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Astrid Gustafson: A woman’s story Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Fabrizio Scrollini, Uruguay Oct 11, 2005
Human Rights   Interviews
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This is the story of an outstanding woman. She is the first female architect in Paraguay that stubbornly resisted the dictatorship of General Stroessner [one of the worst dictators in Latin America], and the creator of one of the most important NGOs in Paraguay these days. She is the CEO of Sumando, and her name is synonym of respect and admiration all over the region. What you are about to read, is the resume of a telephone interview held with Astrid Gustafson.

Fabrizio: Why do you do what you do?

Astrid: My father, Swedish, taught us by the example a deep sense of social commitment and to be aware of the relative privilege to be born into a good family. When I was thirteen, my mother died, and it was a great shock to me.

Fabrizio: You have studied architecture in Uruguay. How did life treat you there? Which experiences in Uruguay influenced your life?

Astrid: Besides escaping of Asunción [Capital of Paraguay], which in those times was a very small and narrow-minded town, I studied Architecture and Urbanism in Uruguay, which increased my sense of equity and respect for other people. I was impressed by the way Uruguayans could live in harmony. However, I missed Paraguay and I was ready to return to support and contribute with my efforts the development of my country.

Fabrizio: And what happened when you returned to Paraguay?

Astrid: It was tough to start my career. I was a woman in a land of men, I was divorced, which was very bad seen by society in those times, I was a member of the Liberal Party, the traditional opposition to the brutal Dictatorship of General Stroessner, and I made the decision of “playing by the book”, which means I was always going to be honest.

Fabrizio: “Playing by the book”? What do you mean by this?

Astrid: I was young and very naïf, but I was proud of it. Of course this was a heavy handicap in a very corrupt country due to the great amount of money that came from the construction of Itaipú [a hydroelectric dam, one of the most important in Latin America]. This money corrupted all the values of the country. While my colleagues, architects and engineers made fortunes, I was resigned to work for those clients who were willing to pay taxes and follow the rules.

Fabrizio: And how did you manage to survive?

Astrid: I complemented my work as an architect with a small construction business. As years went by, this little firm grew and was positioned in the market as a very competent middle size firm. Then we incorporated industrial carpentry and an interior designing department that was pioneer in Paraguay. We also worked for several international banks in Asunción. Gustafson and Associates, was finally established, keeping its values of integrity, efficiency and efficacy.

Fabrizio: When did you decided to work for Civil Society?

Around my fifty’s it came to my senses that I did not need more houses or cars to live a happy life. I needed to find a way to realize my old dream of contributing to the development of my country that has done so much for me. I was materializing the words of my father “you are rich if you have something to give away”.

And so I started to work for the Paraguayan Foundation for Cooperation and Credit. I was CEO for three years, and I worked with informal producers, facilitating small loans and also influencing public policy, to help this sector of the economy.

Fabrizio: And then you created Sumando…

Yes. It was founded by a group of very enthusiastic women most of them former colleagues and collaborators. Sumando was born with the clear mission to help the democratic process that was starting in Paraguay and as its name suggests [in Spanish it means “adding up”] to add up the efforts of the private sector to the public policy in order to help the development of the country based on equity and sustainability.

Fabrizio: What moves you to stay there as CEO?

Astrid: Well…of course it is not the money (She laughs). But each small step is shared by all the members of the organization, and that kind of feeling is awesome.

Fabrizio: What about your impact?

Astrid: We started to work with the Ministry of Education and the Inter-American Development Bank, and then with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the Spanish International Cooperation Agency, on several projects that eventually created a network of 119 replication agents through which we develop our projects all over the country. This network was able to spread information and instruction to 128.291 mothers and fathers in 14 Departments [administrative divisions] of Paraguay and executed 621 communitarian projects so far. These people from humble origin are very proud to be members of Sumando and they start to develop self-respect that leads them to face new challenges.

Fabrizio: And you also developed another project: the Volunteers Bank…

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