In Guatemala, Pelosi delegation presses NGOs for aid program results

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga upon arriving in Guatemala City. Photo by: REUTERS

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — NGOs must do a better job of communicating results of foreign assistance programs in the Northern Triangle in the face of funding cuts, a U.S. congressional delegation told organization representatives in a meeting in Guatemala City on Thursday.

Representatives from Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, Plan International, and Save the Children met with the 13-member delegation, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California. The delegation is visiting the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — after President Donald Trump cut off U.S. foreign aid earlier this year because the countries have not stopped their citizens from migrating to the U.S. southern border.

John Lundine, Guatemala country director for Plan International, said the House members expressed concern over the funding cuts, highlighting the counterproductive nature of eliminating programs designed to help vulnerable populations who often migrate. Members wanted more information about how U.S.-funded NGO projects were helping address root causes of migration.

“As organizations who are doing international development work, we need to communicate better the results that we have. I think we do that, but to consolidate those results and communicate them better to Congress is a challenge for us,” Lundine said. “We could do it in a bit more targeted and better way to decision-makers ... These members of Congress understand that it would be counterproductive to the overall efforts here to sustain the cuts in aid.”

Directly tying the impact of NGO programs to a decrease in migration is extremely difficult, Lundine said, because it is hard to quantify the number of people who were thinking of migrating but decided not to do so directly as a result of an education or jobs program.

In the 45-minute meeting, each NGO gave a presentation highlighting its activities in Guatemala. The delegation also visited a children’s shelter supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, a visit Pelosi called “sobering.” The facility serves Guatemalan children, as well as those who have migrated from El Salvador and Honduras. The delegation included House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, who authored a bill that would prevent future aid from being cut off in the Northern Triangle; and California Rep. Norma Torres, who was born in Guatemala.

“The leaders underscored the positive role of U.S.-supported initiatives in ensuring regional stability and the well-being of Guatemalans, which in turn reduces migration to the U.S. The delegation believes that given the proven success of these projects, U.S. support must be restored,” Pelosi said of the NGO meeting. “The purpose of our visit to the Northern Triangle was to enhance regional stability and engage leaders in a discussion of migration.”

The group also met with U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga; the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG; judges who support an independent judiciary; and Guatemalan business leaders.  

“It seemed clear that they were on a fact-finding mission and trying to get the perspective of different stakeholders here,” said Catholic Relief Services Country Representative Paul Townsend. “We talked a lot about the decades-old relationships and trust that both USAID and these NGOs have developed over the years here in Guatemala and how these funding cuts are impacting our ability to follow through on what we promised.”

The aid cutoff can also impact positive steps made by Northern Triangle governments, Townsend said, because NGOs develop relationships with policymakers and can get a seat at the table to advocate for more investment in positive development policy at the national level.

Lundine said the NGOs also expressed their concern to the congressional members about the “safe third country” agreement the Guatemalan government signed with the U.S. While no specifics of the deal have been released publicly, it would mandate a refugee from Honduras or El Salvador seeking asylum in the U.S. must first seek asylum in Guatemala.

The country won’t be able to properly handle the vulnerable population that migrates because of the threat of violence, Lundine said.

“If the United States deports them to Guatemala, they’re not going to be very likely … to return to their home country,” Lundine said. “Therefore if you create a situation where you have internally displaced people or people who are awaiting a judicial process in Guatemala. That could be concerning to us because it could be potentially very problematic. We don’t feel that the Guatemalan government has a lot of capacity to deal with that.”

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.