USAID and foreign aid debate in Guatemala

By Sara Van Horn, EntreMundos columnist

In 2013, Bolivian president Evo Morales expelled USAID (the US Agency for International Development) from his country, claiming the agency was supporting secessionist movements. His reasoning was later supported by declassified US government documents. The expulsion of USAID was also a protest against US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comment that Latin America was “the backyard of the United States.” There is “no lack of US institutions,” Morales stated, “which continue to conspire against our people and especially the national government.”

The Los Angeles Times, in an article published six days later, lamented this development: USAID “doesn’t just offer aid to the poor, it also promotes democracy, which is seen as meddlesome or even subversive.” The article cited the agency’s goals as not only boosting economies and providing healthcare and education, but also organizing fair elections, teaching political campaign skills, and strengthening independent media.

USAID, in response to Morales’s decision, replied that “those who will be most hurt by the Bolivian government’s decision are the Bolivian citizens who have benefitted from our collaborative work on education, agriculture, health, alternative development, and the environment.”

A mural of Evo Morales, Villazón, Bolivia. Courtesy of Randal Sheppard.

Clearly, the presence of USAID in Bolivia is controversial. The same may be said of the agency’s substantial influence in Guatemala, as well as of most of Guatemala’s international funding.

Both government sponsored organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a strong presence in Guatemala. In addition to agencies such as USAID, Guatemala boasts the largest number of foreign NGOs of any Central American country.

As the Los Angeles Times suggested, the potential benefits of international funding are numerous and powerful. On its website, USAID promises to “make the United States and the Western Hemisphere more peaceful, secure, and prosperous by strengthening the capacity of governments and private entities to combat crime, improve governance, address climate change, and create an economic environment in which the private sector can flourish.” The organization UNICEF promises, on its website, “to enforce [the] rights [of all children], everywhere and always, giving special attention to the most vulnerable and excluded.” CARE, an organization dedicated to ending poverty, states on its website that “we seek a world of hope, tolerance and social justice, where poverty has been overcome and people live in dignity and security.

One hopes that these benefits can be seen in the development of crime prevention, education, and health services throughout Guatemala. For example, in 2014, Vanderbilt University released a mixed-methods, three-year study of the effectiveness of a USAID crime and violence prevention program in Central American. The program was dedicated to violence prevention in Central American by working with civic groups, faith-based groups, and municipal committees to provide youth with life skills and job trainings, improve basic infrastructure, such as streetlights, improve security, and promote community policing, among other strategies. The study stated that “in several key respects the programs have been a success. Specifically, the outcomes in the treatment communities improved more (or declined less) than they would have if USAID’s programs had not been administered.”

The criticisms of international aid, however, are also numerous. At the top of the list is the charge that these agencies do not properly evaluate the needs of communities before taking steps to alleviate real or imagined problems. Agencies often lack the input of local communities and make decisions based on preconceptions or upon strategies that may not be culturally relevant in Guatemala.

[Editorial note: USAID was a leading supporter and trainer of repressive Cold War-era police forces from Guatemala to Brazil. As recently as 2014, USAID tried to foment social unrest in Cuba by infiltrating the underground hip-hop community.]

Additionally, these agencies may often have hidden agendas. Looking again at USAID’s promises, we can see that making Guatemala’s economy hospitable to US companies is a top priority. USAID believes, according to its website, that “economic and political stability in the Western Hemisphere are vital for the United States… Latin America and the Caribbean are also important and growing markets for American companies—a quarter of US exports go to the region.”

Looking critically at the history and present day reality of Guatemala, it is apparent that a Guatemala that allows for the “flourishing of the private sector” and for the prosperity of US companies on its soil is not a Guatemala that allows for the prosperity of most of its citizens. We need only look at the strong social movement #NoALaMineria to comprehend the outrage that most Guatemalans feel towards the companies from Canada, the United States, and Europe that wish to decimate and leave derelict natural resources in pursuit of profit.

Another criticism is the economic dependency that international aid promotes. A memorandum prepared by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights stated that the numerous NGOs present in Guatemala “is not uncontroversial; there have been suggestions that the over-abundance of NGOs, including foreign NGOs, has made Guatemala dependent upon foreign help.” Corrina Grace, the founder of the youth empowerment organization Seresstated, in an article published in October, 2013 in The Tico Times, that “because of the country’s 25-year history of aid and charities that have formed a ‘gift economy,’ there is this generation rising up that isn’t empowered to do anything with their lives… As NGOs what we really should be doing is writing ourselves out of existence and training up Guatemalans to lead their own communities.”

[Editorial note: International aid and NGOs are also criticized for relieving social pressure on governments to provide basic services to their citizens.]

It’s easy to argue that the idea of international sharing of resources and aid is a sound one. In theory, international aid organizations can distribute funding where it’s most needed. They can share information and technology in helpful ways.

Our current world reality is an unequal one, with an unequal distribution of power among world governments. In the case of Guatemala and the United States, it is not hard to find historical cause for this inequality. The enrichment of the multinational companies that have begotten such suffering (beginning with Boston’s United Fruit Company and continuing today with Canada’s GoldCorp) is intimately tied to destabilization campaigns backed by the US throughout the twentieth century.

It’s important that international organizations bear this legacy in mind. And it’s just as important to remember that, as well-intentioned or as much-needed as international help may be, the ultimate goal is for Guatemalans to be doing this work themselves.

USAID prepares humanitarian relief for the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Courtesy