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Deadly Aid

How U.S. foreign assistance is helping human rights violators -- and how to stop it

Published in: Foreign Policy

When Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as "Macaco," tried to reduce his expected prison time in 2008 by turning over his ill-gotten gains to prosecutors, he included on his property list the assets of a major palm oil cooperative. The revelation came as little surprise: The drug-running militias had famously displaced thousands of small farmers across the country through years of massacres, killings, torture and threats, and there had long been rumors that their proxies were developing palm oil projects on the stolen land. Now it was clear that the suspicions were correct. 

What came as a shock, though, was that the specific palm oil projects Macaco was delivering had received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of an "alternative livelihoods" strategy meant to wean farmers off growing coca leaf. The U.S. agency, however, had neglected to look beyond the formal list of members of the cooperative to see the violence and human rights violations associated with the projects. USAID had halted similar projects with another company around the same time after U.S.-based groups raised concerns over its alleged paramilitary ties, and claimed to have instituted better procedures to screen land projects. But its failure to adequately implement them in the Macaco case reinforced concerns that the United States seemed willing to turn a blind eye to rights abuses.

This damaging episode is not merely an isolated example, but the result of U.S. aid agencies' weak human rights safeguards. President Barack Obama, who laid out "a new comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities" in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April, is well aware of the need for the United States to respond to the worst crimes on the planet. But the White House risks missing the bigger picture if it does not address human rights abuses and repression more broadly.

For decades, the human rights community has raised concerns about military support directed at abusive security forces, but it has paid relatively little attention to softer forms of assistance. This aid, however -- which is provided largely through USAID and the State Department, adding up to approximately $47 billion in 2011 -- can also play a significant role in either abetting or addressing human rights violations.

Fortunately, USAID is starting to recognize the importance of integrating human rights more thoroughly into its work, and has begun to revamp its procedures to achieve this goal. It has strengthened human rights programming and begun to integrate concerns about rights into areas like health and gender rights. But success will require the agency to address a number of areas where its work has failed to meet basic human rights standards, or even worse, supported repression.

Aiding Repression and Abuse

Providing U.S. assistance to countries where booming economic growth is coupled with severe repression -- for instance, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda -- presents a particularly difficult challenge. In Ethiopia, human rights groups have reported in great detail how the leadership in Addis Ababa has become increasingly authoritarian over the past few years. Since 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented crimes against humanity and war crimes by Ethiopia's security forces in response to armed insurgencies, both within its own territory and in neighboring Somalia. And following the introduction of two repressive pieces of legislation in 2009, the vast majority of Ethiopia's independent voices -- including journalists, human rights activists, and opposition party supporters -- have either fled the country or been jailed on trumped-up charges.

In 2010, the ruling party won 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats after a national campaign of threats and coercion. During the campaign, HRW found that the government was using development and food aid, partially funded by the United States, as a tool for repression -- conditioning access to essential government programs, funded through foreign assistance, on support for the ruling party.

Yet even as repression has worsened, development aid has increasingly flowed to Ethiopia. USAID spent almost $740 million on aid to Ethiopia in 2010, the latest year for which solid numbers are publicly available, compared with $588 million in 2005.

This is not a simple issue. Ethiopia is one of Africa's largest and poorest countries, and donors understandably want to help provide a safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. Unlike in countries where donors can support non-governmental activity in lieu of funding a repressive state, in Ethiopia the government has constricted that opportunity through a repressive law that limits the ability of civil society groups working on any human rights or advocacy issues to receive foreign funds. But ignoring the reality that aid to a closed regime means bolstering the power of the ruling party -- and failing to monitor the social effects of U.S. aid programs appropriately -- is no solution.

In other cases, USAID has supported abusive government programs out of lack of concern for human rights standards or simply lack of vigilance. For example, in Vietnam, HRW recently documented how people detained by the police for using drugs are held without due process for four to five years. They are subject to a government policy of "therapeutic labor" for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Those who refuse to work, or who infringe on the institution's rules, are tortured and subjected to other forms of ill treatment. These centers "are little more than forced labor camps where tens of thousands of people work against their will six days a week processing cashews, sewing garments, or manufacturing other items," HRW wrote upon the publication of its investigation.

