In addressing the root causes of migration, building allies, developing markets, and advancing U.S. interests, the Inter-American Foundation provides the best return on U.S. investment in Latin America. Yet the Trump administration wants to end it.
An independent agency of the U.S. government, the IAF has funded local development projects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean since its creation in 1969. The Trump administration’s budget proposes shutting it down to save a mere $22.5 million in annual appropriations—that in just one year. The administration’s budget would cut funding to the IAF to just $4.6 million in the 2018 fiscal year, with nothing for 2019.
Wiping the IAF out would abandon American allies and friends in the region and hurt the more than 325,000 people in 20 countries that benefit from its programs. Many of those people are working on the front lines of U.S. interests in Latin America, helping stem migration, reducing drug production and expanding export markets.
The IAF enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, but that may not be enough to ensure its survival. In March this year, a bipartisan group of nine members of Congress signed a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, defending the IAF as essential to U.S. strategy and interests in the region. They called for maintaining the IAF’s funding, in part through the transfer of $15 million to the foundation from the huge $750 million U.S. aid package to Central America set aside last year.
The abrupt end of the IAF’s form of collaborative assistance—and all the local financial and community support it has built—would risk greater migration to the north and demonstrate that the U.S. is a fickle, if not insensitive, international partner.
During a trip to Guatemala with congressional staffers last year, I saw a community radio project that mobilized dozens of local leaders to talk about how they could now share information about small-business development and women’s rights across a mountainous area that was otherwise impenetrable. We met a women’s cooperative that produces jewelry and handicrafts for niche, high-end U.S. vendors. Those women told us how much the income and networks have helped not just provide for their families and stave off malnutrition, but empower them against often abusive husbands.
Each of those projects costs just tens of thousands of dollars per year and employs or engages dozens of individuals in business, market-oriented activities. Just as important, the IAF challenges groups, beginning as early as the grant application through the end of a project, to develop a plan to become self-sustaining.
Compare that to the two projects we visited from an unnamed regional multilateral bank that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In both cases, all we saw was a single man showing us around an empty factory floor. One of those sites produced potable water for re-sale, the other distilled perfumes and emulsions from local herbs. The shelves in both factories were vacant.
That Guatemala trip showed why the IAF works. First, it does a lot with a little. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle countries that are plagued by violence, narcotics trafficking and poverty, the IAF this year plans to invest $9.7 million, including $6 million from the huge $750 million tranche of development and security assistance to Central America. That $6 million is a pittance within the entire aid package, but it’s effective in improving life in the Northern Triangle and stemming the flood of unaccompanied and undocumented minors heading north, which first spiked in 2014.
Second, when it comes to addressing the push factors of migration, two investments from the IAF have an impact. The first focuses directly on the communities that are sending migrants north, by providing legal employment options to those at risk of falling into crime and economic desperation. The second—though many development professionals are loath to admit this—requires more than just providing opportunities to the most needy; it requires building community. After all, a boost in income is often associated with a boost in the likelihood of leaving. It makes sense: Put more pesos in the pocket of a person itching to move, and you’ve increased their disposable income to pay for their trip.
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