Last year, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee wanted to improve the balance between military and economic aid on the 2006 foreign aid bill.
Committee members like Sam Farr (D-California), who was once a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, wanted to see more U.S. investment in rural Colombia, where drug crops and armed groups are as pervasive as ever. Instead of an 80 percent military strategy, Farr and others argued, more must be done to address the total absence of civilian government from much of Colombia’s territory. Colombia’s problems will continue to bedevil us, they argued, as long as state absence continues to go hand-in-hand with very high rural poverty rates. (Colombia’s Comptroller’s Office estimated in 2004 that 85 percent of rural Colombians live below the poverty line.)
The Democrats’ appeals for more rural development aid hit a brick wall of Republican opposition. Majority-party appropriators refused to budge on aid priorities or to provide more non-military money. They had plenty of funds available, of course, for fumigation and other military efforts.
The most that the Democrats managed to do was add language to the non-binding narrative report that the Appropriations Committee writes to accompany the foreign aid bill. They inserted the following sentences recognizing the importance of development aid in Colombia, and asking the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide a report.
The Committee strongly supports USAID’s continuing alternative development strategy that focuses on the historic underdevelopment of Colombia’s outlying regions. The programs concentrate on local infrastructure needs (roads, electricity, water) and delivery of services at the community level. This focus on an entire community increases the social pressure for eradication and also helps organize the community to identify and prioritize local needs. It is the Committee’s view that alternative development integrated with the presence of the state and the presence of law enforcement and security are fundamentally the key to long term peace and security in Colombia.
The Committee directs USAID to report back to the Committee no later than 60 days after enactment of this Act what detailed steps the Government of Colombia is taking to develop a comprehensive rural development strategy.
USAID produced this report in February, and we obtained a copy today (PDF).
“Disappointing” doesn’t even come close to describing the product that was turned over to Congress. How seriously does the Bush administration take congressional concerns about development and governance in rural Colombia? Your answer is evident in the length of this report: less than 400 words.
And most of those words are generalities, statements of principles and aspirations lifted from official Colombian government text. Concerned members of Congress can learn, for example, that “the government of Colombia’s agricultural policy is guided by the principles of equity, competitiveness, sustainability and decentralization.” Or that “the strategy will lead to a more competitive agricultural sector, capable of generating rural employment through combined public and private efforts.”
What rural development strategy doesn’t share such objectives? (North Korea’s, maybe.) A reader of this report will learn almost nothing about Colombia’s rural plans, and will more likely come away concerned that Colombia in fact has no coherent strategy, and the U.S. government has no intention of supporting these goals.
The report fails to answer even very basic questions like these:
Who in rural Colombia is being most heavily targeted by this strategy? Agribusiness? Small farmers? Cooperatives? Displaced and other vulnerable groups? People in drug-producing areas? Producers for export or for the domestic market? Light industry or services enterprises in rural towns?
Who is making decisions for the design of development projects? Do communities themselves get to participate, or is it a statist, top-down approach?
What Colombian government agencies are carrying out this strategy? How does USAID evaluate their efficiency and effectiveness?
What crops, beyond the fruit, cacao, cassava, rubber, fisheries and controversial African palm the report alludes to, are being encouraged?
Where in rural Colombia is this strategy being carried out? What parts of the country are getting the most public resources, private investment and U.S. aid? Is the strategy reaching inhabitants of historically neglected zones with little state presence, where need is greatest, or is it principally benefiting people in territories that are already more integrated into the national and global economies?
When does this strategy expect to achieve its benchmarks and goals, such as number of jobs created or reduction of poverty rates to a certain percentage of the rural population? Do such benchmarks and goals exist? They don’t appear in the report.
Why did the report not even touch on specific concerns the committee listed in its report, like infrastructure, work with entire communities, and integration with security and law enforcement? What is being done in those areas, if anything?
How much does this strategy cost? How much would come from Colombian government resources, whether new spending or incentives to private investment, and how much from international donors? How is the U.S. government specifically supporting this strategy?
How is the rural development strategy being coordinated with security efforts, in order to avoid having some regions militarized but otherwise forgotten, and other regions with well-funded projects vulnerable to guerrilla attack or extortion?
What is the U.S. government’s opinion of this strategy? Is it viable and sufficiently resourced? Are there elements that USAID feels are less deserving of support than others?
A real report to Congress would have made at least some effort to address questions like these. But the brief, vague, and useless document the appropriators received doesn’t even come close.
Let’s hope this 400-word brush-off is not a true reflection of the importance that the U.S. government places on Colombia’s rural development challenges. If it is, then we are doomed to be confronting drug trafficking, violence, and other by-products of Colombia’s rural poverty and statelessness for many years to come.
The Appropriations Committee should demand a genuine explanation of rural development strategy in Colombia, with specific recommendations for how the U.S. government could be more supportive. It should also actively discourage the executive branch from responding in this fashion to its requests for information.