By Jake Johnston
USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) has recently been in the news after a covert “Cuban Twitter” program “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government,” was revealed last week by the Associated Press. As my colleague Dan Beeton has written on CEPR’s Americas Blog, this is not the only time OTI has been implicated in destabilization campaigns in Latin America.
OTI has also been extremely active in Haiti since the earthquake in 2010. Two private companies, Chemonics International and Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) began operations on the ground in Haiti, with USAID OTI funding, within a week of the earthquake. When the project came to a close this past November, the total spending through OTI totaled nearly $150 million, making it the largest post-earthquake U.S. government funded program in Haiti. And yet, very little is known as to the exact nature of how that money was spent, despite multiple USAID Inspector General reports showing delays, improper oversight and other associated problems.
The OTI website is explicit in describing the difference between it and other branches of USAID:
While humanitarian aid is distributed on the basis of need alone, transition assistance is allocated with an eye to advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives and priorities.
The website adds:
OTI cannot create a transition or impose democracy, but it can identify and support key individuals and groups who are committed to peaceful, participatory reform. In short, it acts as a catalyst for change where there is sufficient indigenous political will. In most cases, a key event occurs – an election, a peace accord, or the rise of a nonviolent protest movement – that signals a fundamental realignment of power or direction. Before initiating a new country program, OTI analyzes the extent to which the ingredients for success are in place.
OTI Will “No Longer Post Monthly Written Reports From Our Partners.”
As OTI explains on its website, in “exchange for the flexibility granted OTI, Congress demands and deserves complete, accurate, and real-time information” concerning its activities. To this end, OTI posted monthly, quarterly and annual reports from its various programs on its website. It even explicitly states this on its website, noting that, “OTI posts reports on its website at least monthly for its country programs.” However, according to an e-mail from OTI today, the office will “no longer post monthly written reports from our partners.” The e-mail added that the website will be changed accordingly. The website was indeed updated today, however no changes to that specific language were made.
In reality, at least in the case of Haiti, these reporting requirements had not been posted publicly for multiple years. Even when they were posted, they often contained contradictory information. Following inquiries from HRRW into discrepancies between two quarterly reports in late 2011, I was copied on an e-mail intended for an OTI employee’s superiors. It stated, bluntly:
Given the recent CEPR blog on Haiti and Chemonics, do you think I should follow up with Jake below, or refer him to LPA [Legislative and Public Affairs]?
The e-mail came just days after I had posted the final installment of a three–part blog series on some of USAID’s largest contractors in Haiti, including Chemonics. I was referred to LPA. [Side note: The employee who sent that e-mail previously worked for Chemonics.]
Almost exactly one year later, after having noticed that these reports were no longer being posted on OTI’s website, I followed up with LPA, asking for a clarification as to why these transparency measures, which are required in Chemonics’ contract with USAID, were not being followed. The response was, “Due to USAID’s website overhaul, more information will be available in the New Year.”
Now, silently, OTI has simply stopped posting these reports and has changed its policy to not post them from any of its country programs at all. In the AP investigation of the “Cuban Twitter” program, the authors note that it wasn’t just the public that was kept in the dark, but policymakers as well:
In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work “often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” Staffers on oversight committees complained that USAID was running secret programs and would not provide details.
“We were told we couldn’t even be told in broad terms what was happening because ‘people will die,’” said Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
This echoes what USAID wrote to me when justifying the redaction of the entire Statement of Work in Chemonics’ USAID contract, which I had filed a Freedom of Information Act to obtain. The response was that:
The release of information in the Statement of Work would likely instigate demonstrations and create an unsafe environment in which to implement and/or develop programs.
A separate FOIA, filed in August 2012 requesting the monthly, quarterly and annual reports that were supposed to be publicly posted, as well as other contractually-mandated reporting requirements, has yet to receive a full response.