New Survey Reveals Needs of U.S.-Mexico Border Groups
New Survey Reveals Needs of U.S.-Mexico
Anne Browning-Aiken, Allison Davis, and Denise Moreno | October 17, 2003
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)
Results of a new survey by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy suggest that for U.S.-Mexico border activist groups to be more effective in improving environmental, health, and economic conditions they need to build long-lasting alliances fostered by personal contact between them. The conclusion is based on a review of cross-border work since the early 1990s.
The "Survey of Organizational Goals, Strategies and Practices,"
conducted with the support of the Center for Latin American Studies at The
University of Arizona, was administered to representatives of Mexican and
U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community action groups participating
in the 2003 Meeting on the Border Environment in Tijuana, Mexico. The border
meeting was held in May 2003 and coordinated by the university and the nonprofit
Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental.
During the past decade, Mexican and U.S. border groups and coalitions have
employed various strategies to address border environmental, health, and economic
problems. NGOs and community-based groups have not only increased in number
since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) side accords; they also
have demonstrated that they are crucial to focusing public opinion on and
shifting political attitudes toward social, environmental, health, and economic
conditions in the borderlands. As NGO observers and participants note, these
organizations raise issues on the agendas of many border states; publicize
the nature and seriousness of border problems; disseminate scientific research;
organize and exert pressure on their respective countries, transnational companies,
and international economic organizations such as the Border Environment Cooperation
Commission (BECC), North American Development Band (NADB), and the World Trade
Organization (WTO); as well as helping ensure effective implementation of
binational agreements such as the environmental and labor side accords of
NAFTA. (1), (2), (3), (4), (5)
Whether NGOs focus their membership, goals, and strategies locally along
the border, form regional networks, transnational coalitions, or transnational
social movements, they can "open up channels of communication and participation
[and] provide training ground for activists promoting pluralism and human
rights." (6) As social movements, they "attempt to construct an
alternative view of development and social practice through a self-conscious
and localized political strategy." (2) At the same time, NGOs and community
groups frequently face the challenge of sustaining joint action on border
issues. Consolidating cross-border partnerships is easier said than done.
With these challenges in mind, the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
designed an electronic questionnaire for participants in the border meeting
to obtain answers to help bridge political, cultural, and geographic barriers
and to open up discussion and reflection on environmental issues of common
concern in the region. This year’s border meeting attracted more than 500
participants from both sides of the border, not only from nongovernmental
and community organizations, but also from academic, government, and private
sectors. A total of 66 surveys were sent out in English and Spanish to NGO
representatives and 29 responses were returned, with a 38% response rate from
the U.S. questionnaires and a 52% rate from the Mexican queries.
Survey forms were returned from a wide range of international, regional,
and local organizations. The 14 respondents from Mexico come from 11 different
organizations: two international organizations (Greenpeace and World Wildlife
Fund), and nine locally based NGOs. On the U.S. side, 15 survey responses
were sent in from 11 institutions. Three national organizations, the Sierra
Club, Environmental Defense, and the National Wildlife Federation were joined
by eight local or regionally based organizations, including the Rio Grande-Rio
Bravo Basin Coalition, and the Environmental Education Exchange based in Tucson,
The purpose of the survey was to identify the factors, specifically organizational
strategies and practices, that have contributed to the success of nongovernmental
and community action groups in addressing environmental, health, and economic
conditions in the borderlands. Another purpose was to continue a cross-border
NGO information exchange in the spirit of the conference’s objectives. The
survey’s goal was to provide an opportunity for these groups to articulate
the challenges and opportunities they faced, in the hopes that this information
would strengthen the implementation of their projects and programs in the
In order to encourage a strong response rate, we limited the survey to
10 questions with multiple choices, including an "other" category
for alternative responses. Frequently more than one choice was possible for
an individual question. While complicating the statistical analysis, this
leeway allowed what we perceive as a more accurate assessment. The "other"
category also opened up the possibility of responses that we had not considered
but that were equally, if not more important, than the alternatives we had
Initial Reason for Organizing
Forty-eight percent of the respondents (33% of Mexican and 64% of U.S.
respondents) identified as their initial reason for organizing the desire
for environmental education in schools or the community. (See Graph 1.) A
close 46% were motivated by a desire to change government environmental policy.
