US funding cuts force NGOs to break commitments in Guatemala

A student at a school in Guatemala City receives reading help in a space funded by Convivimos. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Marel wants to eradicate violence in the streets of Zone 7, one of the most dangerous parts of Guatemala City. Students in this part of the city live daily with gang activity, robbery, and extortion — all acts that have become ingrained in the community.

Marel, 15, preferred to withhold her full name due to safety concerns. She serves as president of her school government in the area and participates in USAID-funded violence prevention project Convivimos. Program activities help elected students identify needs at their school and implement projects to create peaceful communities.

“It’s helped me realize that the problems aren’t mine alone — they’re problems that exist around me,” Marel said of her work with Convivimos.

“We have to go to communities and say, ‘Actually, the commitment we made is not going to continue. We are no longer giving you cash transfers so you can buy food for your children, we’ll no longer give you anything because we have to leave.’”

— Mary McInerney, country office director, Save the Children Guatemala

Implemented by Mercy Corps, Convivimos began in 2015 and works with both youth and adults to improve community cohesion, government capacity, and promote a more peaceful society. The multimillion dollar program is focused in six urban municipalities, four of which are among those with the highest emigration rates in Guatemala.

USAID was scheduled to support the program through June 2020. But now, due to U.S. funding cuts to the Northern Triangle, Mercy Corps and its local partners have had to end or reduce their projects.

Marel, who wants to become a doctor, is concerned about what will happen when Convivimos is forced to stop altogether.

“I’m sad and worried because these programs are really the only ones doing this work,” Marel said. “I think that without this project I wouldn’t have overcome the apathy that people here always have with respect to problems. Perhaps I would be one of the people who think that migration is a solution ... I don’t know where I’ll be now [without it]. These projects are really important and they’ve served us very well.”

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Convivimos is just one program impacted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement in March that the U.S. would stop providing foreign aid funds to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala due to the continued migration of citizens from those countries to the southern U.S. border. Since then, the administration has said it was developing a list of criteria countries would need to meet to see funds resume, but no additional details have been released publicly.

This leaves NGOs with immediate funding gaps and uncertainty about the reliability of the U.S. as a major aid donor in the region.

Tough decisions

The U.S. funds were not given directly to the Northern Triangle governments, but to NGOs like Mercy Corps and its partners. As a result, these groups have been forced to scale back or altogether cancel programs, lay off staff, and reduce operating expenses that would have been supported by U.S. funding.

Trump’s announcement prevents any additional funds from being disbursed for ongoing projects, but money already in NGO bank accounts can continue being used for intended purposes. Because of this, the impact of the aid cut off on organizations depends upon where they were in their project cycle and how much grant money they had that was yet to be spent.

Mercy Corps had to make tough decisions about how to continue its work with maximum impact despite the massive budget cuts, said Guatemala Country Director Marcelo Viscarra. Convivimos’ infrastructure projects were modified so the Guatemalan government could finish them when it has funds, with Mercy Corps careful to leave projects in useable if incomplete status.

The Convivimos program focuses on reducing violence in communities like the one where many of these students live in Zone 7 of Guatemala city. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

Other pieces of the project were cut completely, like “escuela de vacaciones,” a program that keeps kids engaged in learning and occupied while school is out. This prevents them from having nowhere to go during the day and interacting with criminal elements in their neighborhoods.

“A big reason why kids are at risk of violence … it’s gangs approaching kids to recruit them or they have time to simply be in the streets and be exposed to violence, that’s a very important part of preventing violence with kids and youth,” Viscarra said. ”That’s why those programs were so important.”

María Eugenia Ramirez, Convivimos coordinator at Marel’s school, said that the Guatemalan government will continue some of the Convivimos programming, but that they can’t be sure that it will be of the same quality.

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Save the Children is facing some of the most immediate impact of the foreign assistance cutoff, forced to cancel two U.S.-funded programs in Guatemala, including a maternal and child nutrition program that focuses on increasing access to services to improve malnutrition indicators.

In August, Save the Children also had to end a cash transfer program that had been providing 6,000 families with money for emergency food assistance or other household necessities in areas of Guatemala experiencing drought. In some of those areas, there is nearly no government presence and international assistance is the only way for vulnerable people to receive the help they need, according to Save the Children.

NGOs are left to explain to community members, with whom building relationships and trust can often be difficult, why they are leaving before the work they promised can be fully completed.

“It was supposed to be a 15-month project,” said Mary McInerney, Save the Children Guatemala country office director. “We have to go to communities and say, ‘Actually, the commitment we made is not going to continue. We are no longer giving you cash transfers so you can buy food for your children, we’ll no longer give you anything because we have to leave.’”

Planning on hold

Organizations are also concerned for their own: Mercy Corps had to lay off at least 61 staff due to the budget cuts, most of whom were local staff. Save the Children laid off 58. International Justice Mission, which provides legal support to the Guatemalan government and civil society to create a more robust justice system to handle child sexual assault, had to let 22 people go.

IJM, which is executing a State Department grant using its collaborative casework model, was told earlier this year to propose a modified budget for the final year of its four-year program. This was already only half of the amount the grant agreement had originally stipulated.

“The State Department, the next month pretty quickly after that, announced they were going to suspend all aid. So that caused us obviously a lot of uncertainty of what was going to happen. We had our revised budget pending at the time and then we received formal notice in June that they would be terminating the program as of July 16,” said Brad Twedt, IJM Guatemala field office director. “The letter said that it was for foreign policy considerations.”

Twedt said IJM cannot continue its work at the same scale with the drastic budget cuts, and he had to go to headquarters to ask for a budget for the rest of the year. He proposed a variety of scenarios, from closing the office to maintaining the program in full. The organization ultimately decided to carry on parts of the program with funds it will raise from private donors.

Planning for creating an IJM hub for regional work on justice reform based in Guatemala has also been disrupted by the U.S. move.

“I spent a lot less time on strategic planning and the things that I normally try to really focus on, and more just on crisis management,” Twedt said. “The withdrawal of aid ... does cause a tremendous loss of momentum that puts the sustainability of some things at risk.”

Northern Triangle components of global foreign assistance programs will also be impacted. Plan International is still uncertain how the cuts will affect the implementation of its only U.S.-funded project in Guatemala, part of a 5-year Central America PEPFAR program. The regional program includes activities in El Salvador and Honduras, where Trump administration cuts also apply, as well as in Panama, which is unaffected.

Because of the regional nature of the work, currently in month 15, Plan International Country Director John Lundine said the organization is waiting to see how its fiscal year 2020 work plan is received by USAID. Potential scenarios include going full force on all activities for as long as funds remain or scaling back pieces of the project so money lasts longer.

“The idea of this project is that the countries themselves will move towards meeting the 90-90- 90 goals, and obviously if we cut off the project then there’s just less accompaniment for the countries we’re working with to be able to meet those goals,” Lundine said, referencing the UNAIDS 2020 targets for HIV treatment.

“Our capacity to just do more of these projects that are important for U.S. interests, which will start shifting towards migration, is compromised if we don’t have U.S. government funding and resources,” Lundine said.

About the author

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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.