Thirty-five years of dictatorship in Paraguay created social ills that will take generations to resolve, says a Kansas University professor who is helping develop social services in the South American nation.
"When I think about what needs to be done, from our perspective, they have a tremendous way to go," said John Poertner, associate professor of social welfare.
Poertner returned to Lawrence this week after living in Paraguay the past six months. During a one-year sabbatical from KU, he's working with a new Paraguayan social welfare agency, Diben, and the Peace Corps to create and strengthen assistance programs.
He said former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, ousted after 35 years in power, ruled a country in which "virtually any human need was ignored" by the government.
The new president, Andres Rodriquez, is committed to developing social services for Paraguayans, Poertner said.
RODRIQUEZ SET up Diben, which has spent $8 million on social programs. That may not sound like much by U.S. standards, but $1 goes a long way in Paraguay, Poertner said.
"This agency is an an example of a new institution in an emerging democracy and how social services evolve in that kind of situation," he said.
At Diben, Poertner is writing a guide for private, not-for-profit agencies on how to design and manage social services.
"Part of the change in the country is that private non-profits are coming out of the woodwork. So there is a need to provide them a lot of training," he said.
In addition, the Peace Corps is working with Poertner to start a youth development program modeled after U.S. Junior Achievement, a program that gives young people small business experience.
Poertner said four of 10 Paraguayans are 15 years old or younger, and there is a growing need for economic development that creates new jobs.
THE COUNTRY'S inhabitants "lack business concepts that allow them to take their own efforts and build it into a business with four or five or six employees," he said.
Poertner said the education system in Paraguay was seriously neglected for decades.
Only 47 percent of the country's children finishes the sixth grade, he said.
"I think the most glaring thing about Paraguay is really not the social service system, it's education, which has implications for social services," he said. "The education system is really bad. Typically kids go to school for half a day. Schools don't have any budget for materials, books. The implications for economic, social and political development are pretty profound."
Poertner said the threat of another coup and reversal of democratic elements in the country "is very real."