Recent reports of Sen. Jesse Helms’ (R-NC) block of funds for family planning programs carried out by voodoo “priests” in Haiti demonstrate the sharp agenda differences between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which approves the agency’s funding.
As Helms Foreign Aid assistant Garret Grigsby noted, Haiti’s voodoo family planning program shows the rift between the Clinton Administration and Committee members on the definition of “values.” “[Senator Helms] had to write a letter to force USAID to stop funding for population control through voodoo ceremonies in Haiti,” Grigsby said.
The letter, written on 8 February 1999 by Sen. Helms to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, continued an interchange that began on 3 February, when USAID approached the Foreign Relations Committee with a request to renew funds for the controversial population control program in Haiti. Referring to a posting on the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) web site called “Working with Voodoo in Haiti,” the Foreign Relations Committee questioned whether USAID was providing “any assistance to any group… which… undertook ‘a campaign’ to reach voodoo followers with sexual and reproductive health information’ by performing short song-prayers about STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and the benefits of family planning during voodoo ceremonies.”1 According to the IPPF announcement, “The [Haitian] FPA (Family Planning Association) gained the support of Voodoo priests who in turn supported the use of condoms and other methods of Family planning.”2
USAID confirmed that “many [USAID] partner and implementing organizations use this important social network [voodoo ceremonies] as the medium for disseminating health sector messages and information.” USAID also confirmed in its response to Helms that “USAID/Haiti is providing $295,000 over the April-March I=1999 funding cycle to the local International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) affiliate, PROFAMIL.”
This confirmation prompted an 8 February objection from Helms to Albright. In that letter, Helms describes USAID programs as “wrongheadcd” and ‘“wasteful,” and the Haitian program as nothing less than “witchcraft.” “If there were prizes given for the ‘most outrageous foreign aid programs,”’ runs the letter, “this would be in line for first place …. Understandably, some [funds for] programs are being delayed until the review is complete.”
In its conclusion, the review moved that the Committee would only approve Funds that were in no way “obligated to any affiliate of [IPPF] in Haiti including PROFAMIL” or “provided directly or indirectly to any group whose programs include producing material intended to be used in voodoo ceremony.”
USAID “accepted” these conditions, Senate staff confirmed, but not without making the statement that USAID “partnership with [IPPF] around the globe has been beneficial to our family planning goals.”3
The “voodoo family planning” incident is not the only reflection of a deepening rift of values between USAID and the elected representatives of the U.S. Grigsby pointed to another ease, in which an initial USAID program proposal declined to provide assistance to orphans in Nairobi, Kenya, who were infected with the AIDS virus. “USAID argued that these orphans are not ‘sustainable’ because they’ll soon die,” said Grigsby. Helms was forced to fire oft another letter to USAID, pressing for funds for these orphans. Without that letter, Grigsby noted, $250,000 would not have gone to those “unsustainable” orphans.
1 Senator Jesse Helms, Letter to Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State, 8 February 1999. (This letter cites the ‘question-and-answer exchange’ between USAID and the Foreign Relations Committee.
2 International Planned Parenthood Federation, “Annual Report 1996”, found at http://carryon.oneworld.org/ippf/annreport_96.html.
3 Jill Buckley, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs, USAID, Letter to Senator Jesse Helms, 25 February 1999.