US Pays to Bird-Dog Guatemala's Politicians

Manfredo Marroquin has a dream. The young Guatemalan plans to create a watchdog group that will allow Guatemalans to subject members of Congress to a concept so foreign here that there isn't even a good Spanish word for it: accountability.

This idea is not new to Americans, who can get involved in any of dozens of oversight groups. But do US taxpayers value this basic democratic right enough to pay for Mr. Marroquin's dream?

That's a $225,000 question. The US will soon dip out that amount from its $6.7 billion Agency for International Development (USAID) budget to start up Marroquin's nascent Accin Ciudadana (Citizen Action).

As the worth of foreign aid is increasingly questioned in the US, Accin Ciudadana is one example among thousands of what the US is trying to do with a shrinking foreign assistance budget. For US officials here, the Accin Ciudadana project aims for the kind of development the US is looking to encourage as part of its Democratic Initiatives program. Democratic Initiatives is one of five main USAID objectives in Guatemala. Others are: support for the country's peace process, environmental intervention, managing population growth, and improving living conditions for the poor. Emphasis on the Democratic Initiatives program has grown throughout Latin America as every country but Cuba has embraced democracy after decades of military rule.

Despite the increasing attention to the democratization process, overall US foreign assistance to Guatemala has fallen drastically since the mid-'80s, when a hot guerrilla war and strong US antirevolutionary ideology kept interest in Central America high.

Reflecting a general trend in US foreign assistance, the US Congress approved $34 million in aid to Guatemala, a drop from the $160 million delivered in 1987 - although with Guatemala expected to sign a final peace accord this year ending its 36-year civil war, the US embassy here wants a hike in assistance next year to bolster US participation in the peace implementation.

In Guatemala, the Democratic Initiatives concept began in 1986, after the country's first democratic elections in three decades. At first the US program focused exclusively on strengthening the democratic workings of government institutions. "But we have now begun to move towards addressing democratic values and encouraging development and participation of a civil society," says William Stacy Rhodes, USAID's Guatemala and Central America director.

Grading the lawmakers

That's where Accin Ciudadana comes in.

"In our last elections, 40 of 80 members of Congress won reelection. But did they deserve it? Were they representing their constituents as those constituents would want them to? I don't think the great majority of voters could answer that," says the activist Marroquin. "So the idea is to develop this concept of accountability, create a congressional report card that grades representatives on the issues people say are important to them, and generally prod them to work in the direction citizens want them to," he adds. "This is not an idea that now exists in Guatemala."

In a sense, by seeking a USAID grant, Marroquin is now eating from a hand he once bit. In 1992 he published a book criticizing US assistance to Guatemala, calling work with government institutions wrong-headed and ineffectual.

Getting the most for the money

US officials here do not fully deny those accusations. They acknowledge, for example, that an early focus on improving the functioning of Guatemala's notoriously cumbersome, inaccessible, and corrupt judicial system did little good until a new criminal procedure code took effect in 1994 - but they insist there were good reasons for that early emphasis.

"When the program started there just weren't that many nongovernmental groups to work with, or they weren't that strong," says USAID's Mr. Rhodes. "Not everyone was eager to work with the US, until they trusted our motives and saw the change of direction in US policy."

And the US still works with government institutions. Another US grant in Guatemala, for example, teams the national congress and US academics to improve the institution's democratic internal workings.

The question is still whether Guatemala is worth $37 million a year to US taxpayers. Most Americans say they think too many of their tax dollars go overseas - but polls show that most Americans also vastly overestimate the amount the US spends. A 1995 University of Maryland poll found that 3 of 4 Americans thought the US spends too much on foreign aid, but the same poll showed that on average, Americans thought 18 percent of the federal budget went to foreign aid. In fact, it takes less than 1 percent.

"When people come and look at what we're doing, they're generally sympathetic," says Rhodes.

So at least for the next year, the US will support one Guatemalan's idea for improving citizen oversight of the legislative process. Although Marroquin is supportive of what he calls a "180-degree change" in US foreign-aid policy over the last decade, he also recognizes that the purse strings have tightened.

"We'll have to show we're accomplishing something, that our idea is working, to get any funding after this year," he says. "I guess that will also teach us about accountability."

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