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Aid restrictions sideline Puerto Rican civil society

Aid restrictions sideline Puerto Rican civil society
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A warehouse full of unused disaster aid from Hurricane Maria is just the latest event in Puerto Rico to cast a spotlight on the ongoing issues of disaster recovery. The warehouse was discovered this past weekend by a private citizen, highlighting the important role everyday Puerto Ricans continue to play in responding to the disasters that continued to impact the island.

Once again, Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets. We join with the people of Puerto Rico in their indignation and outcry for better governance. 

This latest scandal comes as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from three devastating earthquakes and hundreds of continued tremors in the southwest of the island, even as it is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

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Last week, the Trump administration added insult to injury by imposing unprecedented conditions on the distribution of long-withheld recovery funds appropriated by Congress more than two years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

These conditions make it even more difficult and unlikely that the most vulnerable and poor will ever be able to rebuild their homes and communities from the lingering damage. Never has an American jurisdiction been so restricted by the federal government in the use of disaster aid funds. 

The new restrictions include giving the power to oversee recovery funds to a Fiscal Monitor and the Fiscal Oversight Management Board (FOMB), a body created by the federal government to manage Puerto Rico’s public debt and with no knowledge in disaster recovery.

Among other steep conditions for the use of recovery dollars, the latest federal Notice also mandates the creation of a whole system of property registry, disregarding the existence of local property law in Puerto Rico.  

In light of the warehouse scandal, public officials, including Housing Secretary Ben Carson, are once again arguing that withholding and restricting aid to Puerto Rico is the correct way to avoid the misuse of federal dollars.

Policymakers must realize that withholding aid or imposing further centralization and restrictions is not the answer. Instead, working to empower local civil society should be the priority. 

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In our experience responding to disasters around the world, Oxfam has seen how overly controlled aid by Washington — including the kind seen in Puerto Rico — does not prevent corruption and leads to ineffective and poorly prioritized spending.

As an evidence-based organization, our experience makes us firmly believe that effective and equitable planning, execution, and oversight is only possible when affected communities are fully engaged. Local people must be empowered and included in the recovery and rebuilding of their communities. 

There is nothing more powerful or effective to combat corruption and ensure that federal dollars meet peoples’ needs than to give voice to community leaders.

While the federal government drags its feet in expediting much-needed aid to the island, Puerto Rican civil society continues to step up to the challenge of supporting earthquake survivors and uncovering irregularities and ineptitude of their local government.

Despite the lack of access to recovery funds, leaders and local non-profit organizations have repeatedly demonstrated their effective work after the hurricanes, as they have been the main source of recovery for low-income communities in the islands. They are by far the most effective and reliable voices pressing for good governance, accountability, and transparency. Yet, instead of recognizing them, the federal government has sidelined them in the recovery process.

We stand with civil society in Puerto Rico overwhelmingly rejecting the idea of greater centralization and the continued disconnect from those who matter most: the people of Puerto Rico.

Oxfam has worked with civil society organizations in Puerto Rico in support of federal legislation to authorize the creation of a Civil Society Task Force as an alternative for the coordination of recovery funds. We urge Congress to introduce and pass legislation that will move this proposal forward.

The federal government is clamoring for good governance and accountability — and so are the people in Puerto Rico. This moment is an essential opportunity for the federal government to demonstrate that they are listening to the Puerto Rican civil society.

It is time for policymakers to put them in the driver’s seat, fully engaged and empowered, to ensure the federal recovery dollars go to those who need it most. Let’s empower — not sideline — Puerto Ricans in the recovery and rebuilding of their island.

Adi Martínez-Roman is Oxfam America’s senior policy analyst for Puerto Rico.