Sometimes we think of development—whichever your preferred adjective (human, sustainable, equitable, integral, social, appropriate, transformative, etc.)—as an activity distinct from politics or economics. But it’s really a subset of both, as four decades of history in Nicaragua show.

Before I delve in to this, let me be clear that I support calls from Pope Francis, Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops, and Protestant church agencies for dialogue. In Bilwi—on the Atlantic coast, the place I go most frequently when I visit Nicaragua—the Moravian Church joined an ecumenical “chain of prayer for peace.”

Reasonable people can talk through the issues that led to rioting and police repression. But as we’ll also see below, there are some unreasonable people engaged in this dispute.

For more than a week near the end of April, Nicaragua was shaken by protests. What might not have been clear in media coverage in English in North America—and even in Spanish-language coverage elsewhere—was a description of the dispute.

Policy options and riots

The best description of the policy options facing the government that I have found was provided by Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR). The national social security institute (INSS) is running deficit of about US$75 million a year, or about 0.5 percentage points of GDP: a problem, but not a “calamitous” one, as Johnston notes.

The 2016 Ortega-Murillo campaign: “Times of victories, by the grace of God.”

Even so, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded an increase in premiums by as much as 20 per cent, reduced benefits, and an increase of the retirement age from 60 to 63 (or 65). Nicaragua’s national business council, COSEP, largely agreed with the IMF.

For months, the government resisted, but then instead of initiating a national dialogue to rally support for a different solution, it announced a unilateral solution on April 18.

What the government proposed was to raise employer and employee contributions to the INSS over coming years by 3.5 per cent and 0.75 per cent respectively, and a five-per-cent cut to pensions. Benefits would be reduced, as Johnston points out, “but by far lower amounts than what the IMF and COSEP have been proposing.”

People may or may not have known the IMF or COSEP positions. But it’s clear that calls for protest struck a chord with people who have grown tired of the present government. Protests erupted.

Daniel Ortega has been at the forefront of Nicaraguan politics since the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution on July 19, 1979. After serving as first coordinator of the reconstruction government, he was elected president in 1984. He lost elections in 1990, 1996 and 2001, but then won in 2006, 2011 and 2016. Part of the opposition boycotted the last election, but there was a 68-per-cent voter turn-out, and Ortega won with 72 per cent of the vote.

Seven times the candidate, and that, for some, might have been six times too many. (For reasons I fail to understand, the FSLN political party did not dump him in 1998 when his step-daughter accused him of sexual abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence.)

Rosario Murillo in February 1984

Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, having served in many posts over the decades, is now the vice-president. I met her in Managua in 1984 when she was general secretary of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers (ASTC). The two are frequently accused of corruption, having privatized some state assets into their own hands. Opposition media portray Murillo as Lady Macbeth. The government is said to be like Game of Thrones.

Pent-up frustration, legitimate criticism, mishandling of the social security reform: these factors combined into an explosion of street protest that resulted in at least 42 deaths (some say 60); some who died were student protestors; at least one was a journalist; others included police.

A made-in-Washington script?

By April 22, the government backed down, rescinded the social security reforms, and accepted the calls for dialogue. The Nicaraguan Catholic bishops will serve as mediators.

From what I can see, these calls for dialogue have been accepted by government and student groups—but not the COSEP business organization, which makes me think business leaders are working from a different script: one made in Washington and paid for by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its c0horts.

My suspicion is derived from recent experiences in Haiti, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba (the infamous USAID social media intervention), Brazil and elsewhere. Sow division, deepen polarization, and resist mediation.

I’m not saying that all criticism of (relatively) progressive governments is unjustified, but there is a history here—from CIA funding of opponents of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in the 1980s to NED support to opposition movements in Haiti. What happened to Dilma Rousseff’s presidency in Brazil and efforts to block Lula da Silva’s candidacy in this year’s election are part of the same story.

