Yesterday’s GAO report gives good marks to the financial and program management practices of the Cuba democracy programs run by USAID and the State Department.
Of course, that’s not the same as saying the money is well spent. GAO’s antiseptic, management consultant’s-eye view of the programs is thorough, but it doesn’t go to the foreign policy aspects of a program that is central to U.S. policy toward Cuba. Nor did GAO benefit from access to Cuba to see recipients and how U.S. funds are used.
So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.
Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.
Those operations were not typical, of course. But in an environment where those who operate the program have no direct access to Cuba, effectiveness may be impossible to measure. There’s a second version of the report that is classified.
At any rate, a few things stand out.
On the lack of access to Cuba, GAO almost seems surprised that the Cuban government would give USAID the cold shoulder:
“USAID does not work cooperatively or collaboratively with Cuban government agencies, as it does in most other countries receiving U.S. democracy assistance. USAID does not have staff in Cuba, and State does not have staff dedicated to the Cuba democracy program in Havana. USAID and State program staff have been unable to obtain visas to visit Cuba over the past decade, which poses challenges for program implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.”
The report uses the term “partners” instead of “grantees.” Here it notes a shift away from grants to promote Cuba activities in third countries:
“Several partners we reviewed received funding to support international solidarity activities, although agency and partner officials indicated that the program recently has reduced its focus on off-island activities to foster support for democracy in Cuba.”
Such third-country activities were rarely if ever identified as USAID projects, making it hard to tell if they were spontaneous, or induced by U.S. funds, or a combination of the two.
Aid to families of political prisoners is down:
“In recent years, USAID and State had few awards or contracts focused solely on such humanitarian assistance as assistance for political prisoners and their families, according to agency officials. USINT [U.S. Interests Section] officials noted that humanitarian assistance has declined along with a decrease in the number of political prisoners in Cuba. Officials added that USINT itself no longer provides any humanitarian assistance on the island.”
And apparently there is less focus on dissidents:
“To broaden reach and impact, Cuba democracy assistance efforts have expanded beyond a focus on traditional activists to include groups such as poor and rural communities, religious organizations, small businesses, and information technology enthusiasts. Typical program beneficiaries also include Cuban community leaders, independent journalists, independent bloggers, women, and youths.”
If you have tried to figure out how money in this program is spent, you have seen lists of grantees, and that’s where the visibility ends. They hire subgrantees, which are not disclosed, and which carry out a lot of the program’s operations. They are called “subpartners” here:
“Many partners, and worldwide or regional organizations in particular, use subpartners to help carry out their Cuba democracy assistance work. We reviewed 29 recent awards and contracts to determine the extent to which partners use subpartners to implement program activities.21 We found that partners used subpartners under 21 of the 29 awards and contracts, obligating about 40 percent of the funding under these awards and contracts to subpartners. On average, partners that used subpartners under an award or contract had 12 subpartners.”
And the subgrantees are managed by the grantees, with “no direct relationships” with the U.S. government:
“USAID and State have no direct relationships with their partners’ subpartners. Partners are responsible for all oversight of their subpartners and for reporting to the agencies any updates and problems related to the subpartners’ work, such as through any quarterly reports and site visits. However, the agencies are generally required to approve any partner requests to award funding to subpartners.”