the nation democratic and gladly assert and exercise their rights, though without any accompanying sense of civic duty or responsibility, according to Mr.Raimondi.“They are part of the problem,” says Raimondi who states that their unwillingness to take responsibility or ownership of the country’s problems and indifferent attitudes towards their own neighborhoods and local communities further contributes to the challenges of building a coherentand functioninginfrastructure in Rosario.Additionally, a widespread belief, propagated by political parties, states that the only way to participate in democracy is to be a member of a political party. However, political parties are considered corrupt, leading citizens who might otherwise participate in politics given a clear path and opportunity, to distance themselves from them instead.
According to Raimondi, based off own experience living in Rosario,civil society is all but absent and Rosario’s City Council is largely ineffective and self-interested. Because state workers are immune from being fired, there is little incentive for them to be productive, or even show up on most days. These officials have earned the nickname “gnocchis,” an Italian dish traditionally eaten on the last Sunday of the month, which reflects the idea that many officials only show up on towards the end of the month to collect their paychecks. According to Raimondi, there is no foreseeable future for Rosario as there are no planned goals or programs, and minimal interest or discussion on how to improve Rosario’s problems.
Because of the high crime rates, political staleness, economic hardships, and social inconsideration that permeates the culture in Rosario, social change will come only with persistent, innovative and disruptive ideas and actions.
El Desafio Foundationwas founded in 2002 by Mario Raimondi and JornWemmenhove with the goal of reducing poverty by fighting social exclusion, creating open spaces for interaction and communication amongst citizens, and fostering social commitment. Starting El Desafio, which translates to “the challenge,” was a lengthy process due to the Rosario City Council being unresponsive, lack of fiscal andpolitical framework for non-profits in Argentina, as well as the overall skepticism people held about their idea. Today, El Desafio is one of the few NGOs in Argentina that focus on long term, sustainable goals as most are directed towards charity and immediate relief. Additionally, El Desafio offers over a dozen programs for children which focus on sports, dance, education, the workforce, art, nutrition, and politics,all aimed at promoting new skills and driven attitudes in the local youth.
Although El Desafio has partneredwith other local NGOs for projects, they have worked independently on the mini library project. Two El Desafio volunteers install and fix the mini libraries, working about four hours per week, and a private carpenter builds the mini libraries. Additionally, there are several community leaders who primarily care for the mini libraries by adding books, decorating the areas, and alerting El Desafio of necessary repairs. Additionally, the Rosario City Council officially approved the mini library project.
Because El Desafio is a private NGO, and due to their founders’ beliefs, they do not accept funding from the Argentinian government. This makes private donors significant actors for El Desafio and approximately 30% of their funding comes from 320 different donors, 90% of whom are local Rosario residents. Donations are made primarily through El Desafio’s website and events they host. Additionally, the mini library project has its own page on GlobalGiving, a charity fundraising website that helps connect social entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations with potential donors. The mini library project alone has received$7,051 USD through this website. Finally, Banco Macro, Argentina’s second largest private bank, has agreed to fund 30 new mini libraries, an equivalent of approximately $3,000 USD.
The mini library project began in April, 2014 and has since grown to 6 libraries, with 10 more scheduled for installation within the next six months, and funding for another 20 libraries is already secured through Banco Macro.The project also attracted great media attention in Argentina and internationally which has helped give the project more exposure and credibility. See Appendix A for examples of media coverage, social media coverage, blog posts, and reviews of the mini library project.
One of the goals of the project is to promote literacy. Tracking increases in literacy is difficult due to lack of testing and the free, unmonitored nature of the mini libraries. However, four libraries were monitored for eight months from April to December in 2014 and El Desafio found that 65,000 people stopped and opened them during that time period. That averages to about 265 people per day which, spread over 4 different libraries, averages to roughly 66 people per day at each library. Additionally, the libraries have been praised for their accessibility since there is no cost involved for users and they are located in safe, open spaces, enabling and encouraging people who may not normally seek out libraries or are unable to afford them to pick up a book.
