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Trump’s foreign aid cuts pose threat to development in Latin America

A six-year-old Haitian boy is treated aboard a USAID-funded hospital ship after a powerful earthquake that struck the Carribean nation in 2010. (Chelsea Kennedy/USAID)

The so-called skinny budget proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump has international development experts concerned about the fate of public health, poverty reduction and other development programs in countries around the world.

The proposed budget cuts for the 2018 fiscal year would slash current foreign aid funding (which makes up less than 1 percent of the budget) by one-third. If the cuts are approved by Congress, U.S. funds for foreign assistance would reach levels not seen since the 1970s and 1990s.

Foreign policy experts warn that the cuts would be felt deeply by countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2016, the United States provided more than $1 billion in development aid to countries in the Western Hemisphere. The draft budget seeks to reduce that figure by almost 40 percent, zeroing out funding for development programs in the region’s most economically stressed countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru, among others.

For better insight into how these cuts might be felt by the country’s southern neighbors, Humanosphere spoke to Christopher Sabatini, foreign policy expert and editor at Latin America Goes Global. Sabatini, a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, has served as an adviser to the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development and published numerous articles on U.S. policy in Latin America.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Going off of what we know from the leaked budget proposal, which countries in Latin America might feel these cuts most strongly?

What’s remarkable about these cuts across the board is that they completely zero out traditional development assistance money. So even beyond the individual country, we’re looking at a kind of sectoral decline or just zeroing out, which is in many ways more important than any one country.

But we’ve seen a number of Caribbean countries particularly lose out. They had relatively modest budgets. You see countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, which, in particular, lose out on development assistance. These are serious and deep cuts for these countries.

What about Haiti? It’s the poorest country in the region, yet the proposed foreign assistance budget cuts aid there by 16 percent.

Haiti’s always been a problem. I think it’s going to get hit from a number of fronts. One of them, of course, is the potential forced return of a half million Haitians who were given a temporary waver to stay in the United States. We still don’t know their status.

In regards to the budget, well, development assistance in Haiti has never been effectively delivered. What it will do more than anything, to be honest, is affect the employment of technocrats and development specialists in Haiti more than any real effect on longer term development programs.

What are you most concerned about in regards to these budget cuts?

My biggest concern is Central America. Just after [Latin America Goes Global] published these numbers, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, gave a talk in Washington. He sent a very strong signal that U.S. development assistance to Central America was going to be more security-focused. I worry because that ignores the root causes of migration, of misery, of violence, of the insecurity that Central Americans in the U.S. face. … It’s very short sighted.

The second thing that I fear is the impact this will have on the poorest of the poor. Our programs are becoming less development and more policy-driven. I fear that the overall focus of this administration is going to be less on helping the poor and more on specific U.S.-policy objectives, which aren’t mutually exclusive.

The last thing I’m worried about is what this does for the image of the United States. To tail off these programs and to do it so abruptly does not serve U.S. interests in the region.

U.S. foreign aid to Latin America has never been constant. When was the last time the budget for Latin America was as small as it is now?

It’s never, ever been this small.

Also, if you look at it again, many of the fluctuations that you’re seeing are due to individual, specific events like disasters in Haiti, the rebuilding of Haiti, natural disasters in Central America, hurricanes and droughts, spikes in development assistance under Plan Colombia, or forms of anti-narcotics money to Peru and Mexico. … It’s also related to events like elections, and human rights concerns in places like Cuba.

The budget is still being negotiated. Is there any reason to think the cuts will become less severe?

I think they’ll be less severe. If you look at the 2017 budget that this Congress passed, you see that there were some cuts to development assistance and more of an emphasis on issues of countering violent extremism, particularly in Central Asia and the Middle East. So this is not the bottom line, it’s a starting point.

However, let’s take one of the things that is being proposed to be completely zeroed out – the Inter-American Foundation. They’re starting from zero. And I think it’s going to be difficult to return levels of funding to what they were even in the 2017 budget, let alone that of 2016.

So, is Latin America doomed, or is there anything positive that could come out of these budget cuts?

You’re testing my levels of optimism. But I think that because foreign assistance generally has been so kicked around and disparaged in Washington, this might spark a serious discussion about the importance of foreign assistance.

Can it be reformed and improved? No doubt. But what are the implications of fully walking away? We have to think in terms of our status as a country and a global power, as well as our own moral responsibility in the hemisphere … and even our own national interests in terms of security, famine and upheaval in Central and South America.

Dire times can produce some good, honest discussion. This might be the moment.

Anything you want to add?

Yes. I’ll say one more thing. Development budgets like this also help focus the attention of the local government. When the United States puts money into, say, irrigation projects in Guatemala, it pressures the local government to match those funds and pay attention to those issues. So we’re not only looking at a decrease in U.S. funding, but possibly decreased attention by these governments regarding very real issues like social inclusion, women’s rights, addressing malnutrition and improving basic education. And I fear we may lose leverage on that.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at