La Silla Vacía, a Colombian news and opinion website, has been publishing top ten lists with profiles and full explanations on various topics to map the “most powerful” individuals and organizations in Colombia. For example, there have been lists describing who has the most influence in congress, in negotiating land reform and rural land rights, and in shaping public opinion (hint: the top spot goes to a former president). Yesterday, they profiled the most influential actors in Colombia’s NGOs and civil society networks. Topping of that list was U.S. federal government agency USAID.*
According to foreignassistance.gov, the U.S. government is spending about $354 million this year in foreign assistance to Colombia, of which about 98 percent comes from USAID and the State Department. This amounts to a lot of influence on public policy mainly through funding dozens of NGOs, as the article from La Silla Vacía explains. Of course, the term “NGO” is notoriously flexible. As we can see common conventions dictate that organizations primarily funded by foreign governments –namely the U.S. government—are be labeled NGOs.
From interviews with six directors or former directors of NGOs and two former ministers, Juan Esteban Lewin, the piece’s author, was able to get a sense for how USAID shifts public policy discussion in Colombia. The amount of financial resources available through USAID affects which issues Colombian NGOs work on. As they compete with each other for funding, the NGOs end up shifting their focus to more closely match USAID’s four main working areas (three of which are related to post-conflict peace). On the other hand, since a good part of the funds actually end up in the hands of USAID subcontractors—the article names Olgoonik Technical Services, Management Systems International and Chemonics—the money flowing into Colombian nonprofits from the U.S. government agency isn’t as large as it first appears.
The author quotes one interviewee as saying that international funders “call the shots” and “dole out prominence to local NGOs” (“tienen la sartén por el mango y le dosifican el protagonismo a las ONG locales”).
CEPR has done significant research on the role of USAID in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Our April 2013 report “Breaking Open the Black Box: Increasing Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti” looks closely at the publicly available information on U.S. assistance to Haiti, and finds that “USAID and its implementing partners have generally failed to make public the basic data identifying where funds go and how they are spent.” Through our Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog we have followed up when new data has been released, and written analysis on the U.S. government’s role in Haiti.
When people from Latin American and the Caribbean bristle at comments referring to the region as the U.S.’s backyard, it is partly because the damning historical record, but contemporary issues weigh heavily as well. As U.S. officials at the highest level maintain that U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America is “based on equality and mutual respect and mutual interests,” examples to the contrary abound. USAID’s function as a conduit by which the U.S. government can affect domestic politics in Latin America, like we have seen in the case of Colombia here, and the many shortcomings of its mission in Haiti raise the possibility that it is mainly serving U.S. interests.
* Among the top ten were two other U.S.-based organizations like Open Society Foundations (founded by George Soros) and the Ford Foundation. Open Society Foundations, which actually funds La Silla Vacía itself, and the Ford Foundation, active for more than 50 years in Colombia, both made it on the list as representatives of influential “international philanthropy” organizations.