New initiative aims to end philanthropic neglect of Latin America

Hunger and poverty still exist throughout much of Latin America. Raramuri indian Juan Rodriguez, right, of the Tarahumara Mountains watches as his children eat food brought in to deal with a famine in the town of Huisarorare, northern Mexico. 2009 AP

A select group of philanthropists, business leaders and government officials are attempting to fill a big gap in the humanitarian universe – the chronic neglect of Latin America.

Bill Clapp

Bill Clapp

“I remember back when I was in my early 30s, I heard (former German Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt speak in Seattle and someone asked him for his views on US foreign policy,” said Bill Clapp, a local businessman who for the past decade has focused his energy and talents on humanitarian endeavors.  “He said it’s very easy for Europeans to understand your foreign policy … We just look at how you treat your neighbors.”

That stuck with Clapp, who in the mid-1990s with wife Paula co-founded a philanthropy called Global Partnerships focused on reducing poverty and improving lives in Central America. The Clapps also later launched Global Washington, an umbrella organization aimed at bringing together the humanitarian sector, and the Seattle International Foundation, a philanthropy (which helps fund Humanosphere) dedicated to improving lives everywhere – but especially for our neighbors in Central America.

“The reality is we’re not doing a hell of a lot,” said Clapp, referring to the aid and development community in general.

That’s the gist of a new report, entitled U.S Foundation Funding: Latin America 2010-2102, and the impetus for a meeting last week in Mexico City called the Central America Donors Forum.

Telma Najera, 25, feeds her son Minor Najera who suffers from malnutrition, at a hospital in Japala, Guatemala. AP

Telma Najera, 25, feeds her son Minor Najera who suffers from malnutrition, at a hospital in Japala, Guatemala. AP

“It was very encouraging to see what looks like the beginning of a movement, of an organized effort to address the needs of Central America,” said Kristi Miller, who runs the reproductive health and rights program for the WestWind Foundation (which, in addition to women’s health, also focuses on climate change). “The region has been neglected for too long.”

The report, prepared by the Foundation Center in concert with the Seattle International Foundation (SIF) and Hispanics in Philanthropy, revealed that about 10 percent of all international American philanthropic funding goes to help Latin America and, by far, most of the money is being spent by American philanthropies on their own projects and people working there as opposed to funding local organizations.

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The chart below from the report shows the most notable example, that of the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart money) as the largest donor to Central America – giving nearly all of its money to the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation’s work, mostly focused on Mexico.

Source:  US Foundation Funding: Latin America 2010-2012

Source: US Foundation Funding: Latin America 2010-2012

“They’re giving money to themselves,” said Mauricio Vivero, executive director at SIF. The Walton Family Foundation spending practices have not been fully publicly explained, Vivero said, but it appears to be mostly aimed at funding fellowships for Mexican youth to travel and study in the United States.

(Editor’s note: It should be noted that Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico may have something to do with why the Walton family has expended so much of its charitable largesse there.)

But the issue here is not the apparently self-serving philanthropic behavior of one foundation, Vivero said, especially since many others do much the same. The main take-away from the report is that American philanthropy is neglecting its neighbors to the south – especially in Central America, despite its proximity and despite the impact the region’s chronic poverty and instability have on its neighbor to the north, us, in terms of immigration, drug or gang violence and the other headline grabbers.

“The report shows how terrible a job we’ve been doing in supporting civil society, infrastructure and local empowerment in Central America,” Vivero said. And it is this humanitarian and philanthropic neglect of our neighbors to the south that was behind the meeting in Mexico City last week – the fourth annual Central America Donors Forum (CADF).

“One primary focus was on youth and economic empowerment,” said Scott Jackson, president of Global Impact (an organization that works to advance the causes of humanitarian organizations … and which has also donated to support Humanosphere). “This whole thing started four years ago, in Seattle, when SIF decided there was a need to organize the philanthropic community and get them to address the fact that the region was being neglected.”

A man and his son eke out a living picking through garbage in Honduras. AP

A man and his son eke out a living picking through garbage in Honduras. AP

That wasn’t news to the Clapps, of course, who recognized this decades ago when the US government basically pulled out of Central America after the civil wars ended and our Cold War interests diminished. Most philanthropies followed suit, Clapp said, many of them abandoning the region and leaving the wreckage of our poor foreign policy decisions up to weak governments to solve themselves.

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The result: Violence, poverty, instability, refugees and powerful criminal organizations that can rival Al Qaida when it comes to brutality and terror.

“It has to be said that part of the problem is that governments there have not dealt effectively with corruption and have not worked that hard on improving democracy,” Clapp noted. Many governments in Latin America collect only something like 10 percent in taxes, he said, which leads to under-funding of basic social services and more wealth inequality.

The philanthropic and humanitarian sector can’t fix that on its own, he said, but ignoring these fundamental problems next door won’t lead to progress either.

“The idea, behind the report and these (CADF) meetings, is to create and coordinate the efforts a number of organizations are already doing to improve life in Central America, or Latin America in general,” said Vivero.

The conference brought in big players in American philanthropy already working in the region, such as the Ford Foundation, as well as small, dedicated groups like the WestWind Foundation, as well as Central American business leaders and government officials. It wasn’t a huge meeting, Vivero said, and it’s too early to point to any specific impact.

“But it definitely seems to be gathering momentum,” he said.

For example, just prior to the meeting in  Mexico City, US Vice-President Joe Biden joined the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (and others) in Washington, D.C., to announce a new plan for reducing poverty and supporting economic growth in those countries.  That’s a step in the right direction, said Vivero, and an indication the US government may be moving away from its policy of neglect.

But what he said the philanthropic sector can, and should, do to nudge this in the right direction is to more actively bolster civil society, human rights, women’s empowerment, public sector investment and basic infrastructure focused on meeting the needs of the poorest in these countries.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.