Obama urged to collaborate, not dictate, on aid to Central America

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden tosses a stuffed animal to children in Villa Nueva on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Biden was in the region to discuss immigration issues. AP

The Obama Administration, in addition to fighting with Texas judges over its attempt to reform immigration, has asked Congress to approve $1 billion in aid funding for at-risk countries in Central America to deal directly with some of what’s been driving the exodus from these poor countries.

“Eighty percent of the people are in survival mode,” said Manfredo Marroquin, Executive Director for Acción Ciudadana in Guatemala, speaking Thursday at a Seattle forum examining this proposal aimed at shifting more foreign aid resources to our neediest neighbors to the south.

The new money will help, Marroquin said, but the assistance needs to be done in a manner which truly empowers the citizenry and doesn’t depend solely upon local governments doing the right thing.

“Politicians have low credibility,” agreed Carlos Hernandez, executive director of Association for a Just Society in Honduras.

A billion dollars to assist Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador might sound like a generous proposal. But it’s actually a drop in the overall $50 billion-plus aid bucket and nearly equivalent to what the U.S. government provides to Jordan alone.

A number of Seattle organizations have taken the lead in urging more aid and development resources be devoted to helping our neighbors to the south. On Thursday, Global Washington and the Seattle International Foundation sponsored a panel discussion featuring some of Central America’s leading change agents including, besides Marroquin and Hernandez, Roberto Rubio, Executive Director of Funde, El Salvador. Enrique Cerna, executive producer at the local PBS station, KCTS, moderated.

The billion dollars of aid to Central America is intended by the Obama Administration to help address the systemic causes of the unaccompanied child migrants crisis. The answer to the question of whether or not this will be effective is: no, not by itself.

As all of the panelists agreed, the causes of this migration (both internal and external) are the desperate lack of opportunities and rampant violence, and it will not stop until the conditions change.

Leaders on the development front in Central America discuss the Obama Administration's aid funding boost in Seattle at an event sponsored by Global Washington and the Seattle International Foundation. Panelists, from left to right, are Carlos Hernandez, Executive Director & co-founder of Association for a Just Society, Honduras; Roberto Rubio, Executive Director of Funde, El Salvador; Manfredo Marroquin, Executive Director for Acción Ciudadana in Guatemala; and Enrique Cerna, Executive Producer & Anchor at KCTS 9

Leaders on the development front in Central America discuss the Obama Administration’s aid funding boost in Seattle at an event sponsored by Global Washington and the Seattle International Foundation. Panelists, from left to right, are Carlos Hernandez, Executive Director & co-founder of Association for a Just Society, Honduras; Roberto Rubio, Executive Director of Funde, El Salvador; Manfredo Marroquin, Executive Director for Acción Ciudadana in Guatemala; and Enrique Cerna, Executive Producer & Anchor at KCTS 9

Marroquin said he is skeptical aid funding alone can do much because the Guatemalan government is actively resistant to it, fearing it will come with U.S. government strings attached. He said more will be needed than the US government simply sending money to the Guatemalan government.

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Hernandez agreed, saying the new funding can do a lot of good so long as it is protected from corrupt and distrusted players. He said civil society and local organizations should work with communities and local government to manage the funds. But this itself, Hernandez said, will require institutional change.

The issue of corruption was a big theme of the discussion. Marroquin said the problem was not normal administrative corruption, but instead the ‘capture’ of the government and its various agencies by criminal gangs or cartels. The U.S. needs to figure out what is going on with the individual governments, he emphasized, and must recognize and understand this common “capture of the state,” or these funds will be lost to corruption.

Hernandez said the U.S. government will get the biggest bang for its aid buck if it operates with the mindset of ‘co-responsibility’ and collaboration on Central American issues.

Honduras now cooperates with the U.S. to create a ‘shield’ for preventing drugs from getting into the U.S., and that the resources poured into this are huge, Hernandez said. But he sees the relationship as selfish, because while there are plenty of resources for trying (albeit not too successfully) to prevent drugs from entering the U.S., there is not the same amount of ‘cooperation’ for dealing with the issues that harm Hondurans.

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Similarly, Rubio brought up U.S. deportation policies as being harmful because while they must ‘recycle’ these people back into the country, there are no programs to aid in their integration. He acknowledged the right of the U.S. to deport, but advocated for further involvement past just putting people back into a situation that they more than likely will attempt to escape from again.

Hernandez made clear that the most successful aid projects have included or come from the communities affected. Transparency indicators, participation, accountability, and all other conditions for effective use of resources must be established by listening to the community and organization of citizens. He emphasized the importance of involving grassroots organization at the core of any project, like what is seen with the churches in Honduras.

Rubio advocated for the power of the citizen mobilization and the pressure or influence of international actors, and agreed that giving the money to a corrupt government will not result in improvements for those who need it most. “Don’t give the money to the government; give the money to the country,” he said.

These panelists came to Seattle this week not just to speak out but to also brainstorm with the Seattle International Foundation, which is focused on fighting poverty and inequity in Central America, to assist in crafting the best chances for making these new aid efforts successful.

The panelists from Central America offered a number of critical issues they believe are key to progress: Freedom of press, electoral reform, independent judiciaries, political plurality, and public intolerance for corruption.

As the panelists made clear, monetary aid alone will not resolve these issues, there must also be advocacy and participation on the part of citizens and international actors, as well as a clear understating of the political and economic dynamics of the individual countries

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Hannah Ellison

Hannah Ellison is our social media manager, and is finishing up her BA at the University of Washington in Law, Societies & Justice. She has previous experience in nonprofit work, social media management, newspaper article writing and publishing, nightclub security, wild-land firefighting, and organic farming.