The United States is involved many international development efforts, and Tucson has direct ties to one of them.
Tucson native Mark Lopes is the deputy assistant administrator for the Latin American and Caribbean bureau of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.
After attending Tucson High School, he decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“Both my parents were in the Peace Corps, and I think that planted a seed of interest in Latin America and in things international," Lopes said. He did his work in the South American country of Paraguay.
Now, as an appointee in the Obama administration, Lopes oversees international development in Latin America and the Caribbean. That includes work in those countries and lobbying Congress to explain the agency's programs.
President Obama decided to make development one of the key points of the national security strategy, which also includes defense and diplomacy, Lopes said. The agency’s goal is to encourage economic development in other countries, so that the U.S. can do business with those places.
"It’s really an important aspect of how we engage around the world, it’s not about sending our military in, working on a diplomatic accord, but working at grass roots level to build up the institutions of whether it’s health, science and technology…to make sure the systems are in place so that those places can be markets for U.S. exports," he said.
One way USAID tries to foster development is by combating violence. For USAID, that has meant a shift in approach to criminal organizations and gangs in central and Latin America, Lopes said.
“Previously there was a strong emphasis on what they call mano dura. It’s really just an enforcement aspect to working on the problem, and arresting our way towards a solution," he said.
"We found, not surprisingly, that that didn’t work as well as we’d liked, and we’ve really focused on helping countries build up their institutions of justice build up opportunities for young people so that they don’t have to enter into a gang.”
That gang prevention and reduction work hasn’t just helped international development efforts.
The city of Los Angeles, also known for struggling with gangs, is working with Agency for International Development to share solutions and learn new strategies, he said.
“We’ve been able to set up a memorandum of understanding, a connection essentially, between USAID’s work in central America and the city of Los Angeles to make sure that things that we’ve learned over last 20 or 30 years we’re able to share with our colleagues in central America and vice versa," he said.
The theory is eliminating violence from gangs or other organized crime improves, economic development opportunities. In El Salvador, Lopes said, USAID has worked on programs to add lighting near community centers and bus routes, and develop job training and activities for teens to keep them out of gangs.
"In the communities where we’ve worked, violence has dropped in double-digit percentages from one year to the next...as we’ve worked with mayors to plan," Lopes said.
He described those efforts as "simple things" which make a difference in the communities where they are employed.
But outside of those communities, Lopes said one of his challenges is explaining the impact of the federally-funded programs to people who can’t see the results. The agency has a budget of nearly $52 billion, which is less than one percent of the federal budget.
Foreign aid is not foreign to the Tucsonan who joins the Peace Corps, he said, or the Tucson family that sends money to relatives who can't make ends meet in another country, "or to the church group that made a trip to Honduras a few summers ago."
It's not just people who visit or have relatives in the countries in which USAID works, though. Its goals of international development open economic opportunity for Americans and home-grown businesses, Lopes said.
"We work to make sure that there’s an impact to these programs, that we’re tracking every dollar we spend, that we can see dividends beyond the cost back to the American people, back to the American economy, whether it’s opening trade routes for the U.S. new markets or products for the U.S. that we can export, whether it’s making sure a new trade agreement with Colombia or Panama and previously Peru, that all of the labor and trade aspects of those agreements are carried out," he said.