What is happening in Venezuela is instructive. Government and opposition reached agreement on new, earlier elections in talks mediated in Santo Domingo by the Vatican and several outside politicians (among them, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero from Spain, Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama). Then most opposition leaders rejected the agreement they had just made. Now elections are underway; some opposition parties participate; others call for boycott.

It seems to me that if the opposition in Venezuela and Nicaragua actually got together with a proposal that would win the votes of the majority, that would protect what the poor majority has won—access to health care, education, housing, and pensions (however modest)—they would stand a chance. But those social goals are anathema to the external backers of the opposition movements.

In Nicaragua, students and many former Sandinista supporters offer valid criticisms that need to be taken seriously in reform efforts. I’m not being paternalistic or interventionist here, but it seems to me that they should be careful to distinguish their goals from those of the business council or the US embassy, and avoid calls for regime change without viable, progressive alternative proposals. While I hear stories of repression, and different perspectives on the Ortega-Murillo government, I also see a country that mostly protects the interests of the poor through free education and health care, and provides (albeit limited) pensions. Reasonable people can discuss policy proposals. That is why everything I have said is prefaced by support for calls to dialogue.

I also see a government that has done a good job on citizen security: it is not El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. I fear that precipitous regime change would provide an opening to the protagonists of violence: the drug-traffickers and gangster wolves who prey on people in the neighbouring states.

CEPR’s Johnston also points to Nicaragua’s economic improvements over the past 11 years: an increase of GDP growth of 38 per cent (ahead of its neighbours). The World Bank says that poverty has been cut nearly in half, from 48 to 25 per cent.

Nicaragua reminds us that development goals advance more quickly when they become public policy. Social goals—adult literacy, public education and health care, empowerment of women, community policing, constitutional reform, environmental protection—must be set ahead of narrowly-defined economic ones.

What exists now is not all we hope for: Nicaraguans deserve better. The country still lags in terms of equality for women and LGBTI people. Autonomous regions on the Atlantic coast fail to protect Indigenous people, their lands and cultures. Mega-projects (like the trans-isthmus canal) may not be the best way forward. But in Nicaragua, those issues and others can best be advanced through political debate and regular elections.


by Jim Hodgson

Geneva – Tension between our passion for justice and having patience enough to work on framework concepts for work on religion and development seemed to increase through the second and third days of our encounter.

I knew I would have three minutes on Wednesday morning to say to the full plenary everything that I was thinking about diakonia and development, so I prepared my speaking points.

Then the facilitator asked me about the United Church’s role in development. I offered my briefest possible description of the United Church’s approach to global partnership—a long-term contribution to the ecumenical sharing of resources process—and a commitment to lift up the voices of partners in all possible spaces. Then I moved on to my points.

I encouraged the people at the Ecumenical Strategic Forum to be daring in their advocacy for gender justice, climate justice, and justice for Indigenous peoples. I expressed my concerns about the Sustainable Development Goals, especially No. 8 which seems to re-introduce the developmentalist concepts of economic growth that we have been criticising since the late 60s. (See chapter 2 of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.) And I shared the debate from my table group about “rights-based” approaches to development, which tend to be individualist and leave insufficient space for minority rights or collective rights.

Then others started speaking. One of my Latin American friends expressed his sadness at the political games that conservative Christians play: support for Trump, opposition to the peace accords in Colombia.

A German friend talked about the value of liberation theology in its emphasis on the subjects of action—that we not treat beneficiaries of development aid as objects.

Another of my Latin American friends recalled Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara, who said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” This friend went on to say that we’re living now in a world of emergencies—just recently, the three devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, and the two earthquakes in Mexico—so much so that there is hardly enough time to catch up to development. “We have to think about development not just in Western terms, but in Indigenous terms.” (Let us live into that cosmovision, I pray.)

We shifted into a series of conversations about peace-building, justice (gender, health, economic, migrant, etc.), globalization, and work in multi-sector partnerships (interfaith, secular, government, UN agencies, etc.)—and what they have to do with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In a sense, those conversations opened space for passion. We talked about how gender equality globally (#5) is actually receding in many contexts: women are losing ground. We found space to raise concerns about issues that are submerged in the SDGs: #10, which is about reducing inequality, has no mention of race, but racism is an issue that must continue to be addressed if inequality is to be reduced.