The third most common reason for the formation of both groups was water quality
concerns or water access problems. Interestingly, Mexican respondents generally
indicated more reasons for organizing than did the U.S. groups. The "other"
comments supported and expanded on the three choices by drawing attention
to the relationship between public health and the environment as a result
of trade agreements, including maquila (factory) expansion, and herbicide
use in agriculture. A few other respondents also considered their group’s
purpose to ensure government agency and corporate accountability in regard
to environmental problems. Several others emphasized wildlife conservation
and biodiversity as their entity’s main goals.
Fifty-five percent of both U.S. and Mexican groups selected email and phone
calls as their first choice for soliciting membership. Letters were the second
choice for both at 48%, although this is mainly due to U.S. preference. Both
groups emphasized the importance of direct personal contact such as door-to-door
visits, workshops, and other public events.
Both U.S. and Mexican participants identified foundations as one of their
main sources of funding (79%), with all U.S. participants selecting this choice.
The second choice for both groups, at 65%, was private contributions from
members. Only 24% considered universities as a source of funding. Forty-eight
percent of the groups mentioned other NGOs. Twenty-one percent of the respondents
added "government agencies," namely the Environmental Protection
Agency, under the "other" category, indicating that this was an
important omission on the survey’s part. Several groups specifically mentioned
developing programs under government contracts. All of the above were also
mentioned as important sources of institutional collaboration for implementing
goals. In addition, some mentioned developing allies and establishing a rapport
with individuals in government agencies.
Lessons Learned about Working
with Institutions, Other Agencies
Groups from both sides of the border (62%) recognized establishing a good
working relationship as an import lesson in working with institutions and
government agencies. We share some of their comments:
“Establish relationships that respect and allow for differences in
“For those working binationally, Mexican partners have limited resources,
so it is most effective to establish good communication and working relationship,
especially in regards to sharing information.”
“Develop LASTING relationships among individuals. Build in sustainability
for projects—have a shared vision for how projects and relationships
will extend into the future.”
Greatest Challenge to Maintaining
There were no strong trends in this category except for an agreement that
"establishing a clear sense of mission" (28%) was the most frequent
choice. (See Graph 3.) The least important challenge (7%) was obtaining consensus
on membership qualifications. Mexican groups gave equal importance to "finishing
projects" as to "establishing a clear understanding of mission."
The "other" category produced some interesting suggestions: "Maintain
diverse representation in membership at the same time as a consensus,"
and "Obtain sufficient funding sources, especially ones that don’t distract
[the group] from its mission."
Advice to New Border NGOs about
"Seek funding as soon as the mission is established" was the
first choice at 46%, which is consistent with the previous comments on the
greatest challenge in maintaining membership cohesion. A close second choice
for the U.S. respondents was using a facilitator to help establish mission,
strategies, and projects, and, for the Mexican groups, agreeing on a decisionmaking
process. Again, the "other" category produced a number of suggestions
consistent with responses to earlier questions:
“[It’s] important to have clear and agreed-upon goals and objectives”
“[Get] training and strengthen the NGO”
“If you think you want to grow and raise funds, adopt a board structure
now, and follow the standard rules for board decisionmaking.”
“Invest the time to build relationships that will serve as your collaborative
“A clear vision is very important.”
“[Establish] funding and strategies (coordinate political activities)
like a town council.”
“Create structure appropriate to the level of the organization. Don’t
wear yourself out maintaining structure.”
“Acknowledge the common bond and mission that brings individuals together
to form the organization, and clearly articulate that mission.”
Types of Projects or Programs
that Have Helped Organizations Accomplish Goals
Media campaign was the most frequent choice at 70%, while community or
school environmental workshops was a close second choice at 65%. "Other"
comments included lobbying (legislative advocacy), participating in the political
process, and lawsuits or litigation when necessary.
Successful Strategies in Implementing
Responses in this section provided a link for some groups to the previous
question on projects and programs. The top response by a small margin was
"public forums and conferences" at 72% of respondents. "Media-information
campaigns" was chosen at a close second, at 70% of respondents. Letters
to public officials was also a common strategy, at 62%. "Other"
comments suggested additional strategies: "Letters to political officials
are very important, but so also are visits in person," and "Present
scientific information to help decisionmakers." The best strategy has
been "to make presentations personally or at conferences to government
officials in both Mexico and the United States." Still others sought
change indirectly through education, as in this example: "We aspire to
increase the capacity of individuals to make wise choices, whether they be
political or personal."
