Government & Politics

Alan Clutterbuck: Educating a New Breed of Argentine Politicians

How Fundación RAP builds bridges across party lines.

October 02, 2013

| by Kerry A. Dolan



A protest in Argentina (Photo by Alberto Giuliani/LUZ/Redux)

Alan Clutterbuck spent a decade working at his family’s Buenos Aires-based textile business before a series of events shifted his focus to improving the political dialogue in his native Argentina, a country with a long history of political fractiousness. Clutterbuck, who received his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990, cofounded and has run Fundación RAP — the Political Action Network — for 10 years. In 2008, he was named an Ashoka Fellow for his work on civic engagement. Stanford Business spoke with Clutterbuck about his experience.

What triggered the creation of Fundación RAP?

The idea started maturing after the crisis Argentina ran into in 2001. We had five presidents in two weeks. In Argentina, we have usually experienced a major crisis every 10 years, and a minor crisis every 5 years. The 2001 crisis came after the end of the 10-year stint of President Carlos Menem, under whom the country adopted a convertible exchange rate system. One peso was equal to one dollar. It was a good instrument to attack hyperinflation, but over time, we lost competitiveness, ran into substantial deficits, and increased the country’s debt levels. By the end of the 1990s, we had high levels of unemployment and increased poverty. The whole system ended up collapsing. The peso was devalued to three to four pesos per dollar, bank deposits were frozen and partially confiscated, and we had the worst drop in gross domestic product per capita in Argentina’s history. People were fed up [with politicians], saying, “Que se vayan todos!” [“Take them all out!”]

You had this big call of civil society complaining about politics on the one hand while calling for mitigating the impact of the crisis in terms of hunger and poverty. At least the system worked within a democracy and without military coups, which we had had in the past.

In the first six months of 2002, we began to meet with a group of mostly business professionals. We were frustrated with the state of the country and wanted to find a way to make a contribution to improve the overall situation. In the first half of 2003, with a group of 10 to 15 people, we decided to start a new nongovernmental organization that had a vision of trying to improve the quality of politics but with the distinctive ingredient of diversity and pluralism, and trying to reduce the level of confrontation that has been a constant throughout the history of Argentina.

Did you model your group after an existing organization?

There was no model. There was no learning curve to jump onto.

What was your plan?

We decided to try creating personal relationships between politicians from different parties based on trust. When you kept talking with politicians, you’d step back and say, “I’m not hearing things that are that different.” They had more in common than they thought they had, but their prejudices didn’t allow them to realize that. We decided to promote the development of “civic friendship,” fostering bonds of trust and getting people to engage and sit down and talk, hoping this would allow them to realize that they had some common objectives.

When we started with this, we thought it would be a 15- to 20-year project. Argentina has a long history of not being able to get leaders from [various parties] together. What we are trying to do is a viral scheme that we hope will change the underlying political culture. We started with 12 politicians and we are at 160 today, bringing in 15 or so new ones each year.

How many different political parties are active in Argentina?

Until the 1990s, we had two major players and a lot of minor players. That was fragmented after the crisis in 2001. In the mid-2000s at the national level, we had over 70 parties. The Peronist party continues to be the most prominent. Over 20 parties are now represented in Congress. Some of them tend to form coalitions, and there are parties that do not have strong, clear ideological platforms.

How do you decide which politicians to invite in?

We bring in people with two characteristics: people wanting to rethink how to strengthen democracy and institutions, and people willing to invest time in building a new political culture, one that is less confrontational. We also look at party diversity. We ask politicians from within our group and persons and corporations from our broad base of donors, think tanks, and academics for their thoughts on who we should consider inviting. Our database has over 450 names in it. We undergo a due diligence analysis.

Describe the breakdown of your members.

We have two governors, 2 vice governors, 25 to 30 mayors, 8 senators, 20 federal representatives, and 30 state legislators. Plus city council members, political appointees, and political leaders who are trying to reach office in the next election. Argentina has 24 provinces; we have representatives from 23 of them and clusters from the 5 most important provinces that are home to 80% of the population.

We started with the middle-age generation: those 35 to 45 years old. We are trying to invest long-term. We want to make sure they remain in politics. Over the past two to three years, we have been slowly starting to identify younger people, aged 25 to 35.

How do you measure success?

We’re trying to build social capital. It’s hard to measure. We are seeing people being able to build and work together toward the country’s development. Our aim is to hook them up with others and have them discuss the best practices of governance in other places.

In February 2009, we sent a group of four politicians from the province of Santa Fe — three from the governing party and one from the opposition — to New Zealand. They came back and asked us to help them work together on an initiative. They created a public ethics bill, which the province didn’t have.

We’ve had changes in electoral systems in provinces; we’ve had provinces work on laws that favor philanthropy and the education system. We are seeing that the networks we are creating are doing projects that help the country improve.

The most ambitious project we are working on now is called the basic agreement for the tercentenary. It’s kind of a grandiose name, but our goal is simple, though challenging. In three years, Argentina is going to be 200 years old, and then we will begin the country’s third century of independent life. We’re trying to promote analysis and discussions to answer the following question: What do we want Argentina in the next 100 years to be like? What are the key policies that will promote the country’s sustainable development? We have identified six key areas to focus on: education, institutional infrastructure, sustainable development, social inclusion, federalism, and foreign policy.

Last year, we travelled with 30 politicians and 20 business leaders to Columbia University for a conference launching the project.

We had a group of 10 politicians working on institutional infrastructure who went to Australia on a two-week academic program. That was donated by the Australian Agency for International Development.

We are creating groups of 12 to 15 politicians, assisted by academic advisors, to work hands-on on these issues and look at what’s being done in other countries. They are trying to develop policies that should be prioritized. These 15 people have to work and engage with think tanks, scholars, business, union, and civil society leaders, and the broader group of 160 RAP politicians. This will help shape consensus building into the future.

What is your annual budget?

For Argentina, it’s a medium budget of about US$1.5 million per year. We have a very small staff of 10 people. We work a lot with other institutions that help us create seminars, workshops, and activities. All the funding is from the private sector. We have no government funds, and we have done that on purpose. We get 80% of our funds from corporations, 15% from private individuals, and 5% from what I would call multilateral agencies: international agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank and the National Endowment for Democracy.

How will you know when you’ve achieved your goals?

I think we can say that when this generation starts sharing significant responsibility and changes the way politics are conducted and the way policies are developed, we’ll be able to say we have made a positive contribution. After 2016 and the following years, we’ll know whether the investment we have made has paid off.

What have been the more surprising outcomes?

We’ve had people coming from different countries in South America to learn about what we are doing. Similar initiatives have started in Paraguay, Peru, and Brazil.

As an organization in Argentina, we are well-known in selected sectors. We’ve had strong backing from the academic and corporate sectors. We’ve been able to organize activities at prestigious universities and think tanks. It’s been gratifying to create an organization from scratch and attempt to put in place a political culture that challenges what the old paradigm was all about. That is a positive.

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