Similarly, #8 revives notions of economic growth that are simply unrealistic if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced. Ecumenical advocacy must continue to uphold climate justice goals while sustaining the vision and policy recommendations contained in documents like Economy of Life for All Now.

Our critiques and our passions need to be carried into the spaces that we are able to open. For this work, the alliances being built across divisions of religious practice and secular spaces, as envisioned in this Forum, are essential as we find better ways to live within planetary and social boundaries.


by Jim Hodgson

Geneva – I confess there were moments in the first day-and-a-half of this Ecumenical Strategic Forum when I found myself lost in a cloud of words: diakonia, ecumenical diakonia, prophetic diakonia, sustainable development, peace, service, sharing, healing, reconciliation, faith-based/rights-based/justice-based….

All good. Clearly the hardest word for most is diakonia—that New Testament word that refers to service—but every kind of service from the specific sort of trying to help people in need to simply serving the tables. Many Christian denominations have deacons, or diaconal ministers. Sometimes it is a liturgical function: assisting the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. In some Baptist churches that I know, a deacon is a member of the board who assists with Communion. In the United Church of Canada, diaconal ministers are “commissioned as a distinct from but equal stream within the order of ministry.” In the Anglican Church of Canada the office of “deacon” is sometimes a stepping-stone toward priesthood (transitional diaconate), but there are also those who are ordained to life-long vocational diaconal ministry. In a similar way, the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II has revived the “permanent diaconate” for teachers and preachers of the Gospel. They also preside at celebrations of baptism, funerals, matrimony, and visit the infirm, the imprisoned, and people in need.

The United and Anglican churches have a training centre for diaconal ministry in Winnipeg: the Centre for Christian Studies. In our table group discussion, it was clear that there is a similar mix of applied meanings in churches around the world.

But the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance are reviving the New Testament concept of diakonia as a sort of common vision or theological basis for churches’ engagement in action for sustainable development.

The WCC Vancouver Assembly 1983 affirmed diakonia: “the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation, is of the very nature of the Church.

Despite differences in the ways the word is used in diverse contexts, there is acceptance of the concept in this gathering. Diakonia can be understood as a worldwide movement of those committed to the vision of Christian service, action, and justice-making. What seems to be more challenging is what we mean when we talk about some related concepts.

One challenge was around talk of holding “faith-based and rights-based” action together. The argument for diakonia was accepted as a faith basis for action, but “rights-based” smacked of non-governmental organization jargon for something that lacked a theological basis, or which carried overtones of western imperial notions that failed to respect traditions and collective identities. Later, someone spoke of “justice-based” action. Later still, a speaker made a pretty fierce defence of human rights, saying that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired as much by global faith traditions as it was by Western enlightenment notions of individual human rights.

Where participants came together most strongly was in response to very concrete descriptions of struggle. Fr. James Ovet Latango of the South Sudan Council of Churches—a partner of KAIROS Canada—spoke of his young country’s struggle to overcome violence and its lingering traumas. And my friend Jenny Neme of the Mennonite peace ministry Justapaz in Colombia spoke of her country’s struggle for peace with justice—gender justice and economic justice. Churches that support those values find themselves actively opposed by well-financed megachurches that operate with a very different set of values.

Hospitality and Visitation

Late in the evening of the first day, I sat with friends after a good supper. One of the ecumenical elders was with us. He talked about the essence of diakonia being “hospitality and visitation.” These are ministries that each of us carries out in our “private” lives with minimal resources: receiving friends in need; visiting people who are sick or imprisoned.

Someone asked: “Isn’t visitation part of mission?”

The response: “It’s visitation. Not invasion.”

After a few moments, the distinction softened a bit and friendship resumed. The point of visitation is that we do it without an agenda: we’re not proselytizing or really expecting anything of the other. We visit (or we welcome) simply because we know it is the right thing to do.


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