For those of us in the donor and policy community, there was a positive outcome from President Donald Trump’s threats this March to cut off $450 million of U.S. assistance to Central America. To my knowledge never before has the type, goals, sources, and intended beneficiaries of U.S. development programs received this much media, political, and public attention.
One of the things they have revealed is that a freeze of assistance to the governments in the target countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the Northern Triangle)—would do little to hurt the governments directly. Only a small portion of U.S. assistance (in this case only just under $8 million to Honduras) goes directly to the states that Trump wants to punish. Instead, the bulk of the assistance passes, either directly or indirectly, to a host of civil society organizations in each country, not the state, supporting community-level programs spurring business development, employment generation, agricultural production, education, and community enterprise.
In short, not only does the threat to cut off aid to Northern Triangle countries fail to punish the public sector’s pocketbooks for not doing enough to control its borders; the move punishes local organizations and citizens working to address poverty, joblessness, and insecurity that are driving people to seek a better and safer future in “El Norte.” It is precisely these locally led programs that can help to stem the flow of irregular migration by promoting self-sufficiency, supporting economic initiative and maintaining the social fabric that keeps people tied to their communities.
Once upon a time in development
There was a time when the bulk of U.S. development assistance did pass directly to the governments to support economic growth, infrastructure, business, healthcare, agriculture, and education in Latin America and the Caribbean. But over time it became clear to development experts and policy makers that absent political will at the top is unlikely to have the desired impact on the community. However, there exists an ecosystem of organizations, citizens and communities actively engaged in these efforts at the base—demanding attention and improvement and/or initiating those changes themselves within their own communities.
This shift from state-to-state aid to grassroots assistance provided directly to local civil society and the communities they represent, reflects a revolution in U.S. government-(USG) funded development programming that started with the creation of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), a pioneer of direct-to-communities grassroots development.
Created by Congress 50 years ago this year, the IAF was intended to be an alternative to the macro-development projects of the day—one that listened to the ideas and needs of the people at the base of society, sought to endow local change agents with their own capacity to determine their destiny, and, in doing so, strengthen democracy and open opportunities for growth and improvement. It was also a model of foreign assistance in which both the impact and the person-to-person “soft power” contact of development assistance was more diversified and immediate. Long before grassroots development, civil society strengthening and democracy support were common currency in the development world (and had sparked mini-explosions in research and literature), the IAF emerged to support exactly those American values and foreign policy goals.
As political science and public administration scholar Eugene Meehan described in a 1978 study of the first nine years of the foundation, creating the institutional framework for what he called this “experiment in foreign assistance” wasn’t easy. The challenge was to balance the independence, flexibility and light touch needed to catalyze the agency and creativity of incipient civil society organizations, with the rigor and accountability crucial to ensuring that the USG’s funds were well invested.
While IAF’s initial budget was small, and has remained so relative to the other larger players, it has demonstrated that effective community development isn’t about massive projects, but rather, about sparking the initiative, ideas and priorities of the people these projects are intended to benefit—ideas that the U.S. Congress described as “self-help efforts.”
Despite its small size, since its inception, the IAF has helped launch and grow 5,000 civil society organizations committed to empowering and developing their communities. It has done so by using small grants to test big ideas and to incent organizational strengthening, creating a cadre of effective local civil society partners. But the small amount of money invested is only part of the story.
The causes of economic dysfunction in Latin America and the Caribbean are multifaceted, but there is little debate that it often stems from government policies that disincentivize initiative and entrepreneurship and fail to deliver basic public goods, such as education and primary healthcare.
The financial, organizational and technical boost provided by IAF grants has improved productivity, opened new markets, increased incomes, created employment and educational opportunities, and sowed (and continues to sow) the seeds of democracy, locally and nationally. As the famous Princeton University economist Albert O. Hirschman described after visiting various IAF projects, “bettering one’s condition in the private sense leads over, almost effortlessly and without any clear sense of a break, into public advocacy and participation in public affairs.”
