Civic Engagement in Honduras and Guatemala

An extensive study carried out in rural Honduras and Guatemala suggests that involvement in public institutions can lead participants to increase their engagement in civic affairs more broadly.

Through surveys of more than 2,000 parents in 400 communities, the New Schools’ Daniel Altschuler and Amherst College’s Javier Corrales measured the extent to which those who organized so-called Community Managed Schools (CMS) in Honduras and Guatemala became engaged in other community activities. Launched in the 1990s in an effort to increase access to education, the CMS program enabled parents to control all aspects of their children’s schooling, including hiring and firing teachers.

In an event at the Dialogue on May 2, Altschuler and Corrales reported that 77% of respondents in Guatemala learned new skills through their work with CMS, and more than 34% used these skills in other organizations. The numbers were 53% and 26% for Honduras, respectively. More than 25% of respondents reported joining new organizations after working with CMS.

In their new book on the study, “The Promise of Participation: Experiments in Participatory Governance in Honduras and Guatemala,” Altschuler and Corrales argue that these results indicate that participation in one area of public life can generate new forms of civic engagement.

RTI International’s Gary Bland, who offered comments on the findings, sounded a somewhat more skeptical note. He argued that the observed spillover effects usually occured among individuals that were already civic leaders, and that the training participants received did not build political capacity.

“The spillovers, when you consider the evidence presented, are fairly weak in terms of their impact on political life,” he stated.

While agreeing that their observations suggest only minimal impact on governance more broadly, Altschuler and Corrales maintained that they are noteworthy due to obstacles such as poverty, entrenched political patronage in Honduras, and polarization lingering after Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

“The little that we’ve found is actually significant [because] this is where you least expect it to occur,” Corrales observed. “We’re talking about communities of people who have no human capital, or very limited human capital.”

In terms of policy lessons, the authors also noted that differences in the results obtained from Honduras and Guatemala indicate that “context matters,” and that one-size-fits-all development programs cannot work in every circumstance.

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