Government and the Nonprofit Sector in Latin America

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Latin American government, nonprofit sector in Latin America, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua


A growing literature is exploring the dynamics of government–nonprofit relations, but most of this work has focused on developed nations with strong economies and consolidated democracies (Salamon 1995, 2002; Young 1999, 2000). The nations of the developing world, which by definition have weaker economies, and generally have less consolidated democracies and smaller nonprofit sectors, have received less attention (Najam 2000; Coston 1998). Among the latter, the nations of Latin America present an interesting set of cases: there is wide variation in terms of levels of economic development and democratic consolidation, but historically weak nonprofit sectors are a common element. For example, the five Latin American nations that are represented in the Johns Hopkins University Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, although they are among the wealthiest in Latin America, have relatively small sectors compared to other developing nations, many of whom are less wealthy (Salamon et al. ch. 2). The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed a period of democratic stability in Latin America, which unfortunately has – in some nations – fallen prey to what Weyland (2013) alternately describes as “soft authoritarianism,” “personalistic plebiscitarianism,” or populism. A growing number of nations,including Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and now Argentina, have fallen under the sway of demagogic leaders who have accrued executive power, weakened pluralism and undermined effective institutional checks and balances. At the same time, a number of nations have also moved toward consolidating democracy with varying degrees of success, with Costa Rica and Uruguay as clear leaders, but also Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico making noteworthy progress (Weyland 2013). In this complex context, the relationship between government and the nonprofit sector1 in Latin America takes on a variety of forms and has been subject to important legislative and constitutional debates (Gidron and Bar 2010). Perhaps the single most important measure of government–nonprofit relations is a nation’s legal framework, as this “will influence how strong [civil society] is in any particular setting” (Uphoff and Krishna 2004, 360; Young 2010). A civil society legal framework is made up of “laws that attempt to address all of the issues that arise over the “lifecycle” of a non-governmental organization” (International Center for Nonprofit Law 2009, 4). In Latin America, policy debates about civil society legal frameworks are occurring in a context of democratic transition in which the parameters of the public sphere are contested, with governments, political parties, and nonprofits seeking to carve out territory. It is important to underline that this area of law is often contested, with civil society advocating for a more favorable enabling environment and the government often seeking to place restrictions on the activities and legal status of civil society organizations, which it often perceives as a rival. Policy toward civil society and nonprofit organizations can also be part of greater shifts to the logics of development, for example, by producing symbolic links to national value and belief systems (Appe 2013). The question emerges, what conceptual lenses and explanatory factors can best illuminate these variations? The cases presented here highlight a mixed bag of regulatory environments. On the one hand, countries have outdated and/or hostile legal frameworks and lingering distrust, misunderstanding and even animosity between government and the nonprofit sector. On the other, they feature constitutional or legal recognition of freedom of association and the importance of an independent sector. In this article we will draw upon the extant literature to illuminate a complex relationship between Latin American governments and their nonprofit sectors.

Publisher Attribution

Appe, S. M., & Layton, M. D. (2015). Government and the nonprofit sector in Latin America. In Nonprofit Policy Forum.