Spanish Aid and the rise of Latin America

24 Février 2014

Following our cycle of diplomatic conferences, we met with Rafael Soriano, the Deputy Head of Mission of the Spanish Embassy in Ireland. Between aid, trade and diplomacy, flashback on a diplomatic experience at the head of the Spanish aid agency in Latin America.

Rafael Soriano | Credits : Maxence Salendre/ Le Journal International
Rafael Soriano | Credits : Maxence Salendre/ Le Journal International
Mr Soriano is no longer a junior diplomat. After joining the Spanish Foreign Affairs Department, he was sent to Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain and Latin America where he headed the department of cooperation with South America before coming to Ireland.

Mr Soriano is no longer a junior diplomat but he retains this passion which led him to join the Spanish Aid Agency with the idea that aid and development were the keys to turn this world into a better place. Between the set-up of the Aid Agency, the Millenium Development Goals and Triangular Cooperation, zoom on the state of aid in Latin America.

Le Journal International: Thank you Mr Soriano for answering our questions. As a Spanish diplomat, was your position as head of the department of cooperation with South America of particular importance?

Rafael Soriano: As diplomats we are often facing the dilemma between being a generalist and a specialist. It’s a normal confrontation to have. We are trained as generalists. Given the complexity of today’s international relations, we have to be generalists in order to be able to grasp the whole process of international aid to a given region of the world. However, in my case 20 years have almost passed since I joined the Spanish diplomatic service and I obtained a certain degree of specialisation working with Latin America for the Spanish Aid Agency.

Latin America is obviously a key region for Spain. There are many traditional elements to explain this peculiarity. Historically we have five hundred years of common history. You cannot study the history of both Spain and Latin America separately otherwise you could not understand it.

Culturally and linguistically, Spanish ties us together. The existence of a community of 500 million Spanish speakers is also an important element that needs to be emphasised.

JI: Any particular economic or political elements of prime importance?

In terms of immigration, you may not know that over 750,000 Latin Americans left their countries looking for better opportunities in Spain over the last 20 years. It is however important to bear in mind that these flows go both ways.

Sometimes the wind goes our way but in times of economic crisis, a lot of young people in my country go to Latin America to find the opportunities they currently cannot find in Spain.

Politically, economically and socially, if the two sides of the Atlantic are so close, it makes no mystery that it is also an essential link for the Spanish ministry for foreign affairs.

Any foreign policy is a combination of values and interests and this is why Latin America will remain an important area of exchange for us.

JI : 20 years ago, weren’t aid and cooperation whole new processes for Spain though?

I personally always thought that aid was the best way for me to see an outcome to my actions, the right approach to see concrete results. When I joined the aid coordination department 20 years ago, the agency was brand new (it was set up in 1989, Ed). We were in a progress of learning from other experiences, other donors, from our environment (EU) an also from other multilateral donors.

Spain may still be a young donor but we have a long tradition of exchange.

Precisely two months after I joined the department, Spain started cooperating with the DAC [Development Assistance Committee, a forum composed of selected OECD members which discuss the way to distribute aid, Ed]. It was and remains the most important institution on how to conduct and proceed with an effective aid programme. It was the sign that the Spanish Aid Agency was maturing.

JI : maturing to become a key for Latin America’s success?

when I came back to Spain after my European and north African positions, the country was living “La Vida Loca”. Our economy was booming and our companies were expanding everywhere, especially in Latin America. Our 2003/2004 aid programme primarily aimed at increasing the amount of aid given to Latin America but also at improving the way aid was given.

Remember I said foreign affairs are a cocktail between values and personal interest: we had interests for those ties I mentioned but we also had values – we wanted to strengthen the democratic process, help the people to meet their social needs.

One very important element at this time was to align the Spanish development aid policy within the International agenda. This was achieved through the Millennium Development Goals. We thought with the support of other EU countries we could make a difference.

The first thing to do was to make it clear that the overall objective was to fight against poverty. It did not mean collaboration within departments could not happen but we had to keep in mind this idea of fighting against poverty.

When we joined the EU in 1986 in Portugal we managed to change the view of the European Union of this region of the world. We developed a master plan which consisted in separating priorities within the area. Latin America, with the exception of a few countries like Bolivia or Haiti, is often forgotten on the international agenda. Most of Latin American countries are middle-income countries. Aid agencies usually look at macro-indicators and they did not see the disparities that could exist within the Latin American population itself. Improving slowly and inscribing our action within the action of the International Agenda was therefore a key element of our success.

JI : You mentioned Spain wanted to improve the way aid was given?

