Seattle International Foundation fights international poverty by promoting smarter aid involving hands-on partnership.
There’s no end of problems in the world, but fortunately there is also no end of people working diligently to find solutions. The former, shouted out in each day’s headlines, is easy to remember, but the latter can require a little effort to see.
Last week, I was reminded that Seattle is rich with people and organizations that take on difficult problems. I sat in on a discussion of the mess Central America is in and how this country might help people there put things right. It was a session hosted by the Seattle International Foundation.
Maybe you haven’t heard of the foundation, which usually works quietly, but you may know its founders, Bill and Paula Clapp, who are part of Seattle’s significant community of philanthropists. Bill Clapp’s great-grandfather Matthew Norton was co-founder of Weyerhaeuser.
Since retiring from running the family investment holding company, Clapp has devoted time, money and energy to any number of causes. His first was Global Partnerships, which he started in 1994 after he was persuaded to take a trip to Central America in 1992 and was stunned by the poverty he saw there. Its mission is to “expand opportunity for people living in poverty.” He works around the world to fight poverty, but Central America remains a primary concern.
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You may remember last summer’s headlines about children from Central America flooding across the southern border of the United States of America. There were reports about deportations then stories about children being held in detention camps.
The root causes of the flow of bodies northward remain and aren’t going to be addressed by enforcement actions here or in the countries of origin. So other paths are necessary, and some of the people who are working on the problem gathered in Seattle to exchange ideas and drum up support for addressing the causes — poverty, lack of opportunity and violence — now kept firmly in place by deep corruption.
Leaders of grass-roots, political- and social-change organizations in the three Central America countries from which most of the refugees came, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, spoke to a roomful of representatives from various local charitable and social-action organizations and individuals interested in the region.
No one was asking for money, or at least not just money. Mauricio Vivero, CEO of the Seattle International Foundation, told me that what the Central Americans want, and what the foundation stresses in its lobbying and networking, is partnership.
President Obama, in his 2016 budget, has asked Congress for $1 billion for Central America, far more than usual. The Thursday panel’s moderator, Enrique Cerna, asked the three panelists whether the money could change the future of the region. Their answer was, not if the U.S. just gives a check to the governments of their countries, then walks away, which is the usual way of doing business.
Manfredo Marroquin said young people used to leave Guatemala because of poverty and a lack of opportunity to improve their circumstances. Those conditions continue, but what is new and makes leaving urgent is the increase in violence by criminal groups.
Across the region, drug cartels serving the American market have made themselves lords. Ordinary people can’t see a future in their homeland.
Roberto Rubio said only two in 10 young people coming of age in El Salvador can find legitimate work. But the gangs are recruiting, even in school.
And governments in the region are sometimes even run by members of the gangs, or sometimes people in government become competitors in the trade themselves. So government hasn’t been part of the solution.
The panelists want community organizations, local governments and the U.S. government all sitting at the table deciding what needs to be done, then overseeing programs and monitoring them for effectiveness.
Dysfunction in Central America affects the flow of people to the U.S. and the flow of drugs to this country. We already spend money there, and we should have more to show for it. “It’s your tax money,” Marroquin said, “You must be interested in how it is going to be spent.”
But beyond self interest, being involved in the neighborhood, not just doling out cash, is the right thing to do. The Seattle International Foundation lobbies for that and models it in its own approach to aid.
The Foundation gives grants but views its most productive role as raising awareness among charitable organizations and influencing government policy in ways that make interventions more effective.
Vivero told me he’s not so concerned about how much of Obama’s request Congress may fund. What matters more is that the administration is rethinking its approach to Central America. The foundation’s lobbying may have something to do with that.
I noticed each page of the foundation’s website includes this quotation from Bill Gates Sr: “Citizenship means that we behave according to the belief that every person matters just as much as every other person. Citizens must not prosper at the expense of another person. Citizens should aspire to do what they can to counteract the disadvantages that random chance imposes on others.”
That’s a little wordy for a headline, but it certainly would be good news if our government adopted that approach to Central America.