Professors at universities in Kansas are helping improve Paraguay’s government during their break from helping students in the classroom.
Professors from Washburn, Baker and Emporia State universities traveled on Dec. 15 to Paraguay. During their weeklong mission in South America, they attempted to help Paraguay’s citizens understand and implement a democratic and transparent government as part of a democratization project. They gave lectures about television debates, how to use social media to communicate policies, budgeting in the government, open record administration, electoral politics and more.
A second group of professors will travel to Paraguay for a week before the country’s presidential election in April. They plan to leave Jan. 21.
“We hope that the project will improve political parties’ institutional and organizational capacities to mainstream their key policy proposals, structure programmatic engagement of parties with voters and install an active engagement with voters,” Veronica Gauto, the project coordinator, said.
Paraguay was ruled by one party in a dictatorship until 2008, which is when it implemented a binary congress, president and vice president. Early last year, a dispute over farmland led to the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo. Now, the people are looking at ways to improve their governmental system and voter involvement.
C.I.R.D., Centro de Información y Recursos para el Desarrollo, which translates to Information and Resource Center for Development, decided to bring in democracy experts to help. The democratization project is called Public Policy Agenda and Presidential Elections. C.I.R.D. works in conjunction with the Kansas-Paraguay Committee to collect the contacts of professors in Kansas.
“Our mission is to connect Kansas and Paraguay on a personal level through different projects in areas of education, politics and nature,” Miguel Gonzalez-Abellas, Kansas-Paraguay Committee member, said.
Professors from Kansas were chosen for this mission because of the state’s similarities to Paraguay. The country is small and the concentrations on agricultural economy and developing urban areas are similar to Kansas.
“Kansas is the go-to place for these folks for the moment,” Mark Peterson, a professor of political science at Washburn University and speaker in Paraguay, said. “There are some similarities that make conversation a little easier for people from a small state like this. I can’t imagine someone from Harvard or Berkeley going.”
Professors met with political leaders from different parties, youth from the political parties, political communication experts, journalists and university students.
Gwyneth Mellinger, professor and chair of the department of mass media at Baker University, spoke about social media and how it can mobilize voters by spreading discussions on policies and issues. She said she enjoyed the trip and found the meetings interesting.
“What I found in the young people was that they were really, really wanting to learn about Paraguay’s history, culture and wanting to figure out how to make the country better,” Mellinger said. “They seemed to understand that political engagement was necessary, and they also understood that what was happening was dysfunctional.”
During the lectures, the differences in languages weren’t a barrier, but they did make for an interesting set-up. The professors spoke into microphones that traveled to translators’ headphones. The translators then spoke in Spanish into microphones that traveled to the audience’s headphones.
“We would crack a joke and then wait 10 seconds and the audience would laugh,” Mellinger said.