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Did USAID withdraw American taxpayer money from funding one of the most successful environmental organizations in South Asia in favor of backing a political candidate more favorable to the United State? (Image: US Navy/Public domain)

USAID: Helping the Poor or Setting Up Puppets?

Ru Freeman

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the state of Maine under the aegis of The Sahana Project, began a program of reconstruction in the hard-hit town of Kalametiya on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka. The project was funded by small donations - not unlike the ones that turned then Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency into a success - and went towards the rebuilding of an entire village, constructed to withstand any future natural disasters, ecologically sound, and culturally specific. The village was opened before the first anniversary of the tsunami, in 2005, a feat none of the larger international aid organizations had managed, and at the end of the work, there was still $10,000 left over, funds that were given to the villagers.

I speak of this because the grassroots organization that became the local partner for the project, the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, who displayed such commitment to maintaining the integrity of the organization and the transparency of its practices, is now under threat by USAID. In the post-tsunami period, the Greens, as they are known, fulfilled their obgligations with remarkable diligence, going so far as to turn away the representatives of foreign donors who spent the money donated to victims on themselves, to purchase the usual accoutrements of corrupt international aid workers, such as high-end vehicles. In the intervening years, the Greens conducted their work on water-purification and other projects based on sustainability and care for the natural environment throughout the country, including in the war-torn North where few other organizations dared go.

Why then has the USAID, the face of American foreign aid, who provided funds for the road that lead to the village I mention above, decided to turn its back on the Greens? The answer may well be that the USAID withdrew American taxpayer money from funding one of the most successful national environmental organizations in South Asia in favor of backing a political candidate more favorable to the United States, Maithripala Sirisena. The problem with this is that there is no mandate from the U.S. State Department, for USAID to fund political campaigns.

Consider the order of events. USAID was planning to move their offices from Sri Lanka to Bangkok, unless, presumably, their preferred candidate won the election. The former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, had supported the Green Movement long before he became president, encouraging their work, and permitting them to operate in the most disaffected parts of Sri Lanka, an affiliation that certainly made the Greens favorably disposed toward him, though not unfavorably disposed toward the opposition parties, since theirs was not a political organization but, rather, an environmental one.

USAID staff, in the run-up to a presidential election, set up a kangaroo court that overstepped all industry boundaries, including preventing the senior leadership of the Green Movement to answer questions that were within their jurisdiction, choosing instead to intimidate and harrass junior staff into making statements on issues they lacked the knowledge to address. Further, the team of reviewers deliberately falsified data pertaining to income and expenditure, as well as neglected to take into account the socio-economic, political and other hardships associated with dealing with the northern province, in particular, which is considered a conflict-emergent area, or the impact of the natural weather patterns of a tropical island, including draughts.

These unsubstantiated “findings,” submitted at the beginning of November, were deemed sufficient cause to terminate funding to the Green Movement by the end of December, just in time to use those funds to support the candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena.

There is no precedent in the history of foreign aid for the speed of these actions, let alone the means by which USAID administrators contrived to effect them. Not only was the process a mockery of the commitment that America professes to due process, it ignored the victimized organization—one which has a sixteen year record of success in its field—in its effort to address the findings and denied a request for a period of grace to pay the salaries of staff. Furthermore, the agency ruling demanded that the Greens liquidate any assets bought with USAID funds. That last, in particular, goes directly against USAID’s own fundamental commitment to improve the capacities of the civic organizations they support.

Has USAID—through this one preposterous move against a successful grass-roots organization which has demonstrated the power of local advocacy, cultural sensitivity, and nation-specific change—just revealed its real goal: undermining local organizations and interfering in the internal politics of the countries in which it operates, not as the face of American foreign aid, but as the tool of American foreign policy? And if so, what do the American people whose money funds it, who like to believe that their taxes go to deserving organizations that help ordinary people like themselves to live better, what do we think about it?

These moves do not bode well for the reputation of USAID in a volatile region in general, and a strategically important but immensely unpredictable country in particular, where today’s political flavor can turn on a dime. It is particularly troubling that these measures were taken just as USAID loses its chief, Rajiv Shah, who has chosen to step down. Perhaps what is needed most is not an investigation into the well-performing, citizen-lead, grassroots organizations in countries such as Sri Lanka, but rather a re-evaluation of the internal processes of USAID which clearly could stand the scrutiny of the millions of ordinary American citizens who line its coffers.

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Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's creative and political writing has appeared internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor's Choice. Both novels have been translated into several languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, and Chinese. She blogs on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction by an American Woman.

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