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Q&A With Victoria Wigodzky, Program Officer at Open Society Foundations

Submitted by on December 21, 2010 – 10:31 pmOne Comment

Editor’s note: Información Cívica is a consultancy-based initiative of the Information and Latin America programs of Open Society Foundations that aims to better understand the role of technology and digital media in Latin American civil society. Each program has three program officers that manage a number of thematic areas. Since 2005 Victoria Wigodzky has managed the Latin America Program’s work in citizen security and human rights. Originally from Buenos Aires, she went on to study at Duke and Princeton universities and worked with the Inter-American Dialogue before joining Open Society Foundations.

At the beginning of next year Victoria will leave the foundation to take up a new position at the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina. Prior to her departure, I wanted to better understand Victoria’s insight and experience regarding the role of philanthropy in promoting citizen security and human rights in Latin America.


Victoria speaking in Santiago, Chile at a workshop on digital media and civil society. Photograph by Luis Carlos Diaz.

What did you envision your work to be when you started at OSF’s Latin America Program, and how has that changed?

When I started at OSF in 2005, the Program was relatively new and we were beginning to find partners with whom to implement the Program’s strategy. Many of those first grants were a bit of a “bet,” and some of them later evolved into long-term relationships with organizations and individuals that have a clear vision of the change they want to bring about. For example, with some key grantees, we went from providing one-year project support to multi-year commitments of unrestricted funding to help them implement their strategies more effectively and sustainably, and truly become platforms for change.

As those partnerships developed, my work became increasingly focused on exchanging ideas, understanding the socio-political contexts in which groups operated, providing guidance and support as needed, and generating connections among projects and people to foster exchange of information and lessons. Five years after the Program’s inception, we became interested in evaluating parts of our own strategy to see what kind of difference we were making, if any. At that point, I was able to engage in a more retrospective process, which at the same time helped to inform my work going forward, identifying duplications and gaps in funding. My work also changed in that I became more focused on making connections with other funders in the field, encouraging greater collaboration and support for citizen security issues. Over the past five and a half years, exchanges I have had with partners have become rewardingly deeper, more open, honest, and frequent, which I hope has resulted in more effective and thoughtful grantmaking for the program.

What progress has been made in the area of citizen security and human rights over the past few years?

Problems of violence and insecurity no doubt continue to be prevalent in much of Latin America. And fear of crime is a recurrent and primary concern for a majority of the region’s citizens. At the same time, I think that over the past few years there has been enormous progress in civil society’s capacity to engage on issues of citizen security from a human rights perspective (the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Report on Citizen Security and Human Rights is one of many examples of fruitful civil society advocacy). The discourse and understanding of what constitutes effective and rights-respecting security policies is gradually becoming more nuanced and sophisticated. In many countries, there is still a troubling temptation to demand “mano dura” policies in the face of unabated crime (common and organized, depending on the country) and limited state responses. But in an increasing number of places, there is also a growing recognition that these harder line policies are not only damaging for human rights, but that they are also inefficient and counter-productive, only causing greater violence and deteriorating an already strained social fabric.
My sense is that, in many countries, civil society organizations are gradually becoming more effective at advocating for policy change with concrete, practical and evidence-based alternatives (to complement important, but often insufficient traditional human rights arguments). Groups are increasingly aware of the need –and willing to—engage with different sectors (academia, media, law enforcement, elected officials, politicians, etc.) in order to generate pressure and basic consensus for change. More governments (although not enough) are also calling on civil society for ideas and expertise (in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, among others).

What have been the biggest setbacks?

It is difficult to avoid getting dismayed by the persistently high rates of victimization and perception of insecurity despite the various attempts at policy reform. In cases where reform has happened, these efforts have too often been ad hoc and lacked sustainability over time. The lack of continuity of promising policies from one administration to the next is a big setback. Too often, citizen security issues are hyper-politicized and fall prey to the increasing polarization that characterizes many countries. When this happens, all aspects of citizen security reform suffer. Governments feel threatened and hide or manipulate information, which leads to an absence of reliable data from which to create a diagnosis as a basis for policy interventions. Disputes between national and local authorities over whose responsibility it is to provide security often result in policy vacuums, inefficiencies, or superposition of efforts. In the meantime, a lack of effective state policy response –led by civilian authorities—often coincides with overly autonomous and unaccountable security forces. And episodes of dramatic violent crimes elicit reactive and knee-jerked governmental responses –fueled by sensationalist media coverage—rather than well thought-out, comprehensive, and long-term strategies to deal with the causes and consequences of crime in a way that combines prevention and control.

