A week before the Donors’ Summit in San Salvador I was able to catch up with Kathy Hall of the Summit Foundation. In a wide-ranging interview she discusses the failures of governments in Central America to provide for the younger generation, the need for the U.S. to condition its assistance to local governments meeting their own commitments, and the moral obligation of donors to collaborate and ensure greater transparency.
1) In Central America, the Summit Foundation works on the environment and on girls and youth issues. Can you explain a little how you see the relationship between gender and youth-based issues to the broader challenges in the region that are (unfortunately) regularly in the headlines: violence, insecurity, immigration, and corruption of public and private officials?
Governments have failed to invest in human capital for the vast majority of the populations for generations. That failure is an abrogation of the duty to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of young people and, particularly, the female half of the population. Summit has invested in programs that train and develop the capacity of the next generation to improve not just themselves, but the lives of their peers and their broader communities.
When laws, policies and budget allocations do nothing to change low-income girls’ reality—meaning their health, and their right to education, to a decent livelihood and to have control over their bodies and reproductive capacity—they have almost no chance to escape poverty. When a child has children, there is little chance for them either; the vicious cycle is perpetuated. We try to demonstrate it doesn’t have to be that way, but the government needs to fuel this social change more aggressively.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) affirm more strongly than governments in human history ever have that it is a collective imperative and a responsibility of every government to change the social, political and economic status of women and girls. Governments who fail to include and empower that half of their population are not just rights violators, they are also missing the mark on addressing all the challenges our world faces from slow economic growth to environmental degradation. The question is whether Central America will begin to embrace and implement the SDGs’ blueprint—that includes its governments, the donors, and its civil society pressing for more investment in marginalized girls and in women’s rights broadly.
2) The U.S. Congress looks likely to approve a large increase in its development assistance program to the Northern Triangle countries—though not at the level originally requested. Given the Summit Foundation’s work and contacts in the region, what would be your recommendations for how those funds could be invested?
We believe increasing investment in education at all levels—primary to tertiary—and health, including reproductive, maternal and child health, are absolutely critical. Alongside that, pathways to economic opportunity for lower socioeconomic classes are needed. Too often, without the right family background and connections, youth have no pathways to move up the economic ladder. This needs to start with requisite changes in policy and budget allocations outside the capital cities. It’s my personal view that the U.S. government needs to channel funds and require government co-investment to these ends, not tie funds to shutting down emigration. We need to see governments’ per capita spending in health and education increase and we need to see the needle move on the horrendous indicators within certain populations and geographic areas. Militarizing borders and investing in police forces alone are never going to solve these issues when the root causes of migration is poverty. Invest in programs that reach the marginalized. I’ve been in small towns less than 90 minutes from San Pedro Sula where there is literally no school for children to attend past sixth grade—and no health clinic with any stock of medicine or contraception. And people living a subsistence life with no money for bus fare to get anywhere. But for a family to move to the city poses even greater risk of violence—having access to middle school would be great, but not if your child is killed in gang violence or feels compelled to flee north to escape drug, rape or worse.
3) How does the Summit Foundation collaborate with local funders and potential donors, including in the public and private sectors?
On the issues we invest in, particularly women’s and girls’ rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights, we see far too few local donors. We need more co-investors. Most local and international NGOs we support are highly dependent on our limited capacity to provide support. Many projects we support have another U.S. foundation or a bilateral which are involved. We only wish there were some local donors to co-invest. Vital Voices-Guatemala is one that I admire for its investments in girls programs alongside some we have supported. Rather than starting their own new programs and foundations, local philanthropy also should look at the existing civil society organizations and not be put off by the social divides of the past. Some of our number is investing less—not to mention the multilateral and bilateral donors which are also investing less in this region in general. We would welcome more collaboration with local donors.
4) In November the Summit Foundation and a number of private foundations, businesses, and bilateral and multilateral donors will participate in a donors’ forum in San Salvador. In my experience in development, donor coordination is similar to the weather: everyone talks a lot about it, but no one does anything about it. Why do you think this is important now in Central America? And what concretely do you think can be come out of the conference?
In terms of the immediate weather before us, we talk about it and by definition we can’t do anything about it other than respect it (although longer-term climate change is a different story!). But as donors, we need to start by talking and comparing notes—what’s worked, what hasn’t worked. And that’s a first step and a critical one. Talk and a cocktail party are not enough—no question—but this forum really can lead to collaboration: joint or better-coordinated projects and investments. It also compels some transparency and scrutiny in what we are each up to and that can serve to enhance effectiveness and impact too. Central America’s people—those suffering from discrimination, lack of opportunity and insecurity—need us to talk NOW and as much as possible. Summit has observed and also been part of collaborations that have directly resulted from the past Central America Donors Forums. The Central America and Mexico Youth Fund is an example of that.