Well before President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1982 Westminster speech calling for the U.S. to engage in the battle of ideas against the Soviet Union by supporting democracy, the IAF was already doing it in its small, but significant, way. And thanks to the early institutional engineering described by Meehan, the IAF was doing it with the necessary independence and flexibility to meet its goals and U.S. values. It is a structure not unlike the National Endowment for Democracy (NED, where I used to work) in terms of independence that grew out of Reagan’s speech, both of which seek to empower people to determine their destiny and in doing so recast state society relations and the opportunities for growth and improvement.
Stories from the field
I had the opportunity to personally interact with the community change makers and grassroots organizations the IAF supports, first in Guatemala—when I accompanied a bipartisan group of Congressional staffers to the field—and more recently this year in Argentina.
While touring the devastatingly poor Guatemalan highlands, one of the largest sending regions of migrants to the United States, I met the member farmers of a local coffee collective supplying the local, U.S. and European markets. The farms are creating meaningful opportunities for young people, women, and others to earn a living and give back to their communities in Guatemala, providing them with an alternative to going elsewhere looking for opportunities. In Argentina, I met with the members of a community group in Buenos Aires that had successfully organized its fellow residents to keep the government from uprooting people and resettling them along a polluted river, which posed threats to their health and livelihoods.
In all of these cases, I witnessed individual and community empowerment, initiative and development in action. And I understood how, by listening to communities’ priorities, investing in their ideas and holding them to a high standard to deliver results, the IAF provides a path to strengthen the economic and social ties that binds them to each other and their homelands.
In the past two years, the IAF has focused its funding on local organizations committed to elevating the voices and economic potential of youth and women across the region; building peace in Colombia; strengthening civil society in Nicaragua; mobilizing private sector investment in development in Mexico; providing livelihoods and psycho-social support to displaced Venezuelans that have now tragically been forced to migrate to Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and; strengthening disaster preparedness and resilience in Caribbean communities so that they can withstand storms like Dorian in the Bahamas.
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, a group of five Senators—Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced a resolution commending the IAF it for its 50 years of supporting development, democracy and U.S. foreign policy interests in the Americas.
That brings us back to the discussion over the future of U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle countries. The independence and flexibility of the IAF have sustained creativity, innovation, and direct partnership with the most underserved communities and peoples in Central America, not often found in the larger bureaucracies. Like development venture capitalists, the IAF can reach far-flung regions and under-served people and engage incipient community groups involved in small-scale, often experimental activities that directly respond to their local needs but would typically be passed over by larger donors or development consulting firms.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants who are sent back from the U.S. have a higher likelihood of attempting to return to the United States. The IAF is supporting local efforts to break this cycle, funding organizations like the Association of Returned Guatemalans (ARG) and the Alliance of Returned Salvadorians (ALSARE) that give returnees a reason to remain in their home countries by connecting them to services and employment opportunities that make use of the skills they acquired in the United States—such as carpentry, plumbing, as well as the entrepreneurial and financial capital they have gained. The goal: mobilize the grassroots to create economic engines and rebuild the social fabric in communities so that residents can make a living and live productively in their communities of origin.
Individuals face competing threats and pressures. But the act of choosing to leave a family—including children—and the entire history of one’s life behind to brave a dangerous trip with an uncertain chance of success is not one that’s taken easily. The IAF is creating more opportunities for people to remain and invest in their communities, but it won’t happen overnight.
Understanding the foundation’s work and its impact beyond the communities where it has worked—an impact measured by its direct support of individuals and communities affected by President Trump’s decision to freeze U.S. assistance to Central America—is a signal accomplishment worthy of celebration, not just in the academic, development community, or the communities in which the IAF and others work, but also within the current policy discussions and what is necessary to provide the incentives and conditions to help people avoid the difficult choices of tearing up their families to migrate.
Chris Sabatini is senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, founder and board member of Global Americans and a member of the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU and the Inter-American Foundation (IAF).