Interview with Carmen Aída González, Senior Alliance Coordinator and Performance Monitoring Advisor, USAID, Regional Program for Mexico and Central America

Interview by David Dudenhoefer, Rainforest Alliance

“The challenge for nongovernmental organizations and the public and private sectors is to learn to work more closely together.”

Carmen Aida Gonzalez -- Photo by David Dudenhoefer

Carmen Aida Gonzalez

Carmen Aída González has worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the past nine years in the field of biodiversity conservation, which has provided her with extensive knowledge of Mesoamerica’s environmental problems and efforts to solve them. González began her career in development with the American NGO CARE and the Canadian International Development Agency, which she left to join the environmental team at USAID. Her career at USAID has included positions within the Regional Environmental Program for Central America (PROARCA) and her current post of Senior Alliance Coordinator and Performance Monitoring Advisor at the Rural Income and Natural Resources Office for Central America and Mexico.

González explains that her main responsibility is to manage two high profile regional alliances: the Mesoamerican Reef Alliance and the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance (CSPA). The first of these is a 3-year project that began in November, 2003 with a budget of $3 million provided by USAID and the United Nations Foundation. It is coordinated by the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) and involves a network of international and local organizations working in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras to promote better management of coral reefs and private-sector involvement in their protection. It is divided into three components: watershed management, sustainable fishing and sustainable tourism.

The second of these projects, the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance, is a three-year initiative that was launched in June, 2004 with $8.6 million of USAID funding. It is coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance in conjunction with five local organizations in Central America and Mexico and its goal is to strengthen the competitiveness and sustainability of farming and forest operations in the region through certification, while improving labor conditions, the environment and the standard of living in rural communities. Through agreements with local and international companies — among them Gibson, Kraft Foods and Chiquita — this Alliance aims to increase the amounts and value of certified coffee, bananas and forest products sold in the region.

Question: USAID has traditionally funded projects and programs. Why is it now forming alliances?

González: In 2002, USAID launched the Global Development Alliance, or GDA, which is an attempt to collaborate and work more closely with the private sector. One of the reasons for this change was the realization that the government and international development agencies that have traditionally worked in the developing world don’t have the kind of funds at their disposal that the private sector does. For example, 30 years ago, about 70 percent of resources moving from the United States to developing countries were government funds, but now only 20 percent of those resources are government funds, whereas 80 percent comes from the private sector. So we are aware that the private sector is devoting funds to projects with social and environmental goals, but those companies may not have found the most effective way of investing those funds, since those are not their areas of expertise — they have the interest and commitment, but little experience. USAID, on the other hand, has experience in these areas and can thus guide the private sector. They have the funds and other resources, and we have the experience. We know what the important issues are, who is involved in those issues, who is best suited to carry out activities and how they can have the greatest impact.

Q: Is this collaboration with the private sector something new for AID?

González: It is relatively new, though USAID does have some experience working in alliances and with the private sector. I was involved in the design of PROARCA II, which included protected area and green market components. That was really the first time USAID attempted to link an income generation and environmentally friendly product component with the conservation of biodiversity and protected areas. In this sense, PROARCA II was quite innovative for USAID.

Q: These two alliances appear to be different. How does each one fit into this change in the way USAID works?

Carmen Aida Gonzalez Accompanied Wood Buyers to the Forestry Concession of Carmelita, in Northen Guatemala -- Photo by David DudenhoeferGonzález: The alliances are quite different, even though they are part of the same initiative. With regard to the alliance for the management and conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef, USAID supports a process whereby NGOs that don’t have that much experience in Central America, but who have extensive experience in coral reef monitoring and management on an international level, have been invited to come and work in Central America. This is an attempt to introduce new actors to the region and try to repeat success stories that have taken place in the Caribbean.

It is also an attempt to forge alliances with businesses, an opportunity for the participating NGOs to learn to work more closely with the private sector. The work being done by this network of NGOs is primarily aimed at benefiting groups of fishermen, though the plan is to also work with large cruise lines, which have a big impact on protected areas. They are developing codes of conduct for cruise lines and anyone else involved in tourism, such as tour operators that take tourists to protected areas.

In this respect, we seek to form alliances with the private sector, though that aspect is not as strong as in the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance, in which the success and sustainability of the alliance is completely dependent on collaboration with the private sector. The Rainforest Alliance has brought an extensive list of partners from the private sector with whom it has previously worked. In this respect, the two alliances are quite different.

USAID’s principal objective for the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance (CSPA) is to increase the volume and the value of certified products sold in three key groupss – coffee, bananas and forest products — in order to improve environmental conditions and the living standards of people working in those areas. Other goals include strengthening and expanding certification in the region, increasing the number and improving the skills of auditors and extensionists, and making the benefits of certification better known on a regional and international level. The interesting thing about this alliance is that it has a strong market focus — to find new niches and buyers for certified products. This is different from how we’ve worked in the past, when we first concentrated on certification and persuading farmers, which resulted in certified products for which there was not necessarily a market.

