Latin America: Help the Poor or Learn From Them?

Villa 21

The ideology that emanates from the international finance organizations maintains that the poor suffer from a "lack" of resources, that poverty is a scourge to be combated, and that the best method of doing so is to "help" the poor. On the other hand, the priests that live among the poor believe that it is more important to learn from them.

Source: Americas Program

Translated from: ¿Ayudar a los pobres o aprender de ellos?
Translated by: Monica Wooters

The ideology that emanates from the international finance organizations maintains that the poor suffer from a "lack" of resources, that poverty is a scourge to be combated, and that the best method of doing so is to "help" the poor. On the other hand, the priests that live among the poor believe that it is more important to learn from them.

Panoramic view of Villa 21. Photo:

The Church of Our Lady of Caacupé is located in the center of the Villa 21 neighborhood—also known as the "Shantytown" (Villa de Barracas) or "Paraguayan Town"—of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a small parish on Osvaldo Cruz Street, the main thoroughfare of the town where few cars pass and dozens of people come and go via the asphalted road. However, the first impressions are deceiving: every few meters narrow streets intersect and weave through the neighborhood where some 40,000 people reside.

To one side of the church lies a small shack whereupon are painted large frescoes of the priests Carlos Mugica and Daniel de la Sierra, with arms opened wide in a sign of hope and welcoming. Mugica is a major icon for all of the villa priests, as he was assassinated in 1974 by the Anticommunist Alliance of Argentina (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) and Daniel de la Sierra was the founder of the parish where he is now buried. In a small room within the parish resides Father Pepe, José María Di Paola, with long hair, casual clothes, 46 years old, and 10 years in the villa.

The parish was founded in 1987 when it became independent from the traditional Sacred Heart Basilica, found just a few blocks from the villa. "The priest Daniel asked the people what they wanted to call the parish and the majority decided on the patron saint of Paraguay," says Pepe. The villa is located in a shantytown at the southern edge of the city of Buenos Aires where it borders with Riachuelo, a neighborhood filled with abandoned factories.

The neighborhood is composed of 112 acres, however if one adds nearby Villa 24 and the various squatter sites around, the actual size is closer to 216 acres. While Villa 21 is made up of mainly Paraguayans, Villa 24 has a majority of Argentines from the north of the country such as Santiago del Estero and Tucumán. A census taken by the Buenos Aires city government states that the population of both neighborhoods live in three types of housing: 31% in houses with flooring or running water; 32% in houses with dirt floors or without running water; and another 33% live in shanties which are even more precarious. One in five residents are children or adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19.

The Stigma of Violence

Villa 21 was the subject of news a few months ago when five people were killed in shootings. Almost every month the villas appear in the daily newspapers due to similar occurrences: the media systematically associates violence with crime and drugs, as occurs in all of Latin America. But violence and crime also have a political cost, something that the media tends to hide.

Bernardo Kliksberg, adviser to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for the region, states that criminality and violence are perceived as the major problem facing the people of Latin America as shown in the Latin Barometer. In effect, the rate of homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants grew from 12.5 in 1980 to 25.1 in 2006. In comparison, Norway has a rate of 0.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Denmark 1.1, Canada 1.5, Finland 2.2, and the United States, which holds the highest rate for a developed nation, has reached only 5.5. However Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have rates of 60 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, statistics that are higher than those found even in countries undergoing wars.

In 1980 Latin America had some 136 million people living in poverty. Today there are 200 million, or 40% of the population. This makes it the region with the highest level of inequality in the world. Between the incomes of the richest 10% and the poorest 10% there is a difference of one to 50. In Bolivia that difference jumps to one to 168; in Colombia, 1 to 63; Brazil, one to 58; and in Paraguay one to 73. In contrast the ratio between the incomes of the rich and poor in Spain is closer to one to 10, and in Norway one to 6. "The inequality is the principle reason for the poverty in Latin America," concludes Kliksberg.

Violence and crime grew in the same period that inequality and poverty jumped. If this is not put into context, says Kliksberg, "it gives this impression that there exists within the society a group of crazy individuals who commit crimes." As a result, the high levels of poverty and inequality make Latin America "a tense continent with a low level of social cohesion. It is not the same being a poor person in a poor society as it is to be a poor person in the society with the highest rates of inequality in the world. The level of tension that is generated is tremendous and it is heightened when one is poor after not having been poor," says Kliksberg.

