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Seattle aid organization seeks to end the neglect of Central America

Flickr, szeke

A few decades ago, Seattle’s relationship with Central American nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua or Guatemala was perhaps most defined by this community serving as a haven for refugees in the nationwide sanctuary movement for people fleeing the violence of the civil wars.

On Tuesday, at Microsoft’s Redmond campus, I attended a meeting sponsored by the Seattle International Foundation (one of Humanosphere’s sponsors, I should note) called the Central America Donors Forum which illustrated how much things have changed — and how much still needs to change.

Like most such meetings, this one largely featured people standing up at the lectern talking about what they do. I would argue that you don’t really need a meeting for that. Just tell people to read your website mission statement.

But  further discussion at this all-day confab — which was aimed at creating new collaborations among attendees — did provide, for me anyway, a new insight:

Much of the aid and development community seems to ignore the needs of Latin America.

“There’s been real progress made in Central America, but we are now at a moment of significant urgency and crisis,” said Mauricio Vivero, executive director of the Seattle International Foundation (aka SIF). “For just one example, the rates of violence against women in Central America are higher than anywhere else in the world outside a war zone.”

The conflict and corruption fueled by the illicit drug trade, violence and chronic poverty in the region, Viverio said, should be seen not so much as isolated problems but as the most visible symptoms of weak governance, poor institutional infrastructure and lack of investment.

And part of that latter lack appears to be the direct result of the neglect of this region by the United States’ foreign assistance agencies, donors and philanthropists. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, doesn’t do that much in Latin America. The aid and development action is largely focused on sub-Saharan Africa, poor parts of Asia and to some extent India and China. You don’t hear much about Latin America.

“Half the population in Central America lives in poverty, with half of those living in severe poverty,” Vivero said.

The Seattle International Foundation was started by local philanthropists Bill and Paula Clapp as the most recent extension of their 20 years’ devotion to reducing poverty in Central America. The SIF is mostly a grant-making organization but it has also been sponsoring a number of meetings such as this one aimed at trying to bring all the players together to help this region move forward — rather than fall back again into more instability and suffering.

Bill Clapp asks a question at Central America Donors Forum

For those Americans who don’t know much about this region’s history (which, statistically, appears to be most of us) the conflicts in Central America were often fueled by the United States as part of the closing years of the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union.

Once the Cold War ended, not to mention the controversy caused by the Reagan Administration’s ‘Iran-Contra affair‘ in Nicaragua, the US government largely just packed up and left Central America.

“We were no longer of much interest to the United States,” said Roberto Rubio Fabian, director of a research institute (FUNDE) in San Salvador. “We are no longer strategic.”

I was in El Salvador a few years ago, mostly focused on reporting on health needs in the country when it was faced with losing support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. El Salvador was facing cuts because many saw it as a ‘middle-income country’ less in need of support than others (a mindset that neglects poverty rates within the overall GDP rates — no mention making you wonder why China has gotten Global Fund support….)

“This is part of the problem, that so many think we are doing fine and don’t need much help,” Fabian said. “We used to say ‘Yankees go home’ but now we are asking ‘Yankees please come.’ ”

Arguably, the U.S. has a special duty to assist countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and other Central American countries because of the well-documented damage to their institutions caused by U.S. support for one side or another in the civil conflicts down here. Many experts on gangs, for example, trace their emergence in Central America to the refugees fleeing to cities like Los Angeles, joining American gangs and then returning to their home countries to set up gangs there.

But another reason SIF and the others gathered in Redmond came together is that it simply makes good sense to help Central America. Clearly, the instability in Mexico caused by the violent drug wars is having an increased impact on the U.S., both economically and politically. This is why the Obama Administration recently sent military advisers to Honduras to assist with fighting the drug cartels who use the country as a way station for moving drugs.

Still, at the same time we’re beefing up our collaboration with Central America to fight drugs, the US Agency for International Development reportedly plans to cut back on maternal and child health funding — something that all global health experts agree is one of the more fundamental needs when trying to beef up health.

It is the neglect of the region as well as the disjointed nature of foreign aid and development that those gathered at the SIF conference seek to remedy.

“We’re hoping that by bringing people together we’ll be able to stimulate creative ideas and collaboration that help create real change to the systemic problems that are now keeping people in poverty,” Vivero said. Real change has to come from the community at risk, he emphasized, which is why many of those invited to speak at the meeting were leaders of such communities.

Many of them were quite blunt about the nature of the problems they see.

“We are still building our nation … the sense of citizenship is weak,” said Fernando Carrera, the secretary for planning in the government of Guatemala.

“In Guatemala, we don’t have human rights,” responded Helen Mack, a housing advocate and businesswoman whose sister was killed by a soldier. “I don’t want to say anything bad but our decision-makers are like the Flintstones, like caveman, when it comes to social justice.”

One of the most neglected issues of aid and development in Central America, many at the SIF meeting said, is violence against women. Nathalie Alvarado with the Inter-American Development Bank cited alarmingly bad statistics, noting among them that violence is the third leading cause of death for Central American women after traffic accidents and diabetes. Yet she noted it seldom gets much attention.

“While men are killed on the streets, women are killed at home,” Alvarado said. Something must be done to address this chronic problem if any of the other aid and development projects are to succeed, she said.

“This is about a fundamental human right,” Paula Clapp said. After more than 20 years working on trying to improve the lives of the poor throughout Central America, Clapp said it’s become clear that women’s rights are central to everything.



About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.