October 30, 2015
Carlos Hernández, the president of the board of AJS in Honduras, was waiting. Along with him were 10 representatives of civil society groups from all of North, Central, and South America. They were the selected few of the 1,000 or so civil society representatives in attendance at the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama. Carlos was the only one from Honduras.
Soon enough, the door to the room opened. In walked U.S. President Barack Obama. Even for Carlos, who is used to meetings with high-level officials, this was a new experience. Obama and other staff from the U.S. State Department were there to listen to the insights from leaders of civil society who were on the front lines of fighting for justice, human rights, democracy, helping youth, and other issues. Accompanying Obama were the presidents of Costa Rica and Uruguay.
Each civil society representative was given a chance to share their perspective during the meeting. When Carlos’s turn came, the eyes of Obama and the rest of the table shifted to him. Carlos looked around and began to address those in the room.
Carlos expressed that there cannot be prosperity in countries like Honduras if there is corruption constantly choking progress. He explained how AJS has signed a ground-breaking anti-corruption agreement with the Honduran government and Transparency International. And he asked that as the U.S. considers providing more aid to Honduras and its neighbors, that it make sure to incorporate transparency and accountability measures into the aid.
After Carlos spoke, others continued sharing. Before long, the meeting was running over time — but it continued nonetheless.
When the meeting finally concluded, Obama took the time to shake each attendee’s hand. When he reached Carlos, Obama commended AJS for its efforts in the anti-corruption agreement and expressed appreciation for Carlos’s recommendation that there be proper indicators incorporated in increased U.S. aid to Honduras.
With that, Obama shook a few more hands and was off to meet with other presidents and leaders of the nations that make up the Americas.
The opportunity for Carlos to share with Obama about the agreement was very important, though AJS knew that the White House was already paying attention. In late January, Vice President Joe Biden wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he listed the agreement as a positive development for Honduras.
Beyond that, the agreement was mentioned in a March hearing of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. And The Economist mentioned it in a recent article about Central America.
And while influential people around the world are talking about the agreement, if you ask Carlos why he’s excited about it, he’ll mention that, in part, it’s because the agreement is not being imposed on Honduras by a foreign government or organization. Rather, the agreement came out of talks between the Honduran government and Honduran civil society.
Carlos said that the U.S. is largely interested in Honduras because of the 18,000 unaccompanied children who fled from Honduras to the U.S. last year, largely driven by the high level of violence in Honduras — levels that are exasperated by corruption.
“Scant or none” is what Transparency International used to describe the openness of Honduras’ budget in their 2010 Open Budget Index. According to their 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, Honduras ranks among the bottom third of the world’s most corrupt countries.
Carlos also sees the anti-corruption agreement as a way that AJS can be proactive in identifying areas that are vulnerable to corruption, particularly in the practices of contracting and hiring. As the government opens up its records to AJS, our investigators will be able to point to these areas and call on the government to fix them.
AJS has worked for years to uncover corruption — especially in the education and health sectors — and we’re continuing in that work and in other corruption investigations. For example, recently, AJS published a story (in Spanish) of how the head of a government agency helped hide $13.5 million in suspicious and mismanaged spending by a current vice-president during his time as mayor of the capital city.
This work has had a major impact in Honduras, but the anti-corruption agreement between AJS, Transparency International, and the Honduran government stands to have the greatest impact yet. It also stands to impact powerful people who benefit from corruption. Indeed, the fight for a more transparent, less corrupt Honduras is a daunting challenge — but it’s one that AJS staff are eager to accept.
Who would have known when AJS started with a few people in a garage in 1998 that we’d one day be meeting with the president of the U.S. and being a leading voice in the fight against corruption and violence? Upon coming back from the Summit of the Americas, Carlos remarked how AJS has also become a leader in discussions about security in the region through its work — work that requires AJS staff to labor alongside poor Honduran families in some of the most violent parts of the world, while at the same time sharing from our experience with the president of the United States.