Donors Avoid Latin America in Giving Aid

When Hispanic groups across the country were asking for donations for victims of Hurricanes Wilma and Stan, they often promise contributors one thing: The governments of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador will not get their hands on the money.

Many Hispanics in the U.S. are afraid corrupt officials in Latin America will skim donations, and they hesitate to contribute, some volunteers say.

The two storms that slammed Central America brought into sharp focus a trend among U.S.-based development organizations and Hispanic community groups - when disaster strikes, many groups send money directly to community organizations in the affected countries.

"If we were to mention the Guatemalan consulate, our people wouldn't donate anything," said Marta Barrera, a Guatemalan immigrant who is both sending cash and leading collection efforts at St. Elizabeth Catholic parish in Oakland. Barrera's church is sending $5,000 directly to its private-sector counterparts in the Central American nation.

The approach gained popularity after Hurricane Mitch, the 1998 storm that killed at least 9,000 Central Americans and led to widespread allegations of government corruption and misuse of international aid.

During reconstruction in El Salvador, donors criticized the governing party for distributing clothes with party logos to victims. In Guatemala, developers hired by the government allegedly failed to do the work, leaving thousands homeless.

Officials in those countries have repeatedly denied allegations of corrupt handling of international aid.

Philanthropy experts say changing donation practices involving Latin America are part of a worldwide trend, as scandals like the U.N. oil-for-food debacle in Iraq and problems with food donations to Africa have made donors more skeptical of governments.

"We are in an era where individual giving is suspicious of government reliability in general," said Richard Marker, a philanthropy professor at New York University and a national philanthropy consultant. "Even in the States, if you were going to donate to Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, would you write a check to the government or a local organization in New Orleans?"

[Excerpted from an article by Peter Prengaman, The Associated Press]

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