RS :
This is correct. One of the Millennium Development Goal aims at eradicating illiteracy. Looking at the statistics for Latin America, 95% of the children were enrolled in a school. You would therefore think that there is no need to work on education there. But we argued that this approach was too broad. When you examine the quality of education, you will realise a lot of girls are dropping out. The quality of the material used was also so low that it endangered the future of education in these countries.

We managed to raise the importance of education on the international stage; we defined priority countries and introduced a regional approach. It means we worked together, in coordination with Latin American countries. I personally worked with Indian communities and with the Mercosur.

JI : how did you include Latin American countries and populations in such programmes?

RS :
Our objectives were threefold. We wanted to help these countries to meet their social needs (education, water sanitation etc.) but also help them build their institutional capacities (create sound public structures, strengthen the rule of law, reform the administration, the judicial and taxation system) and develop economically.

This approach was ground-breaking at the time. We also developed horizontal programmes and tried to convince our partners that they would be stronger once united.

JI : what about Indigenous populations? Were they also included in these discussions?

RS :
During my time in the Agency I was working of a horizontal programme which was called the Indigenous Peoples’ Programmes (it was a world programme, not specific only to Latin America). It was very important to develop a specific strategy to deal with indigenous peoples. I speak about them in plural because if you speak only about the individuals, you do not recognize the existence of collective rights and we wanted to recognize those collective rights.

At the time, there was an interesting confrontation in the academic world and aid agencies on whether indigenous peoples had collective rights. In Spain we thought they did and that their recognition was essential. We recognise the link between identity and development and we deem primordial that Indigenous populations can exercise control over their ways of living and can participate in all the decisions that concern them. This was a challenging task for me as I wasn’t thinking of Indigenous peoples as a community at first. But I was wrong. Concepts like sustainable development are mostly defined by Indigenous peoples so it is essential to let them speak and to help us improve this world.

We therefore developed strategies to empower them, launch intercultural and bilingual education, health etc. However, working with them changed my perspectives. We westerners have a perception of progress that Indigenous peoples do not share. Our idea of progress is that progress always goes as a straight line. We wanted to do the same thing – we wanted to help them, to make them feel integrated, to help them produce more and become richer. I was replied one day “our understanding of life is that of a circle – we want to live like our ancestors did”. When Evo Morales declared he didn’t want to live better but that he wanted to live well, that was an interesting but really challenging perspective.

JI: Looking at the success of Latin America today, is there still a need for aid and development in the region?

We think so. There is still a large amount of people on the threshold of poverty. We need to address the inequalities in this process. Aid policy is the only policy that is measured in the cancellation of this line of work. However, our relationship has to evolve from donor-recipient to partners.

I think we must recognize how important aid is for Latin America. The political situation has changed a lot there and even more in Spain, and we are in the middle of a difficult situation. But although we have had to reduce aid for Latin America (downsized from 0.5% to 0.22% of the development aid budget), cancelling this aid was never an option. We have more heavily prioritized some sectors and countries and work more with the more developed countries in the region to encourage reinforcing administrations, transfer of technology, foreign trade. We also help them develop their own cooperation mechanisms. For example, we work with Mexico on aid for Guatemala, in what we call triangular cooperation.

JI : Talking about cooperation, has Spain solved the issue it has had with Argentina regarding the gas company Repsol ?

 How difficult our relationship with Argentina can it shows what an important and tight partner it is. Argentina is a very important country for Spain. Almost 500,000 Argentinians hold a Spanish passport, we are culturally very close and many Spanish companies are based in Argentina. Problems rising are normal and it is the job of a diplomat to solve them. Like a doctor would heal you, a diplomat works to improve a relationship between two countries. The Repsol issue was a serious one but we reached an agreement, and we look forward to work again with Argentina as tightly as we did before.

JI : What future has development aid in general? Will aid be bilateral of multilateral?

RS :
One shouldn’t be excluded in order to favour another. Spain provides a lot of bilateral aid (country to country, Ed) and little multilateral aid (aid transiting through an international organisation, Ed). This has changed since 2005. We have acknowledged the importance of collaborating and integrating our cooperation strategy to the international development strategy. The most important thing now is not to choose one strategy or another but to maintain development aid. Most countries have had to downsize their aid, and it is a values compromise to keep helping these countries and improve the quality of international aid in an international trade environment such as the one we are in.


Maxence Salendre
Amoureux des langues et cultures étrangères, je conjugue mes rêves en anglais, sur l’île... En savoir plus sur cet auteur