The United States has funded a number of programs in these centers -- including workshops and training for government "addiction counselors," who are often Ministry of Labor staff that operate as little more than guards. USAID, on its own and as an implementer for the U.S. health aid program PEPFAR, has provided much of this support through its partners -- mostly American NGOs, but also Vietnamese government authorities. In one case, PEPFAR actually listed a drug detention center as its implementing partner. While funding activities in the centers, USAID and PEPFAR have had limited access to the centers or ability to speak privately to detainees. Consequently, they and their partners have reported back only on indicators related to their narrow programming goals, while stating that they have seen no evidence of abuse.
Another problem arises when U.S. assistance becomes too closely aligned with a repressive government's priorities and is interpreted as political support for the regime. This is particularly difficult when dealing with countries that restrict the types of support foreign donors can provide. In Egypt, for example, USAID's willingness to comply with President Hosni Mubarak's funding restrictions while he was in power led to criticism from many civil society organizations at the time. What's more, this compliance harmed the credibility of USAID's protests after Egypt's military-led government harassed and intimidated American NGOs last year -- the Cairo authorities could simply say they were merely enforcing their own laws, by which the United States had previously abided.
Although the United States may not wish to violate local law, it can use its own leverage, and work with other donors, to insist that minimal standards are met so that civil society groups can function freely, or at least spend political capital to publicly oppose the restrictions. For example, a more public, unified, and insistent diplomatic response to Ethiopia's current draconian restrictions on civil society and the media might have more impact than quiet diplomacy, which is getting nowhere. For the United States to use its leverage though, human rights concerns have to be bumped up the list of diplomatic priorities. USAID also has to be willing to drop or find alternatives to non-essential programs in countries where programming is more likely to further repression than provide any real support to vulnerable populations.
A Solution: Screens and Safeguards
Despite an extensive process for planning, monitoring, and evaluating projects, USAID has no systematic way of considering unanticipated or undesirable human rights-related side effects of its programming. Essentially, it sets goals and then establishes indicators for meeting them -- but it does not monitor for unintended consequences of its actions. That should be fixed: USAID should consistently screen potential projects to reduce the likelihood that they will contribute to political repression, discrimination, dispossession, or widespread arbitrary deprivations of economic and social rights.
The agency should also put procedures in place to help it understand the underlying risks of its projects. This would include taking into account reliable information on human rights conditions, such as State Department human rights reports and reporting by local and international human rights organizations. Should USAID find that a project might have negative human rights implications, the project should be modified or, if need be, abandoned. This will require its staff to be trained in rights-based approaches and analysis, not just technical fixes -- and to be rewarded for applying the training.
USAID already has safeguards in place. For example, all projects are supposed to account for their impacts on gender dynamics and women's empowerment. Under U.S. law, all projects must also consider environmental impacts and, if necessary, show that any negative impacts will be mitigated.
But that's where the safeguards end. A formerly mandatory policy requiring USAID to analyze a project's social impact during the planning phase was made optional and effectively discontinued in the early 2000s; it was dismissed as time-consuming and unwieldy, and nothing has replaced it. A position for an indigenous peoples' coordinator at USAID was also scrapped. Today, no specific mechanisms exist to prevent harm to indigenous people or forcible displacement of local groups in conjunction with economic, agricultural, mining, or infrastructure programs.
Experience shows that skimping on time and effort up front results in failed projects, political controversy, and a loss of trust from local communities and groups. Obama's renewed commitment to preventing and responding to atrocities -- and the steps toward reform at USAID -- are welcome moves. But to have a real impact, the Obama administration must reexamine deeply entrenched policies surrounding how the United States distributes foreign assistance. Congress could assist by changing funding patterns that encourage separate "silos," where agricultural or health specialists are on different budget cycles, rather than rights-integrated programming. It could also lengthen short funding cycles for USAID, which make due diligence and public participation more difficult.
USAID has taken the first steps toward implementing the president's initiative. But if it fails to go far enough -- if it continues to provide support to repressive regimes, ignores human rights issues in favor of other policy priorities, and fails to seriously incorporate human rights concerns in its work -- the administration's strong words about supporting rights and preventing atrocities will be just that: words. It's time for USAID to take bold steps, and make sure its aid programs are used to prevent atrocities, not to promote them.