Organizational Evaluation of
Mexican and U.S. respondents (71%) selected "evaluation or assessment
meetings with members" as the most common means (70%) for evaluating
mission and goals. Mexican organizations selected "written evaluation
by outside agency" as their second choice, while U.S. groups were tied
over "evaluation checklist by participants" and "community
feedback." "Other" comments provided specific suggestions on
how to evaluate:
“Use prior established evaluation criteria.”
“Measure progress against benchmarks.”
“Monitor performance and impacts with indicators.”
“Measure by continued service request, enduring relationships, and
longevity in the region.”
The NGO border meeting survey responses indicate the importance of establishing
long-lasting allies and coalitions through personal contact in order to effect
changes in environmental, health, or economic conditions along the U.S.-Mexico
border. Many of the respondents have been working for more than a decade and
so are well qualified to evaluate lasting strategies. As Environmental Defense
attorney Mary Kelly noted, these NGOs "combine a solid grounding in the
issues with a longer-term vision, and a high proportion of them [including
Mexican NGOs struggling with economic hardship] have remained with the work
beyond what one normally expects in the NGO arena." (7)
Whether their strategies are aimed at government officials or individuals
within border communities, direct communication appears to be essential in
order to initiate change. Along with the emphasis on good communication comes
the suggestion that facilitation skills are useful in selecting a group’s
mission, goals, and strategies, and perhaps in helping a group carry out projects.
This emphasis on communication skills and facilitation may be an offshoot
of the environmental conflict resolution process that started in the United
States and spread across the border in the late 1990s.
Even though funding for border NGOs and nonprofits has been limited, some
funding for border environmental work has been available to the Red Fronterizo
de Salud y Medio Ambiente, Fundación Ecológica Mexicana, Proyecto
Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, and COSYDDHAC (a human rights organization
in Chihuahua). At the same time, groups such as the Environmental Health Coalition
and the Texas Center for Policy Studies have had some grant money for Mexican
border groups (Kelly 2002b: 137). One of the challenges for U.S. groups is
finding funding that will allow them to collaborate with Mexican partners.
While this survey did not attempt to establish the extent of U.S.-Mexico
coalitions or alliances, the border meeting and the survey responses suggest
that forming cross-border linkages continues to be a good strategy for implementing
change and addressing the challenges of funding. A survey in the late 1980s
found that 73% of 40 environmental NGOs interviewed had foreign contacts,
33% received counseling, 28% information, and 33% financial support (Wiemman,
et al, 1991: 139). While the organizational challenges may remain somewhat
the same for today’s NGOs, these groups appear to be in a better position
to address problems related to the trade and development agenda, partly because
they have become more familiar with working with each other and partly because
both the U.S. and Mexican governments have turned to the private sector as
a way to increase local responsibility for solving border problems and for
implementing state-designed policies and services.
International development policy researcher Laura Tedesco even claims that
the neoliberal state has retreated from its role as the agent of development
and is handing over environmental, health, and economic problems to NGOs as
a means of addressing the current crises (Tedesco 1999: 131). However, the
increased presence of NGOs and nonprofits along the U.S.-Mexico border can
also represent an increased level of grassroots or regional activity supported
by governmental or other funding. There are approximately 395 environmental
education-related NGOs alone in the Environmental Education Exchange Border
Resource Guide and over 1,000 in the Americas Program Border Organization
Directory. (8), (9)
A third period in the bilateral border relationship, which can be considered
the NAFTA phase, was initiated by the two new administrations of U.S. President
George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2000. This phase, according
to Kelly, "offers real opportunities for progress, given the stronger
framework for federal, state, local, and NGO cross-border cooperation developed
in the early post-NAFTA phase." However, she also notes that there are
"high-stakes challenges ahead, which will require resolution, not just
goodwill and dialogue." Certainly the continued survival of the periodic
border meeting, as well as collaboration, rather than competition for funding,
can strengthen the resolution necessary for effective action on environmental,
health, and economic issues in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. At an individual
NGO level, border activists need to continue to address the linguistic, cultural,
and other differences that make binational work a challenge.
Anne Browning-Aiken < firstname.lastname@example.org >,
Allison Davis < email@example.com >,
and Denise Moreno < firstname.lastname@example.org >
are members of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at The University
of Arizona and carried out the "Survey of Organizational Goals, Strategies
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Published by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org ).
©2003. All rights reserved.
Anne Browning-Aiken, Allison Davis, and Denise Moreno, “New Survey Reveals
Needs of U.S.-Mexico Border Groups,” Americas Program Special Report
(Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, October 2003).
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Writer: Anne Browning-Aiken, Allison Davis, and Denise Moreno
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