Thirty years ago, the thriving metropolis of El Alto, Bolivia, was virtually non-existent. But in the 1980s and 90s, driven from the countryside by the drought and the privatization of mines, farmers and miners, many of them indigenous, began to migrate to more populous areas, making their homes in the mountainside that loomed over the basin city of La Paz, one of two Bolivian capitals. It wasn’t exactly a peaceful transition. Population growth soon outpaced the government’s ability to provide basic services like running water and a sewage system. In 2003, fed up with ongoing economic and political exclusion, neighborhood associations, trade unions, and other groups staged an uprising, bringing the country to a standstill.
Foreign donors, wary that the unrest would scare away investors, took action, bringing in “democracy assistance programs” in an effort to stabilize the country. Many of these programs, both American and European, operated under the banner of promoting conflict resolution.
Susan Ellison was working in Bolivia at the time for a network of nonprofits and grassroots organizations that were examining the structural causes of poverty in the country. Ellison watched with interest as the uprising and subsequent influx of foreign donors unfolded. How were these programs seeking to transform Bolivian democracy? In this country with a significant indigenous population that had long demanded more political power, Ellison wondered whose interests were really being served by these programs.
These questions became the basis for Ellison’s dissertation, Mediating Democracy in El Alto: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia, for which she is being given a 2013 Joukowsky Family Foundation Outstanding Dissertation Award in the social sciences. Ellison will receive her Ph.D. in anthropology at this week’s Commencement ceremony.
From the time of the programs’ arrival in El Alto, it was unclear how they would be received.
“On the one hand, donors and national political leaders argue that Alteños’ organizing tactics are destabilizing, that they’re preventing the government from functioning. They argue that Bolivians would be better served by turning away from street protest and instead toward the negotiation table. On the other hand, Alteños are saying ‘Look, we’ve never been able to achieve justice without taking to the streets.’ So there’s a real struggle about which of these tactics are a legitimate way to demand change,” Ellison said.
Ellison took a two-pronged approach to her research, examining programs that tackled conflict at both the state and interpersonal level. In particular, she was interested in a set of programs that promoted the use of “Alternative Dispute Resolution” (ADR) as both an alternative to the formal legal system and as a means of encouraging people to adopt more deliberative democratic practices. On the state level, conflict resolution programs target civil society groups including trade unions, neighborhood associations and other social organizations with the objective of teaching them negotiation skills that they might use as an alternative to street protest. The other subset of programs Ellison looked at was a set of Integrated Justice Centers that encourage individuals to turn away from Bolivia’s backlogged courts and to instead seek solutions to everyday problems like debt, child support, property claims, and other disputes, through mediation and reconciliation.
Ellison spent 17 months in Bolivia researching ADR programs, interviewing policymakers, donor representatives, aid recipients and government officials. Much of her time was spent working in El Alto’s Integrated Justice Centers, gaining first-hand knowledge of how the centers worked and how clients felt about their services.
Ellison said that Bolivians hotly debated the value, efficacy, and aims of these programs, but many also valued them.
“At the level of the [Integrated Justice Centers], I found that people often used them as a stop-gap measure. People coming to the centers were dealing with crushing debt and profound stress among family and friends and they just needed some way to make do,” Ellison said.
Ellison found that these programs are less effective at dealing with issues beyond individual conflict. These challenges were particularly evident in cases of domestic violence and interpersonal loans that residents of El Alto were making to help each other cover microcredit quotas.
“What these programs are not equipped to address are the political and economic dimensions of women’s experiences of intimate violence, as well as the broader patterns of indebtedness that are eroding the very social networks that many poor Alteños rely upon to survive,” Ellison said.
"It’s not because the conciliators are trying to avoid these issues, but rather because the (ADR) method treats these disputes as private matters that must be resolved at the interpersonal level. In the process you end up not addressing larger issues like widespread debt — effectively erasing the political and economic roots of both interpersonal violence and broader patterns of social conflict.”
The programs may be having similar effects on the larger protest groups that they are also trying to reform, according to Ellison.
“What I found is that a lot of the groups that are targeted by these programs are deeply skeptical of them and that’s because they perceive them as a form of domestication, a way to demobilize powerful social movements and encourage them not to make demands on the state, when maybe they should be making demands on the state.”
“By contrast, what I heard is people demanding a broader conceptualization of justice, a more effective democratic system capable of addressing the structural causes of people’s everyday experiences of violence and insecurity. They’re pushing back against the suggestion that people should assume personal responsibility for dealing with their everyday conflicts and instead saying that on some level the state does need to be held accountable for these dimensions of people’s struggles,” Ellison said.
At the national level, things have become more complicated; The programs’ presence has sparked intense national debate over who decides what form democracy should take in Bolivia. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has long been critical of the American agencies running ADR and democracy assistance programs in the country, accusing American donors of funding opposition groups and trying to remake Bolivian democracy in the United States’ image. Political leaders in Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia, where similar programming has been implemented, have echoed these sentiments. While advocates of these programs say that bolstering civil society is a necessary part of democratic flourishing and that they are merely providing the country with “an empty democratic form to be filled with content later,” critics argue that these projects are anything but politically neutral, according to Ellison.
Earlier this month, Morales announced that he was kicking the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) out of the country. In an ironic twist, the Ministry of Justice is now overseeing many of the ADR programs previously run by USAID.
With these latest developments, Ellison is eager to return to Bolivia for follow-up interviews. She’d like to return to the Integrated Justice Center where she worked and talk to clients about how they’ve fared with the services now that it’s been a few years since implementation. Eventually, she’d like to turn her research into a book.
Meanwhile, Ellison said the future of ADR programming and democracy in Bolivia remains to be seen.
“I think the challenge for these programs is to look at the patterns of conflict and figure out what the policy implications are. That’s the difficult shift: How to connect these interpersonal conflict resolution programs that are helping people manage problems like suffocating debt to broader social movements that are demanding change.”