Philanthropy can help Biden succeed in Central America


U.S. President Joe Biden’s comprehensive strategy to address the root causes driving migration from Central America puts foreign assistance at the centre of a $4 billion plan to tackle violence, corruption, climate change, and the lack of economic opportunity in the region. With a framework built around leveraging the expertise and resources of a broad group of stakeholders, philanthropy has an important role to play in ensuring the successful execution of Biden’s strategy.

This is not the first time Washington has flooded Central America with development funding – often with little or even adverse impact. Despite heavy U.S. investment for years, significant challenges persist. More than 2 million people are estimated to have fled their home countries since 2014 due to violence, inequality, and lack of opportunity. Endemic corruption has robbed citizens of the social programs and services they deserve. Governments are growing increasingly authoritarian, removing any checks on their power and persecuting the opposition – including civil society organisations and independent journalists.

For many in the region, Biden’s rhetoric has been a source of relief and newfound hope. The emphasis on anti-corruption measures and overtures to civil society has been especially welcome. But a growing number of sceptics question whether the administration will be able to navigate the difficult context.

With the shared goal of fostering societies in which people can thrive, the philanthropic sector has a vested interest in contributing to the effective implementation of Biden’s strategy. It also has much to offer, having invested in the region for decades. Given that the strategic framework includes consultation and coordination with key actors – including civil society and international organisations – philanthropy should leverage this opportunity to ensure that this latest influx of foreign aid produces real and lasting change. Here are three important ways funders and donors can help.

Hold the Biden administration accountable to its commitment to consultation

The administration has taken important steps to demonstrate the seriousness of this commitment. Vice President Kamala Harris met with stakeholders from both the public and private sectors, including local civil society groups and philanthropic leaders.

But this input is not only critical during the development phase. It’s also essential during implementation. Experts within the philanthropy field – along with local activists – have a clearer and more in-depth understanding of the landscape. The results of foreign assistance depend on the sensitivity of those administering it – even the most well-intentioned efforts can go wrong when they are not contextually appropriate. Consultation must be frequent and ongoing.

Further, philanthropic leaders must bring new voices into the conversation – beyond the usual suspects. The administration needs to hear from advocates and organisations working on a variety of issues and at all levels of society. As a bridge to activists, organisations, and social movements that often go overlooked by major development cooperation agencies, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to bring them to the table.

Advocate not only for the agenda, but for a process that empowers civil society

To ensure that this latest influx of funding actually helps foster societies in which Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans can stay and thrive, the mechanics of delivering foreign aid must be devised as meticulously as the agenda.

In reality, large sums of new aid money can do more harm than good when not operationalised effectively. When there are only a few select winners, when organisations are forced to pivot in order to chase funding, or when resources dry up suddenly, aid money can unwittingly undermine local civil society movements. Philanthropy, drawing on lessons learned over decades of successful investment, is well-positioned to push the Biden administration toward operationalising its funding in ways that can be transformative.

Philanthropy must help the administration direct its aid to local activists and movements, who are best placed to identify sustainable solutions to the problems they actually face. They must be empowered to drive the agenda, rather than simply be tasked with implementing donor-driven initiatives. Relatedly, the funding they receive should be as flexible as possible to support locally rooted agendas and allow advocates to pivot as needed. A shift toward more flexible support would also serve to alleviate burdensome proposal and reporting requirements, which take time and energy away from more important activities.

Philanthropy can also help strengthen the strategy by fostering alliances between aid recipients. Bridges must be built between activists working at the community level and those working in the capitals, as well as between passionate youth organisers and older, more traditional activists. This kind of regional approach brings movements together across borders, encourages intersectionality, and elevates local perspectives to the international stage.

Don’t stop funding

Continuity is imperative. Lasting change is not achieved overnight, but through protracted efforts that demand enduring support.

Some of the large development cooperation agencies tend to take turns providing aid funding to the region, with no guarantee to groups that funding will continue from one agency to the next. When financial support suddenly ends, it can be catastrophic to groups and movements. To alleviate fears, philanthropy can persist as a steadfast partner and ally to its grantees. Relatedly, philanthropy can push the Biden administration toward prioritising the installation of lasting capacities and working with local civil society to define plans for financial sustainability beyond the scope of the funding.

Philanthropy can also help fill in some of the gaps. Activists cannot conduct their work effectively when their physical and psychological wellbeing are in jeopardy. Holistic security and psychosocial support are essential elements that advocates require from donors. Since it is unlikely that Biden’s foreign aid will address these needs, philanthropy can step up by prioritising protection and wellbeing initiatives.

Finally, the Biden administration needs new implementing partners. Key officials, such as USAID Administrator Samantha Power, have signalled that they are ready to create new alliances beyond the so-called Beltway bandits. Public foundations that have typically been sceptical of collaboration with the U.S. government, including human rights and feminist funders, should consider partnering with this administration. Their guidance administering aid in accordance with these principles – learned and honed over years of on-the-ground experience – will help the Biden administration build robust, vibrant, and resilient civil society movements with the power to deliver lasting change to the people of Central America.

Clare Gibson Nangle is director for strategic partnerships at the Fund for Global Human Rights, and Ricardo González Bernal is programme director for Latin America at the Fund for Global Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @R1card0G0nzalez.

Comments (1)

Jim Fruchterman

Just had the chance to read this opinion piece: spot on! Opportunities abound to strengthen local civil society players, but the system was not designed or operated to benefit them, but instead to "simply be tasked with implementing donor-driven initiatives." My organization got pulled recently into an atypical alliance in the conservation/development space called 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People, where a bunch of conservation INGOs (and UNDP) are coming together to focus on channeling data, tools and money to local players to focus on what they prioritize. I hope it succeeds, and we see a lot more of these initiatives with active power-shifting to local leaders as a central attribute.

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