To back up this statement, he presented an unedited chart on land ownership in Latin America, comparing 1995 with 2007. The facts are incredible: in 1995, 90% of the population had access to potable water but today only 83% have that access; in 1995, 85% had a refrigerator and now only 77% do; the percentage of those who have access to drainage systems has decreased from 76% to 64%; washing machines from 57% to 48%; piped hot water from 57% to 35%; and the percentage of those who own cars has dropped from 33% to 22%. All of this comes after the continent has seen five years of sustained economic growth, and as such the numbers from 2003 are even worse.

The Debate over Help

The poor communities of Latin America have many traits in common, all of which are evident in the villas of Argentina, the callampas of Chile, the cantegriles of Uruguay, and the favelas of Brazil. In particular, these traits share the fact that they continue to exponentially expand in almost every country, especially since 1990 when the neoliberal economic model was implemented, creating a scenario of displacement for a considerable portion of the population.

Father Pepe has a completely different vision from those who view poverty as something negative or as the result of a lack of resources. He gives as an example the case of the parish of Caacupé which underwent additions and was remodeled in 2000 by the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Over the weekends hundreds of people showed up to take turns working on the building. He believes that the villas are growing because there is a great sense of solidarity, "because here, when someone is sick, they always have a place to go." It goes beyond that and he assures that "there is a different society here."

Such an affirmation deserves a long explanation: "During the electoral campaigns, we saw that all of the candidates, both conservatives and progressives, held the wrong positions. The only news one hears in the villas comes from the gutter press where they refer to the defects or the technocrats that have their plans and try to say how the neighborhood should be, but they don’t come and interact with the people, they don’t listen to them. That’s what keeps them from seeing the real individual from the villa who has been creating his own history for some 40 or 50 years in a marginalized area of the city where there is an interaction between the rural culture that many people bring with them here and the urban neighborhood culture which we see as aligned with popular Christianity."

Like all of the "villero priests," Pepe does not trust professional and institutionalized help, which is very different from the unconditional and spontaneous help that was practiced by the first Christians. A critical view of the so-called "assistance for development" maintains that this type of help is "a means of repression," as cooperation has been converted into a real strategy designed and diagnosed from the outside: "They offer that help for their own national security’s sake as a means to maintain their own prosperity."

The current forms of cooperation create, in the opinion of the critics of development, a relationship between the ruling class and those that receive the "almost feudal help, due to the power differential that it establishes." As a consequence, they denounce that this kind of help generates a relationship of superiority and inferiority that is summarized in "the shame felt by those that receive the help and the arrogance of those that give the help."

Father Pepe questions the concept of "help" and in its place he argues that "we should learn from the poor." Once again, he turns to the villa as an example, this time referring to the way in which the neighborhoods inhabitants support each other in the construction of houses: when they are filling in foundations or erecting cement roofs, several families will spontaneously get together and help each other over the whole weekend to do it. "While the men are filling in the foundation, the women will be cooking, and the children play nearby and help out when they are needed; and a party will start, nothing happens here without a party," says Pepe.

When another family decides to put up a roof, the rest of the families help out, and in that way there is a rotational form of cooperation that is natural and has no formal "organization." The first task the neighborhood took on to create the community was to fill in the areas that had been flooded. Next came the slow building of homes that often took up to 10 years to complete and housed extended families including parents, children, grandparents, in-laws, and even cousins and distant relatives.

The bonding community force allows for lower costs, as in the case of building a house in which one need only pay for the basic materials. "If we had to contract a construction company to remodel the church it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. But it didn’t cost anything. It was built with the labor of solidarity and hosting parties to raise the funds for the basic materials. That’s how we were able to erect a big bell tower," Pepe points out.

It is a kind of popular community economy that has been able to build entire neighborhoods with all of the necessary infrastructure. The community construction projects and self-supporting tasks would be impossible without the solidarity of the community. In addition to the church are six chapels that replicate the work of the parish as real social and cultural centers.

