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“With the current challenges we are facing in Latin America, Hivos is very necessary right now. We can really impact and change realities,” says Ana Gabriel Zuniga. Ana Gabriel works for Hivos from Costa Rica, where she is a program development manager. Before she joined Hivos, Ana Gabriel was Vice Minister of the Presidency for Political Affairs in Costa Rica, where she focused on setting up dialogues with citizens. In this interview she shares what it was like to work for the government, what initiatives she is setting up as a program development manager, and why she thinks open contracting is so important in the region today.

Ana Gabriel joined the Costa Rican government in 2014. The previous government closed as the most conflicted government in Costa Rica’s history, faced with corruption and distrust among citizens. This meant that the government that Ana Gabriel joined, had to reinstall confidence again, and listen with empathy to citizens’ demands. For that reason, a special citizen dialogue Deputy Ministry was set up, which focused on establishing new relationships between government institutions and citizens, protecting the rights of indigenous people, and setting the open government agenda.

Building up trust

Ana Gabriel, who was leading this new Deputy Ministry, explains that her team had to build up trust from citizens slowly.

“In only a few years’ time, we managed to have less social conflicts in our country because of the collective actions we set up. But that took time. The first year in office we were very much focused on setting up dialogues with citizens, for example through NGOs, labor unions, local organizations, etc. The second year, we started building more preventive tools and methodologies around constant conflicts in our country, such as energy, the environment, water, and public education. After two years, citizens knew who we were and started calling us, telling us, for example, that they were going to block a street on a certain day. This was a huge step forward for us – citizens suddenly trusted us and contacted us about their plans! As a result, the fear of building relationships with citizens among public officials also started to disappear. I’m very proud of that, it really felt we made a change.”

Hivos enters the picture

During her time at the government, Ana Gabriel built up a very close relationship with Hivos, as we were an important strategic partner in the Open Government Summit in Latin America. And so, after her four-year tenure with the government, Ana Gabriel started working on open states for Hivos in May last year. First as a consultant, and from January this year, she started as a Program Development Manager on freedom and accountability.

“Open Contracting is very important for the region. With the ongoing corruption, the rise of conservative parties, and the influx of migrants, it is very urgent for Hivos to demonstrate the human rights perspective. Open contracting is not just about systems and standards. It’s about accelerating democracy. Objective data can promote quality activism, advocacy and journalism in the region, and can really impact public policies. That’s why I am very grateful I can work on this topic with Hivos,” she adds.

Ana Gabriel mentions that her experience with setting up citizen dialogues for the government has really helped her in her new role at Hivos.

“Hivos feels like a family to me, and I am so grateful that I can continue working on topics that are close to my heart. I feel like I can use my knowledge to empower the people at Hivos and to strengthen our work in the region. I recognize that open data is transformative for the region, and I want to accelerate this in my current role.”

New initiatives

Ana Gabriel has already started a number of interesting new initiatives in her role as program development manager.

“We will start an open contracting project next year with three cities in Latin America to build sustainable, safe public transportation systems with an equal gender perspective. We also set up “improbably dialogues” with citizens on various topics, such as energy contracts in Guatemala, and access to healthcare for people with HIV.”

In the coming months, Ana Gabriel and her colleagues will continue to expand the improbable dialogues, build new relationships, and look for other ideas and prototypes that can advance open contracting in Latin America.

“This is what we need to deal with right now”

“We’re facing a very aggressive rise of conservative parties that have a clear agenda against human rights. This is what we need to deal with right now. We really need to empower the people and give them tools, information and capacity, together with a lot of empathy so they can understand the data. Only through the power of citizens, we can tackle this threat”.