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ALBA LEADERS: Presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela with a fan. (Photo: Governemt of Nicaragua)
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

USAID & Latin America

Why do some Latin Americans want to expel USAID?

Inter-American Dialogue 

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, is planning to distribute $1.8 billion worth of aid in Latin America and the Caribbean during the next two years, but leftist nations are increasingly at odds with the agency, The Miami Herald reported Sept. 5. In June, the ALBA bloc asked its members to "immediately expel" USAID, alleging that it is trying to destabilize the countries' governments. And Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who has accused USAID of supporting the opposition, has said his government is writing new regulations for the agency. Is USAID, and the U.S. government in general, improperly influencing some countries of the region? Are countries likely to stop accepting U.S. government aid? How important is U.S. aid to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean today?

Mark Feierstein, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID: USAID has worked for 50 years with governments, NGOs and the private sector in Latin America and the Caribbean to reduce poverty, strengthen democracy, improve health and education standards and protect the environment. We are fortunate to have a sophisticated set of government, private sector and civil society partners in the region to advance these objectives; and our development priorities align with theirs. Today USAID's annual budget in the region is approximately $1 billion, with the bulk dedicated to Haiti's reconstruction, geographic consolidation and extension of civilian rule and reduction of illicit activity in Colombia and Peru, and crime prevention efforts in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Our challenge today is less about countries not accepting our aid than helping them reach the point at which they no longer need foreign assistance. As President Obama has said: 'The purpose of development is creating the conditions where our assistance is no longer needed.' We are therefore focused less on providing aid per se and more on strengthening countries' capacities to grow their economies and provide services to their people. Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and, most recently, Panama have all reached this important milestone. And Brazil is now transitioning from beneficiary status to a net donor to development alongside the United States. In the Americas and across the globe, USAID takes a holistic approach to development, openly helping countries tackle economic and political obstacles to peace and prosperity. This approach is broadly embraced by governments and citizens across the hemisphere.

Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington: USAID's primary vocation consists in providing development, humanitarian and economic assistance to countries in need. Increasingly, this goal is being undermined by the cooperation agency's funding of political activities. This funding, often channeled to groups opposing governments that the United States disagrees with, is frequently identified for what it is: foreign meddling in internal politics. Locals tend to consider that recipients of such assistance are beholden to a U.S. political agenda. In other instances, grantees have been involved in destabilization campaigns or extra-constitutional efforts to unseat democratically elected governments, casting serious doubt on the United States' democratic credentials. Our hemisphere offers various recent examples of how USAID's so-called 'democracy and governance' programs have been linked to undemocratic incidents. In Bolivia, USAID assisted regional opposition groups that, in 2008, supported acts of extreme and racist violence against state authorities and indigenous activists. In Venezuela, USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives funneled assistance to groups that had supported an aborted coup against President Chávez in 2002 followed by an economic destabilization campaign that plunged the country into recession. In Haiti, USAID helped fund elections in late 2010 that excluded the country's most popular political party. In these cases and many others, USAID's reputation has suffered and both recipients of politically oriented funding and traditional recipients focused on humanitarian work have ended up tainted in the public eye. Ultimately, USAID should stop trying to juggle both a political and development agenda and focus instead on the much-needed modernization of its development, humanitarian and economic assistance programs.

Christopher Sabatini, editor in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy for the Americas Society and Council of the Americas: Ironically, the leaders that are now threatening to expel USAID owe their political success, directly and indirectly, to USAID's support for democracy and democratic institutions. The political transformation that led to the unraveling of the political class in Bolivia and the arrival of President Evo Morales, for example, started with the 1994 decentralization law that USAID supported. Similarly, USAID and the international donor community's support for electoral reform allowed for popular ballots that led to the elections of Presidents Hugo Chávez, Morales and Rafael Correa-voter preferences that would likely have been quashed decades earlier. Support for democratic institutions, such as human rights, administration of justice and women's rights, has been USAID's mission since the 1990s. That adoption reflected the growing intellectual and international consensus that participation and accountability (democracy) were essential for sustainable, equitable development. While at times (unfortunately) the United States' bilateral support for these fundamental rights and goals became politicized, the truth is that those principles hold true today. Real development, whether it's improving women's health, reducing infant mortality or increasing social mobility, is only possible if citizens have the rights and tools to be able to participate in the decisions that affect them and can hold their public officials accountable. The fact that governments such as Bolivia's and Ecuador's chafe at international efforts to support independent, pluralistic civil society should say more about these governments' views of the world and politics than U.S. intentions and policies. At the same time, increased state assistance from China has made the United States' development dollars much less relevant today. But the loans and grants that China lavishes on the Ecuadorean, Bolivian, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments are not development aid. They are intended to further Chinese commercial interests and are not tied to development concerns-education, human rights, public health. Nor are they, unlike USAID or other development programs, delivered transparently to allow for public scrutiny. Unfortunately, though, the embarrassingly paltry sum of $1.8 billion that the U.S. government is allocating to the region makes it much easier to refuse. But that's a different issue.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.