We believe it should be possible to set up a political and economic system that works in the best interests of most people most of the time. This is the hope that keeps us going in Guatemala .
But as we look around us, what we see a culture of oligarchy which is built into the very framework of Guatemalan society. This world view is far more than just a way of doing business.
Ours is also a deeply polarized society. We have divisions borne of economic inequality and almost thirty years of civil war, which has generated a culture of violence exacerbated by bitter ideological divisions. Institutionalized violence and endemic corruption make it difficult to cultivate and strengthen civil society. And thus impunity reigns. The absence of the rule of law means that those with economic, political and military power are sheltered from being held accountable for their actions.
So local businesses, as well as their multinational partners, operate in this conflictive atmosphere.
Due to geography, local business is more influenced by US than by European rules. The rules, however, have not always trickled down into practice. For example, the last decade has seen an explosion of local production for the US apparel industry under the Caribbean Basin
Initiative (CBI). This initiative proposed: the transfer of technology; investment; the industrialization of the beneficiary countries; and job creation. A decade later, the only objective realized has been the creation of jobs, and precarious jobs at that.
The next step was the creation of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), with a clause that provided trade penalties for businesses that failed to guarantee workers' rights. And most recently consumers have begun to insist that the products they consume be produced under legal and humane conditions. This led many major corporations, especially in the apparel industry, to adopt codes of conduct.
Who should monitor compliance with the codes of conduct? Many businesses use internal monitoring systems, implemented either by internal staff or major accounting firms. Such efforts have been received by some consumer groups with cynicism, which in our view is often justified.
This is where COVERCO comes on the scene. We are part of a new generation of truly independent external monitors who see ourselves as one amongst many civil society initiatives trying to build a better world.
In the North, civil society's attempts to influence policy are often lumped under the unsavoury rubric of lobbying government by the highest bidder. In our part of the world, where the latest slogan of the political analysts is “low intensity democracy”, we've had government by the highest bidder for some time, but without the added benefit of the rule of law. So while we wait for our political institutions to emerge from the 19 th Century, civil society initiatives in the South focus on tackling the challenges of representativeness, transparency, effectiveness and accountability.