His Spanish -learned since he was a kid “like any good Texan” – is impeccable, but he says that his Portuguese is better. Sean McKaughan, passing through Argentina, is the president of Avina, a foundation dedicated to work for sustainability, especially in Latin America, and has been in the area for more than twenty years, having graduated from his master's degree in urban planning and Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. At the Book Fair of Buenos Aires he presented his book
Collaboration. Practical guide for sustainability (editorial Themes).
-What is CollaborationAction?
-Avina has twenty-five years of work in Latin America and now increasingly outside the region, always with the idea of sustainable development. In that period we have learned a lot and we have had many mistakes, we have tried several ways to produce changes, to improve the living conditions of the people. The book is like the distillation of that learning. We have found that for sustainability the actors, civil society, must work in collaboration. The challenges are always this way: we have to collaborate across borders, between different sectors; People who do not talk should agree. Collaboration between different groups is always required. This is the knot. Avina has specialized in promoting collaborative processes for change, in using the knowledge generated after having accompanied processes of successful changes, access to water, recycling, renewable energy and conservation. The intention is to see which components are repeated in success and which can be used to strengthen the processes of change in any area. Then, the book explains the approach we develop and does it through concrete cases. That's why it's called Collaboration, always with others, we never do anything alone.
– What success stories would you cite?
-The case of Chile's energy matrix. Fifteen years ago, the energy of Chile was the cause of many conflicts, they wanted to install dams in the area of Aysén, in the south. There were protests, there was no national energy policy, there were many social conflicts and on the street. Avina and other allies provoke public dialogues and several agendas shared with actors to define a national vision for the future. This process is described in the book.
-What result did it have?
-Chile now has an enviable energy matrix, the result of several collaborative processes. The interesting thing is that when we started our allies wanted to support actions against the dams, it was a “NO Movement”. After some reflection we said that it had to be a “SI Movement”, in favor of something, a vision that is defined by the citizen in transparent processes. There was no such policy, those spaces of concertation, open and participatory. And if after that dialogue it turns out that the dams are the best, well, maybe we do not agree, but it is the result of that open and democratic process. And what was seen is that it is not the best solution. That's why the renewable energy matrix has grown a lot in recent years, with wind, with geothermal. There is a lot of investment in these other areas, so much so that nobody wants to invest in dams or thermoelectric plants.
– Could you name an Argentine case of success?
-The Impenetrable, in the Chaco, where Avina and (the NGO) Banco de Bosques, among others, with the social capital of several NGOs, we managed to mobilize citizens in favor of the creation of a national park. The story is also told in the book. Basically, for us it is very interesting because of the innovation of the whole process, which was from the bottom up; it came from civil society, not from the government. Building a coalition of these different actors working together is for us an example of a collaborative change of action.
-Lately, the concept of failure has been revalued as a key in the path of success due to the teachings it leaves behind. Could you cite a case in which he believes that Avina failed?
-I would say concepts, not cases. At some point, and many foundations go through that, it is believed that there is a magic bullet. That is, only with innovation, leadership and social entrepreneurship or promotion of practices are things going to change. But the processes of change are very complex, they involve all that and much more. Projects, donations, entrepreneurship are important, even essential, but it is always more complex and we must have a process perspective and involve many different actors, also governments and companies, because everyone has their role. We had failures in that sense, in which we bet on only one of the components, without incorporating the others. Now we have an approach that gives importance to the different components and offers a method to do it.
-What is on your change agenda?
-There is a very strong recycling program that can be cited. We work with cartoneros in the city of Buenos Aires in the formalization, in incorporating them into the formal value chain. In Latin America the solution for recycling has to involve people who already do it. Proposals from governments or companies sometimes think about getting those people out of the street. No, they already do it that way and they should continue doing it. It is a project in which we are with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and companies such as Coca Cola, Danone, Pepsico. Argentina has a lot to teach in this regard.
-We talk a lot about social capital, but what does it mean to have social capital?
-The economic capital are resources; social capital is when people are talked about, organizations that can generate change. And not only are they people but the quality of the relationships between those people. To make a systemic change, not just a punctual change, the intention is to help a large group to form the necessary social capital so that it can change.
-What is the talk about changing the system?
-For me, it's very simple. The communities want to change the system that does not give access to water, or sewage; not change all the capitalism of the world. The systemic change is to ask why water wells are lacking, why the system generates that people lack something, we must see where this lack comes from.
-To change a certain degree of optimism is needed in the future, can one be optimistic in the current Argentine context?
-Yes, of course, you can. Our foundation works in eighteen countries, we have seen a little of everything during this time. Always, somewhere, a country is wrong, or has a helpless system, or political conflicts. Undoubtedly the current situation in Argentina worries and we have a team to see what opportunity there is in this context for changes. A crisis can be an opportunity to change systems too.