The Russian government’s announcement last week that it would refuse over $50 million of U.S. development assistance for democracy and public health programs echoed a similar trend in the Western Hemisphere. In June, the Venezuela-led Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) asked its members to “immediately expel” the U.S. bilateral development agency USAID (the same that is the target of the Russian government’s ire) from its countries, accusing it of trying to de-stabilize governments. And Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has announced that he’s drawn up plans to restrict the U.S. development programs in his country.
Predictable anti-yanqui vitriol? Definitely. Warranted? It is their decision to make, and it’s a decision made easier by the skimpy amount the U.S. government allocates to the region today. The existing U.S. budget calls for a meager $1.8 billion for the entire Latin America and the Caribbean region for the next two years. This at a time when China has opened its pocket book to the region—often through loans and grants negotiated behind closed doors.
But mostly, the nationalistic indignation over USAID is just hypocritical. The Latin American leaders that are now railing against and threatening to expel USAID for political interference—directly and indirectly—owe their political ascendance to USAID’s support for democracy and democratic institutions.
The popular/partisan transformation that led to the unraveling of the political class in Bolivia and the arrival of President Evo Morales, for example, started with 1994 decentralization laws that USAID supported the passage and implementation of. Similarly, USAID and the international donor community’s support for electoral reform and free and fair elections allowed for popular ballots that guaranteed democratic processes that led to the elections of Presidents Hugo Chávez, Morales and Correa—voter preferences that would likely have been quashed only decades before.
While it had long been a key component of the U.S. development agency’s program for decades, support for democratic institutions—such as human rights, administration of justice and women’s rights—became officially incorporated into USAID’s mission in the 1990s. That adoption reflected the growing intellectual and international consensus that participation and accountability (democracy) were essential for sustainable, equitable development and social inclusion. And while at times (unfortunately) the U.S.' bilateral support for these fundamental rights and goals became wrapped in political and even partisan rhetoric, the truth is that those principles hold true today. Real development—whether it’s improving women’s health, reducing infant mortality, or increasing social mobility—are only possible if citizens have the rights and tools to be able to participate in the decisions that affect them and that hold their public officials accountable.
The fact that governments such as Bolivia’s and Ecuador’s chafe at the international community’s efforts to support independent, pluralistic civil and political society—that yes, may at times contest their rights to dictate policy—should perhaps say more about these governments’ views of the world and politics. The importance of participation, transparency and accountability that USAID programs promote are not thinly cloaked efforts at U.S. intervention; they represent the overwhelming consensus of the Western development community.
It is true that with the increased state and commercial assistance of governments like China, the U.S.’s development dollars are much less relevant today than they were even a decade ago and certainly far less than in the 1960s. But what the Chinese state agencies provide is not development assistance; the loans and grants that China is lavishing on the Ecuadoran, Bolivia, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments are not tied in any way to the broader goals and ideals of development that have evolved for decades: public health, education, economic enterprise.....and especially transparency. Should these governments turn their back on USAID assistance, they will be turning their back on decades of development consensus and work.
Unfortunately, though, the embarrassingly paltry sum of $1.8 billion that the U.S. is allocating to the region, makes it much easier to refuse. But that’s a different issue.
*A portion of this post appeared earlier in the Latin America Advisor.