The United States has funded a number of programs in these centers -- including workshops and training for government "addiction counselors," who are often Ministry of Labor staff that operate as little more than guards. USAID, on its own and as an implementer for the U.S. health aid program PEPFAR, has provided much of this support through its partners -- mostly American NGOs, but also Vietnamese government authorities. In one case, PEPFAR actually listed a drug detention center as its implementing partner. While funding activities in the centers, USAID and PEPFAR have had limited access to the centers or ability to speak privately to detainees. Consequently, they and their partners have reported back only on indicators related to their narrow programming goals, while stating that they have seen no evidence of abuse.

Another problem arises when U.S. assistance becomes too closely aligned with a repressive government's priorities and is interpreted as political support for the regime. This is particularly difficult when dealing with countries that restrict the types of support foreign donors can provide. In Egypt, for example, USAID's willingness to comply with President Hosni Mubarak's funding restrictions while he was in power led to criticism from many civil society organizations at the time. What's more, this compliance harmed the credibility of USAID's protests after Egypt's military-led government harassed and intimidated American NGOs last year -- the Cairo authorities could simply say they were merely enforcing their own laws, by which the United States had previously abided.

Although the United States may not wish to violate local law, it can use its own leverage, and work with other donors, to insist that minimal standards are met so that civil society groups can function freely, or at least spend political capital to publicly oppose the restrictions. For example, a more public, unified, and insistent diplomatic response to Ethiopia's current draconian restrictions on civil society and the media might have more impact than quiet diplomacy, which is getting nowhere. For the United States to use its leverage though, human rights concerns have to be bumped up the list of diplomatic priorities. USAID also has to be willing to drop or find alternatives to non-essential programs in countries where programming is more likely to further repression than provide any real support to vulnerable populations.

A Solution: Screens and Safeguards

Despite an extensive process for planning, monitoring, and evaluating projects, USAID has no systematic way of considering unanticipated or undesirable human rights-related side effects of its programming. Essentially, it sets goals and then establishes indicators for meeting them -- but it does not monitor for unintended consequences of its actions. That should be fixed: USAID should consistently screen potential projects to reduce the likelihood that they will contribute to political repression, discrimination, dispossession, or widespread arbitrary deprivations of economic and social rights.

The agency should also put procedures in place to help it understand the underlying risks of its projects. This would include taking into account reliable information on human rights conditions, such as State Department human rights reports and reporting by local and international human rights organizations. Should USAID find that a project might have negative human rights implications, the project should be modified or, if need be, abandoned. This will require its staff to be trained in rights-based approaches and analysis, not just technical fixes -- and to be rewarded for applying the training.

USAID already has safeguards in place. For example, all projects are supposed to account for their impacts on gender dynamics and women's empowerment. Under U.S. law, all projects must also consider environmental impacts and, if necessary, show that any negative impacts will be mitigated.

But that's where the safeguards end. A formerly mandatory policy requiring USAID to analyze a project's social impact during the planning phase was made optional and effectively discontinued in the early 2000s; it was dismissed as time-consuming and unwieldy, and nothing has replaced it. A position for an indigenous peoples' coordinator at USAID was also scrapped. Today, no specific mechanisms exist to prevent harm to indigenous people or forcible displacement of local groups in conjunction with economic, agricultural, mining, or infrastructure programs.

Experience shows that skimping on time and effort up front results in failed projects, political controversy, and a loss of trust from local communities and groups. Obama's renewed commitment to preventing and responding to atrocities -- and the steps toward reform at USAID -- are welcome moves. But to have a real impact, the Obama administration must reexamine deeply entrenched policies surrounding how the United States distributes foreign assistance. Congress could assist by changing funding patterns that encourage separate "silos," where agricultural or health specialists are on different budget cycles, rather than rights-integrated programming. It could also lengthen short funding cycles for USAID, which make due diligence and public participation more difficult.

USAID has taken the first steps toward implementing the president's initiative. But if it fails to go far enough -- if it continues to provide support to repressive regimes, ignores human rights issues in favor of other policy priorities, and fails to seriously incorporate human rights concerns in its work -- the administration's strong words about supporting rights and preventing atrocities will be just that: words. It's time for USAID to take bold steps, and make sure its aid programs are used to prevent atrocities, not to promote them.

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, acting U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch, and Naomi Roht-Arriaza, professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

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