Q: What do you hope to achieve through these alliances?

González: USAID hopes to establish a new business ethics, in other words, a different relationship between buyers and producers. We want the private sector to become more involved in funding development activities to the extent that they will assume the financial responsibility for a substantial part of the activities that USAID is currently funding through the two alliances. The goal is that businesses and farmers will recognize that they too can benefit, not only economically but also in terms of public relations, when they adopt a more responsible attitude toward environmental and social issues.

Q: You mentioned a desire to link biodiversity conservation with income generation. Isn’t it a challenge to reconcile two such different goals?

González: I think the alliance that USAID and the Rainforest Alliance have formed responds quite well to these two needs, because the practices and standards behind certification cover three important areas: economics, as in obtaining better prices, or fairer wages for workers; the environment, such as providing information on better practices for natural resource management; and social issues. In the social realm, an interesting example is the impact on banana farms, which in the past had a lot of that type of problem, but through the certification process, they have managed to reduce employee turnover and accidents in the field and have generally improved labor conditions, among other things. Biodiversity conservation and natural resource management are also being promoted, but with the understanding that we need to make use of those resources and that we cannot halt development.

Working with industries and persuading them to change their ways, to become more socially, economically and environmentally responsible, is a much more realistic attitude. I think the Rainforest Alliance has achieved this through the relationships with local and international businesses that they’ve built over many years.

The Mesoamerican Reef Alliance, on the other hand, is more focused on biodiversity conservation and resource management, rather than such social, environmental and economic elements. The partners have less experience working with the private sector. They have been working with certain companies, though for not more than 10 years; rather, they are learning to do so with the help of this alliance. In this sense, I think the experiences are quite different. In one alliance, we are working with the private sector 100 percent, whereas with the other one, we are still learning how.

Q: Taking into account that these projects began relatively recently, do you think they are achieving their goals?

González: I think it is too early to make a definitive judgment on whether or not they are acheiving their goals, but the trend is positive and they are already showing results. All the results reported last year for the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance, for example, fulfilled the expectations and have exceeded them in regard to achieving premiums for coffee and small banana farms, as well as raising the profile of the activities carried out by USAID in conjunction with the private sector.

The relationship the Rainforest Alliance has established with Chiquita over the past 15 years has proven to be very important. The fact that they have been working with Chiquita for a significant period of time and have demonstrated that it is possible to influence the corporate strategy of a multinational company — in this case a controversial one — is a contribution to the world of conservation. This has changed the relationship NGOs have had, at least in Latin America, with the private sector. It was an innovative experience in how an NGO can work with the private sector and I think it set a benchmark.

There is an opportunity to change the business relationships between producers and buyers and I believe that was one of the things that USAID found most attractive about the Rainforest Alliance’s proposal when they competed with other organizations for the opportunity to implement the Certified Sustainable Products Alliance. The goal is to make existing relationships more ethical, sustainable and fair, and to create a situation in which all parties benefit, because in the end, the private sector can have a more enduring relationship with farmers than an international donor can.

Q: What does all this mean for USAID?

González: For USAID, this has been an important learning process in how to design and implement alliances. I like to think that these relationships could act as a catalyst for USAID to make some of its internal procedures more flexible. I believe it will bring about a positive change within USAID. In my opinion, it will prepare the Agency to work in an ever changing, more globalized world. Because, in an alliance, USAID is just another member; we can have more or less influence, depending on the alliance, but we are no longer the ones who decide how the activity will progress. In an alliance, USAID has to sit down with its partners and reach decisions about what direction the activity will take. The relationships are different, and they are already showing positive results.

Q: What could this change mean for NGOs?

González: I think the NGOs are also going to have to reprogram their institutions. Just as we are asking the private sector and multinational companies to change their strategies and adopt a more progressive outlook, the NGOs will also have to follow suit. The challenge for nongovernmental organizations and the public and private sectors is to learn to work more closely together. In my view, the NGOs are going to have to increase their administrative capacities, such as strategic planning and public relations, to establish alliances, and to be prepared to accept other points of view and include them in their agendas. At the end of the day, this is going to be more important than, for example, the fact that somebody is a biologist who specializes in technical issues.

Q: Do you think we are entering a period in which an organization can no longer devote itself exclusively to conservation?

González: I believe there is always room for research and science, however, I think that pure research and conservation is difficult, at least in Central America, due to the fact that we have social problems such as people living within protected areas, and there is a lot of pressure on natural resources. So, if an institution is not prepared to be more comprehensive, it could focus on research, or conservation, but it will have to establish alliances with other institutions that can attend to those social or economic issues. That said, I think it has always been difficult to be a pure conservationist in Central America. We’ve always had to work with the communities.

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