My experience as a member of the Inter-American Foundation’s board of directors for more than 12 years has taught me that it is not the quantity of foreign assistance funding that counts.
During my time on the IAF’s board, the United States Congress has allocated a total of $167 billion to foreign assistance, and our annual share has usually come to less than 0.001 percent of that figure. That adds up to a small sum by Washington standards so we try to use our resources wisely and strategically. Our accomplishments in this regard are a source of great pride to me. The IAF gives to or leverages for its program approximately $4.50 for every dollar it spends on overhead.
Its small allocation notwithstanding, the IAF has remained in the vanguard of foreign assistance, pioneering the trends later adopted by major development institutions with far greater resources. Long before the rest of the development community, the IAF was in the field working with civil society, advocating decentralization, forming partnerships with the private sector and assisting self-help efforts. Economic growth and democratic participation, both currently emphasized worldwide in foreign assistance, have also been key to the IAF’s 33-year commitment to the poor in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The IAF devotes more than one-half its program budget to helping the disadvantaged become entrepreneurial and economically productive. People find pride and dignity in assuming responsibility for the future and well-being of their families and communities. The change in their economic condition affects their social and political status as well.
Additionally, the IAF encourages citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean to participate in their local governments and make them accountable. Local governance is critical as the foundation for a larger democratic order and because it can vastly accelerate positive, tangible change in people’s lives. Many individuals associated with IAF’s grantees have distinguished themselves in leadership roles at the local level; some have gone on to hold national office. Luis Guerrero, for example, headed an IAF-supported Peruvian nonprofit organization, before becoming the mayor of provincial Cajamarca and then congressional deputy. Mariano Curicama, an indigenous grass- roots leader in Ecuador who ran successfully for councilman, national deputy and, twice, for mayor of the canton of Guamote, is now his country’s vice minister of social services.
The IAF bases its entire program on the simple idea that in the process of identifying their con- cerns and resolving them, people develop essential skills for participating in democracy. The idea can be applied equally well to the problems of facing the increasing complexity of the world. Perhaps that is why the assistant secretary of state for Latin America asked the IAF to help prepare rural Central America for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas expected to materialize soon. In this specific assignment, as well as in our mission as a foreign assistance agency charged with improving the quality of life in this hemisphere, we will draw from our bank of experience to help the poor forge solutions to problems rooted in history, globalization or both.