In my opinion, one of the setbacks within civil society in some countries has been the difficulty to provide solid and comparable data over time that can help inform policy discussions. Although, as I mention above, the human rights and the security communities are increasingly talking to each other and incorporating various perspectives, there are still gaps in coordination, duplication of efforts, and missed opportunities to achieve change. Finally, because crime issues are so volatile and complex, we may know more today about what works than we did a few years ago, but we are still often perplexed by the phenomenon. “Best practices” are more abundant than ever before, but the challenges still lie in rigorous evaluation, scaling up, sustainability, and replication based on the particularities of local contexts.

What are the greatest obstacles to future progress?

Some of the biggest obstacles have to do with governments’ unwillingness to face the problem, take responsibility, and engage in a multisectoral policy-making process that is consistent over time. But political will is only part of the answer. In many countries, governmental capacity is still limited, and the state is increasingly under siege due to the infiltration of organized criminal networks.

Too often, progress is also stymied by a confrontational political environment marked by deep distrust among sectors (government, civil society, police, etc.). This can hinder the type of constructive, inclusive, and coordinated policy-making process that is essential to tackle such a difficult issue.

Persistently closed and unaccountable (plus often inefficient and corrupt) security forces reticent to civilian control present an ongoing challenge for even those well-intentioned elected officials and civil society actors engaged in these issues. But effective citizen security policies that are respectful of human rights encompass more than police reform. Unless countries are able to generate the long-term policy strategies needed –beyond the political gains or losses of a particular administration—, combating crime and insecurity will remain elusive. As citizens continue to lose trust in the ability of democratic institutions to resolve this problem, governments face greater pressures –and less time and political space –to show results.

What most surprised you—both good and bad—in your grantmaking at OSF?

By far, the best part of OSF’s grantmaking has been the possibility to contribute, in some measure, to some of the most innovative and strategic organizations and individuals committed to improving citizen security and protecting human rights in the region. Within OSF, I was often pleasantly surprised by the trust that the foundation places on program officers’ judgments, as well as the general openness to question strategies and share both successes and failures. To be sure, self-criticism and ongoing reflection are difficult; and I wish I had built more opportunities for both.

At the same time, OSF –despite changes in structures, policies, and processes over time—continues to be generally committed to the type of flexible, risky, and rapid grantmaking that is so often needed, and rare. As in any big organization, this commitment is often made difficult by the challenge of designing adequate administrative processes that strike the right balance between due diligence and institutional agility. And that is likely to remain a challenge in the future. Given the massive and complex nature of the OSF “network” (the combination of thematic and geographic programs, along with national and regional foundations), I am constantly in awe of the enormous reach and potential of the foundation to contribute to making progress on so many different fronts at once.

Are there lessons in this grantmaking for other funders who want to do similar work in the region?

I am not sure I have any “wise lessons” to share, as grantmaking is more of an art than a science. Citizen security and human rights issues are difficult to grapple with; and it is equally challenging to find ways to make even a small contribution to the improvement of policies and practices. I would simply suggest some principles that I have found helpful to remember over the past few years:

  • Humility – in relationships with partner organizations and in considering what one funder’s contribution can accomplish in the short and medium term.
  • Patience – building horizontal and open relationships with grantees takes time, effort, and dedication, but achieving those true partnerships based on mutual respect, transparency, and understanding can be enormously helpful to achieve change.
  • Flexibility – citizen security and human rights issues are complex and require constant re-thinking and adaption of strategies based on ongoing context analysis. Grantmaking that is flexible, yet rigorous in its pursuit of incremental progress can be crucial. Once trust is built between funders and partners (see above), there is greater space to share concerns and jointly discuss ways to adapt interventions to the changing context.
  • Connectedness – grantmakers can contribute more than money. It is useful to think of ways that funders can facilitate exchanges (being conscious to respond to demand rather than artificially forcing networks), as well as opportunities for learning and growth in order to enrich organizations’ perspectives.
  • Complementarity – the most effective projects and organizations tend to use a variety of complementary strategies (research, litigation, media outreach, training, advocacy, etc.), work at different levels (local, national, regional, international), and engage a variety of sectors (academia, non-government organizations, media, law enforcement, politicians, policy makers, etc.).

Finally, I would venture to say that one of the most important roles that a donor can play (in addition to giving away money!) is that of asking tough questions and listening with an open mind, seeking to understand the context in which organizations are operating. A grantmaking portfolio on citizen security and human rights can add value by combining a deep commitment to human rights principles and democratic values, with an eminently pragmatic approach to security problems, constructing mechanisms that seek to bridge gaps among relevant sectors and actors.

On a personal note, it has been a true privilege to collaborate, over the past five and a half years, with such dedicated organizations and individuals doing the difficult and invaluable work in the field to try to create social change. I have valued enormously the trust and openness that partners have shared with me and OSF, and I hope to maintain many of those relationships in the future and be helpful in any way I can.

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