There are also eight cafeterias managed directly by the parish in addition to some 20 popular cafeterias. The community has academic and drug prevention support groups, public kiosks, sports programs, and camping retreats which have been attended by more than 1,000 youths in the past few years. The foundation is volunteer work but a few of the programs have government support or funding from Cáritas (Catholic Agency for International Aid and Development).

"Next weekend I am taking 200 kids to the countryside," says Pepe. "We also have a center for adolescent boys, another center for adolescent girls, and a trade school where the students learn carpentry, iron working, artisan candle making, and ceramics, with two girls from the neighborhood that run the workshops. There are 850 boys in the boy scouts and we are starting to approach the hardest job of all, which is drug rehabilitation, or as they say here, paco."

The Power of Social Networks

The way in which they help teens get off drugs reveals the depth of the community’s commitment and the human resources they have. They started a day center to receive young people addicted to drugs, that also has a small farm where eight teens who are in the process of rehabilitation live. However, the farm is far from the neighborhood, in a natural environment where they have a better chance of rehabilitating themselves. The next step is their re-integration into the community where there is a real possibility of returning to drugs.

"There is an idyllic ambience at the farm where it is much easier for them to stop the drug use. But when they come back to the community it’s a real challenge. It has to be a gradual integration, so we decided on an intermediate step: they live in the neighborhood, but not in their homes nor in their same streets. They live in a communal situation for six months in the villa, engaged in iron-working workshops and other jobs. Through this system they begin a new, more solid life with different friends and different horizons, but always close to their families," relates Pepe with enthusiasm.

Paco is considered the most destructive drug, is often used by children as young as eight, and has left all those who work in rehabilitation without any answers. "Since 2000, things have changed. The drug has become more widespread. Before, those who used it were able to hold normal lives, they could go to school or even work, and nobody would notice. But today, things have changed and it’s necessary to work fast because it can kill in a matter of months," says Pepe with a hint of sadness.

They also work with senior citizens, another vulnerable sector of the community. Many work under the table without a pension and when they are no longer able to work they end up alone and have to move to the villas as a last resort. Once more, Pepe: "We created a support group and later a cafeteria and a home where 10 seniors live. We try to make sure they play a productive role in the community. Many of them cook in the cafeterias; others stand watch at the doors, or run errands. It’s a question of making them feel useful. Some were alcoholics, thrown in the street, and they have been able to make it with the help of the community. People say that drug addicts come to the villas because you can buy drugs here. We say they come because the community won’t let them die. Though they have been thrown in the street, the community gives them food, clothes, and a bath."

It is interesting the way the community broaches the subject of domestic abuse. They hold separate retreats for men and women in groups of 60 or 70 for an entire weekend. Father Pepe talks about abusive men and there is a long silence. It seems like nothing is wrong. "In the men’s retreat it’s possible that through a personal conversation the subjects of alcohol and violence will come up. Eventually they start to take on the idea of a change; they start to talk about their problems. Many of them begin a process during the retreats that continues, because these people feel alone and they don’t have someone to tell them that what they are doing is wrong."

Pepe does not believe that he is doing anything special. He feels that everything consists of being on the side of the people, listening to them, learning, and not telling them what they should do. "The idea is not to make them become aware of the fact that they need to liberate themselves, but to listen and watch what they do; understand the people, not lead them. Listen up …"

Translated for the Americas Program by Monica Wooters.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (

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Andrew Graham-Yooll, "Aquí la vida es más humana," interview with Father Pepe, Página 12, Feb. 23, 2004.

Bernardo Kliksberg, "Hacia un visión renovada e integral de cómo enfrentar la inseguridad ciudadana en la región," in the international seminar "El rol de los medios masivos de caomunicación en la inseguridad ciudadana," Montevideo, Sept. 10, 2008.

Personal interview with Father Pepe, Buenos Aires, Nov. 6, 2008.

"Los jóvenes del barrio Zavaleta y la Villa 21-24 y su relación con el consumo de paco," at

María Zapata, "Acerca de los planes de vivienda en la Villa 21-24," at

Wolfgang Sachs, "Diccionario del desarrollo," Galileo, Mexico, 2001.

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