Three years ago, I worked as an intern for the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Fisheries Investment for Sustainable Harvest (FISH) Program in Uganda, Africa. When I first arrived, I was proud to be working with the U.S. government to provide aid to people in a country that is much less fortunate than my own. By my third week, I experienced a shift in beliefs. These people needed our help to organize themselves and to teach them how to properly grow and harvest fish to make an income; what they didn’t need were foreign diplomats and their interns handing out checks to locals who had “fish farms.” Surprisingly, this is exactly what is happening in most of our government funded aid programs.
Cutting checks is the least productive way to make a lasting change in developing countries. It encourages locals to act as con artists. USAID’s programs last, on average, three years. This means that every three years, the locals can create a new means of funding. For example, a farmer could say he’s growing wheat and go to the city to get his monthly check for his wheat farm and turn in forged paper work, then three years later he can “become” a fish farmer and do the same thing.
When USAID was first created, they were allowed to operate outside of the Department of State. This gave them a lot more power, allowing them to track their budget as they saw fit. The Chief of Party for the FISH program refused to hand out checks or monetary donations. By doing this, the program was able save 20 percent of the $2 million allotted for the three year program. By supplying the farmers with the equipment they needed, it was easier to teach the proper ways to run a farm and be responsible for animals’ lives.
Four years ago, there was a situation in Cuba that came to the Associated Press’s attention. USAID gave Cuba $65 million to help Cubans who had fled to Miami and were forced to return back to Cuba. Additionally, they gave 385,000 pounds of food, medicine, and books to the country. After collecting receipts from the different groups who acquired donations for exiled individuals, USAID discovered that around 30 percent of the money had been spent in a questionable manner. This tragedy totaled $19.5 million misspent.
The Cuba example is a mere glimpse into the spending habits of USAID. There are five other continents and more than 72 countries where USAID is working. We need to hold our government accountable for the money they spend. It’s time to stop the quick fixes and start investing in long term solutions. It is our job as citizens and taxpayers to keep tabs on how our Federal Government is spending our money, especially if our goal is to help make these developing countries stand on their own feet.
Reading this made me wonder about what is going to happen with USAID’s Haitian relief effort. On Jan 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti devastating the small island nation. The death toll is 200,000 people, with 250,000 injured and 1.5 million people left homeless, according to the Associated Press. As of Jan 17, USAID was sending 70,000 bottles of water from the Dominican Republic to Haiti and sent three major water purification systems that can purify and produce 100,000 liters of water a day.
So far, the way USAID is handling the situation in Haiti seems responsible. After all, they’re not writing blank checks like they have in the past. It is still to be seen whether or not USAID will keep tabs on how the grant money is spent, so keep a watchful eye and hope for the best.