April 18, 2016
This article was originally published on the “Do justice.” blog of the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Centre for Public Dialogue and Office of Social Justice.
By Nicholas Wolterstorff
I have just returned from a trip with 17 others to witness the work of the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This was the fourth time that I have traveled to Honduras to witness the work of AJS-Honduras; each time I have been moved and inspired by the bravery, imagination, dedication, and enthusiasm of the staff.
AJS-Honduras was founded seventeen years ago by Kurt Ver Beek and a native Honduran, Carlos Hernandez. It now has a staff of over eighty people, almost all of them native Hondurans. AJS-Honduras is an openly Christian organization; we began each day of our visit by joining the staff in their devotions. And as its name indicates, it is a justice organization, not a relief or development organization. It has a number of distinct projects, each of them consisting either of prodding and assisting the government of Honduras to do what government, according to Scripture, is supposed to do, namely, secure justice in society, or of aiding citizens in their attempt to secure just treatment by the government.
The work is often dangerous. People usually welcome relief and development projects, assuming they are sensibly conceived and not corrupt. Attempts to correct injustice almost always stir up hostility; almost always there are some who have a vested interest in perpetuating the unjust laws and practices. A few years back one of the lawyers on the staff of AJS-Honduras was assassinated at point-blank range on a street in Tegucigalpa as he was on his way to court.
Several of AJS’ projects have achieved remarkable success, especially in the last couple of years. They work mainly in two areas: Anti-Corruption, and Peace and Public Security. To give some sense of how AJS-Honduras works, let me describe two of its Anti-Corruption projects.
Its Education Project is one of these Anti-Corruption projects. Elementary and secondary education in Honduras is operated by the national government. AJS-Honduras discovered that the system was rife with corruption. There was massive absenteeism by teachers, with the result that the average number of days per year that students were in school was only about 120; and, even though it was illegal, teachers were being allowed to hire less qualified substitutes whom they paid less than they themselves were being paid by the system, freeing them to hold down jobs elsewhere. AJS-Honduras spent several years carefully gathering the relevant data, and then, a few years ago, it publicized what it had uncovered. The government was stung into taking action. Remarkably, within two years the average number of days that students were in school almost doubled; and the corrupt practice of teachers hiring less qualified substitutes has been almost entirely rooted out.
The Health Project is another of the Anti-Corruption projects of AJS-Honduras. In Honduras, most medicines are bought and distributed by the national government. AJS-Honduras discovered that this system, too, was rife with corruption. The medicines that were distributed were often watered down or of poor quality; often the expiration date had passed; and in one case, what was supposedly a blood pressure medicine proved to be chalk. The middlemen whom the government contracted for the medicines were often corrupt cronies of government officials who were secretly taking a personal cut. In this case, too, the strategy of AJS-Honduras was to spend several years carefully gathering the relevant data and then to publicize what it had discovered; the result, once again, was that the government was stung into taking action.
Just recently, something truly remarkable has happened with respect to the fight by AJS-Honduras against government corruption. There is a large non-profit international organization called Transparency International which undertakes to report, for each country each year, how transparent or non-transparent its government is. Recently Transparency International appointed AJS-Honduras as its representative in Honduras. And—this is what is remarkable—the government of Honduras signed an agreement with AJS-Honduras that it would give them free access to its books in the areas of education, health, and a few others.
This gives some sense of how the Anti-Corruption projects of AJS-Honduras work. Its Peace and Public Security projects work differently. In these projects, AJS-Honduras stands alongside individuals who have been the victims of crime or fraud, helping them to put their lives back together and prodding the government to find and punish the wrongdoers.
AJS-Honduras describes itself as “a Christian, nonprofit organization founded in 1998 striving to be brave Christians dedicated to making Honduras’ system of laws and government work properly to do justice for the poor.” The staff of AJS-Honduras are, indeed, “brave Christians.” Much of the work is dangerous. But what has also struck me about them is their imagination: they imagine new ways of prodding and assisting the government to do what it should be doing, new ways of standing alongside victims. What likewise impresses me is their steadfast Christian dedication. They spend years collecting data until it proves to be incontrovertible. They work steadily at projects that, for several years, seem to bear little fruit. In the last couple of years, several of their projects have been bearing astounding fruit. And they are full of enthusiasm. Praise the Lord!