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Britain toes Washington line in Latin America

The UK government's policy of ending direct aid to Latin America received fresh confirmation last month in a report published by the Department for International Development (DfID). Increasingly, British aid for the continent will be directed through the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

August 1, 2004
4 min read


Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


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NGOs working in the region fear that this represents a subservience to US policy towards this politically sensitive continent. Latin America is Washington’s number-two foreign-policy priority after the Middle East.

The DfID’s report presents a draft regional assistance plan for Latin America. It sets out the government’s strategy for alleviating poverty in the region up to 2006/07.

The report acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead: Latin America has some 57 million people living on less than $1 per day; inequality is severe and is fuelled by widespread social, political and economic exclusion. Any significant contribution to ameliorating these problems, the department admits, will require “long-term commitment and prudent analysis”.

Historically, however, the DfID’s dedication to its Latin America programme has been inconsistent at best. Between 1997 and 2003 its emphasis was on giving aid through civil society organisations, which gained the department some credibility in the region. This year, however, the UK’s aid programme to Latin America has been drastically cut back to help bankroll the UK’s attack on Iraq.

The DfID’s latest report can be seen as an intensification of the government’s withdrawal from direct involvement in the region in favour of working with the US and the agencies it leads – principally, the World Bank and the IDB. Further evidence of that process is the closure of the UK’s embassies in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, leaving a single Central America embassy in Costa Rica. The DfID has also closed its offices in Peru and Honduras, so that it now only has premises in Nicaragua, Bolivia and (mainly for trade purposes) Brazil.

One reason why NGOs in Latin America believe the World Bank and the IDB are unfit to deliver successfully on poverty reduction is the development banks” support for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA aims to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) to every country in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, except Cuba.

Nafta has facilitated the exploitation of cheap labour in Mexico’s infamous maquiladores – export assembly plants that neither create sustainable jobs nor contribute to the long-term improvement of development indices in Mexico. It is a trade policy that has proved to be counterproductive in development terms, and which leads to further impoverishment and disempowerment of people.

The DfID argues that there are gains to be had from such free-trade agreements, namely better access to Northern markets. There is some truth in this, but such minimal access as is achieved does not translate into the reduction of poverty alleviation.

The department’s approach to Latin America is based on the idea that Latin American countries are “Middle Income Developing Countries” (MDCs) and therefore ineligible for programmes for the relief of extreme poverty. (This takes insufficient account of the extreme inequalities within Latin American countries.) It believes Latin American countries should trade their way out of poverty. Hence its lack of anxiety about an approach to aid that is so closely associated with Nafta. World Bank and IDB aid to Latin American nations is largely dependent on their showing willing over FTAA negotiations.

If the DfID were serious about poverty relief in Latin America, it would consult with the region’s well-informed network of NGOs on the ground. These groups are overwhelmingly opposed to the FTAA, and see the department’s current plan as utterly misinformed.

Another indication that British policy in Latin America is being driven by Washington is Tony Blair’s role as the main advocate within the European Union of aid to the extreme right-wing government in Colombia. That country’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, is the prime agent of the US’s Plan Colombia, a mainly military campaign against “narco-terrorists” across the Andean region – in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and, potentially, Venezuela.

The UK government insists that its priority is human rights, but for some years now there has been no direct humanitarian aid from the DfID to Colombia: the only significant direct aid from the UK to the country is military aid, many of the details of which are classified information.

At the International Monetary Fund, too, Britain also consistently follows the US position – notably, over Argentina and Brazil. As Latin America Bureau director Marcella Lopez Levy says: “The UK government assumes that it”ll get more crumbs in terms of trade from the US table in Latin America than the European one. That’s what these developments in the DfID are all about.”

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Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


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