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Should we trust governments with ‘big aid’?

Many in Guatemala live in poverty, but will EU aid help them?
Many in Guatemala live in poverty, but will EU aid help them?

The European Union looks set to provide Guatemala with an aid package of 186 million euro to tackle chronic hunger. But does ‘big aid’ work? asks Laurinda Luffman.

With nearly one in every two children under five malnourished in Guatemala, the country has the third-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. Part of the problem is that much of Guatemala’s farmland is devoted to export crops such as coffee, sugar cane, cotton and palm oil. With private landowners choosing to grow cash crops rather than food for the domestic market, the country has become increasingly reliant on imports of staples. Since global food prices have risen, this has meant that the poorest Guatemalan families spend 70% of their income on food.

For many years national politicians have been unable to effect the land/rural reforms necessary to increase domestic food production. Nevertheless, the current Guatemalan government has said battling malnutrition is a priority and introduced its ‘zero-hunger plan’. By 2016, this plan sets out to reduce chronic malnutrition in under-fives by 10%. The government aims to achieve this using projects such as school feeding programmes and the provision of food supplements to mothers and children. Breastfeeding will also be encouraged, since many women, particularly in indigenous communities, lack awareness of its importance for early nutrition.

Will the EU’s aid reach those most in need?

Since the Guatemalan government has made the ‘zero-hunger plan’ a centrepiece of its policies, the international community is being asked to help with financial backing, hence the EU’s proposed grant. But will such ‘big aid’ help those who need it most or provide solutions for the long term?

Last year, the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said that one third of development aid across the world does not reach its ‘final destination’ because of corruption. The scale of such misdirected aid, particularly in the weakest and most fragile countries, inevitably puts off some international donors from providing funds directly to governments. 

Instead, these donors prefer to give through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities, who funnel money directly to projects and people on the ground, a process known as ‘little aid’.

There are many NGOs and charities working with local people in Guatemala, often running programmes which support small farmers, women and indigenous populations. They also work with civil society organisations that lobby the government over rural development issues and land rights. NGOs and charities active in the country believe that ultimately, no long-term solutions to Guatemala’s problems will be found until there is more investment in and support for domestic food production and small farmers.

Small boy in Guatemala

A matter of scale?

However, with malnutrition so widespread among the population, the scale of the problem is huge. A food emergency in 2009 left 2.5 million Guatemalans in need of assistance and currently around 800,000 people are estimated to be suffering from acute malnutrition. 

Some aid experts believe that this situation needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency and only the Guatemalan government has the necessary weight and reach to bring about speedy change. Regardless of political inaction over land and rural development reforms, there are immediate measures which can be taken to improve nutrition, many of which form part of the government’s ‘zero-hunger plan’.

The argument also goes that if officials are given money to administer for themselves, they feel ‘ownership’ over development and pressure to show that the desired results can be achieved. Speaking to the Guardian about how the EU aid could significantly improve nutrition in Guatemala, one spokesperson commented, “the government wants to look good”.

The EU therefore looks set to approve the EUR 186 million aid package, particularly since the Guatemalan government has created a separate nutrition budget to show its spending is accountable. Life is likely to remain hard for many Guatemalans, but if families can at least rely on receiving extra health and nutrition support, as well as on the fact that their children will be fed at school, then the EU’s faith in its money being spent effectively will not be misplaced.

Find out more about SOS Children's work in Guatemala...