Another goal is to foster community and the mini libraries brought community members together in several ways. First, the mini libraries were a new and initially shocking concept, likely generating conversations amongst residents. Secondly, to use the mini libraries, people must approach them and spend some time around them. Just as people come into contact and socialize with each other at regular libraries, the mini libraries provide a new space to do the same. Additionally, sharing a common interest, such as a book, is a pathway to discussion, even amongst strangers. Third, communities have organized book drives and have planted plants and flowers around the mini libraries. This means that people have collaborated, organized, and communicated with their fellow neighbors. Fourth, the positive media attention highlighted something that citizens of Rosario can be proud of and claim as their own as a collective community.
The third main goal of the mini libraries is to promote social responsibility and pave the way for fostering a sense of civic duty. This goal is based on the idea that people who feel membership to a community are more likely to act in socially responsible ways towards it, for example, by being aware of others around them, reacting positively to strangers, and not littering and caring for their surroundings. These actions can lead to habits, behaviors, and beliefs consistent with civic responsibility, or caring about Rosario’s issues and taking ownership, responsibility, and action to fix them. The mini libraries have started to achieve this in small increments, first, by changing habits. The organized book drives, donations, and gardens show that some of the residents have taken ownership of the libraries and will put in the effort to take care of a public space. Additionally, this care is public and visible to others which signals that the libraries are important and cared for, setting a new norm regarding the libraries and normalizing responsible behavior. Secondly, the mini library project was initially met with skepticism by locals but hassince garnered positive responses and feedback by users and community members, indicating a change in attitudes about the project, or at least enabling positive ones to be expressed. This emergence of more positive attitudes helps fight the apathetic climate in Rosario.
One specific example of promoting attitude change came inDecember, 2014when one of the mini libraries was vandalized. El Desafio was prepared for the predicted, eventual destruction and managed to restore the mini library completely in three days. This small action of efficient replacement and not accepting vandalism, which is common in Rosario,makes a statement that vandalism is not acceptable and not to be tolerated, hopefully creating a social ripple effect on the local residents. This particular case of vandalism and the triumph over it was reported on by Tres, a local news station.
Though there is reasonable anecdotal evidence based off personal responses, reviews, and media coverage to suggest the mini libraries have been effective, quantitative results are lacking. Unlike regular libraries, there is no way to determine how many books are in circulation or whether the books are properly returned. Additionally, it is difficult to measure community cohesion and track new relationships and attitudes. Furthermore, the mini library project does not have an end goal or marker for completion. Ideally, it will help build community ties and change apathetic attitudes of Rosario. However, organization, communication, and effective mass demonstrations must follow any positive attitude change to help solve Rosario’s governmental and social problems.
The first lesson learned is that it is not always beneficial to wait for official approval in a setting where bureaucracy is slow and officials are unwilling to help. The Rosario City Council was initially unresponsive to requests for approval, however, they did not attempt to shut down the mini library project once implemented, nor did they punish El Desafio for initially installing the libraries without approval. However, acting without official consent is risky. It is likely that the project’s success relied heavily on the fact that it gained enough public support and was not perceived harmful by the government. A project that fails to attract support or is too inflammatory is more likely to result in the actors being held responsible.
The second takeaway from the mini library project isthat simple ideas can make an impact. The mini library project does not require a huge budget, extensive planning, nor a long time horizon. However, it has generated public use, positive attention, and community organizing. Since traditional forms of demonstrating discontent such as voting, petitioning, and protesting are not effective in Rosario and because a large part of the problem is an apathetic population in the first place, unique ideas are necessary to make an impact. However, the mini library project has shown that unique ideas do not have to be complex to be effective.
A third lesson learned is the amount of effort that it takes to sustain the mini libraries. Currently, there are two El Desafio volunteers in charge of overseeing the mini libraries and ensuring their successful continuation. However, Raimondi stated that upkeep is more time consuming than expected and is short staffed with just two people responsible for six libraries. Raimondi states that four would be ideal for six libraries and that they will have to further increase staff as more mini libraries are installed throughout Rosario.
Finally, although the mini libraries have created small social impacts on Rosario by being a positive and public presence, it will take more than just small libraries to strongly and permanently change attitudes in Rosario.El Desafio must promote other community building and social responsibility initiatives and focus their efforts on specific goals. Some examples include holding forums for open discussion or creating workshops on responsible civic participation. Because many of Rosario’s problems have roots deeply entrenched in the culture, it is important to start with increasing education about civil society and governance, and shifting attitudes in the citizens who comprise the culture.
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