Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Bipartisan Approach to Reduce Poverty and Boost the Western Hemisphere’s Middle Class will Soon Fall by the Wayside.

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Congress will meet one more time next week before likely packing up and heading home for the holidays. That may be good news for automakers seeking relief but lawmakers will be leaving behind much unfinished business for our Americas policy. For one, the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements (FTAs) have yet to be considered. Passage of these agreements would offer a rare win-win for the U.S.—helping our economy while showing the region that the U.S. delivers on its promises. Beyond the FTAs, Congress may soon punt on another key hemispheric initiative: the bipartisan Social Investment and Economic Development Fund for the Americas.

Then-Representative Robert Menendez introduced the first version just over five years ago. Now a senator, he has introduced it in every Congress since. And along the way he has found more supporters. Menendez introduced it for a third time last year—this time in the Senate—and on the House side, Representative Eliot Engel offered it up for consideration. Soon after, AQ wrote about it first with a special feature in our Fall 2007 issue. Since then, 13 senators (including newly nominated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) signed on to the Senate bill and 30 to its House equivalent, with support coming from both parties. This time around the Senate bill got further along than any previous time—making it through the Foreign Relations Committee. But that’s where it came to a halt.

Yes, there are thousands of bills that get introduced each Congress. But this one is different. The Social Investment and Economic Development Fund for the Americas seeks to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region. The details are simple: invest $2.5 billion over 10 years toward initiatives that would “reduce poverty, expand the middle class, and foster increased economic opportunity” in our hemisphere. It would do this by dividing the money in half. About $1.2 billion would go to expanding USAID programs that focus on education, disease prevention, housing, rural development, poverty reduction, and law and judicial efficiency. The other half would be up to the Inter-American Development Bank—the regional version of the World Bank—to administer as part of a newly created fund that also would seek contributions from governments and the private sector.

With the U.S. officially in recession and bleak growth forecasts, critics would question why Congress should be giving out more development aid. At a recent White House meeting, Secretary Rice made the case: “If we stop making investments in the international order that serves all of our strategic and economic interests, we will all be the poorer for it.” Writing in Poder magazine, her likely successor, Hillary Clinton, called the bill an “innovative approach.” Not only is it innovative, it’s also strategic.

What’s more is that $2.5 billion is just a drop in the bucket when compared to where U.S. foreign aid is going today. And that money would be better spent in our neighborhood than in some of its current destinations. In fact, for Fiscal Year 2008, the administration requested $1.57 billion for all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

2009 is all about new beginnings. President-elect Obama has pledged to “substantially increase our aid to the Americas.” That’s a worthy goal. And hopefully 2009 will be the year for Congress to show its commitment to our hemisphere. Passage of the pending FTAs is one step and another is passing the Social Investment and Economic Development Fund for the Americas Act. Menendez is likely to introduce it early on in the next session (January or February). Its passage could be a great accomplishment for President-elect Obama to bring with him when he first meets the hemisphere’s democratically elected leaders at the April Summit of the Americas?


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Colombia, Economy, Free Trade, Peru, US
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