Implementers, missions in the dark about Central America assistance cuts

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, sports the flag of Honduras. Photo by: REUTERS / Adrees Latif

WASHINGTON — Seven weeks after President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he would stop U.S. foreign assistance to the “Northern Triangle,” implementers remain largely in the dark about if and how their programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras may be impacted.

“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on … It was supposed to be two weeks, now it’s three weeks, now it’s June. These administrative reviews for Gaza, for Central America, have all had these indeterminate timelines that are really harmful to the U.S. ongoing efforts to stabilize situations,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

“The missions, the folks on the ground, they don’t have a clear understanding, any clearer understanding than you or I do.”

After Trump’s directive, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress last month that his department was conducting a review to develop a list of criteria that governments of the three countries have to meet in order for U.S. assistance to resume. The move impacts approximately $500 million total in fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2017 funds, which lawmakers have little way to claw back given language in those appropriations bills that give the administration discretion on spending.

CRS is one of few organizations that has programming in all three Northern Triangle countries. Kay Andrade, a technical adviser with CRS in El Salvador, said her country office has been given no details by U.S. government officials on how the organization may be impacted by the announced cuts.

“We still have not received any notifications or information concerning funding from USAID or USDOS for our programming in the region. We continue to implement the programs as planned, many of which address the root causes of migration,” Andrade said. “Funding for programming for medium- or longer-term projects have not been announced and that may have a greater impact in the coming months and years.”

At least one implementer has been forced to make personnel cuts over the uncertainty of FY18 and FY17 funds. DAI, another organization which has programs in all three countries, had to “make some hard choices” that resulted in laying off staff working on one program in Honduras, spokesperson Steven O’Connor confirmed.

“We’re making contingency plans … based on different scenarios arising, which is only just prudent given that the funding situation remains uncertain,” O’Connor said.

The spokesperson for one implementing partner who spoke to Devex on background said their organization is in “constant communication” with missions in-country in an attempt to keep programs moving forward.

Amid concern that the move is another way for a Trump administration skeptical of foreign assistance to restrict U.S. funding, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, and Ranking Member Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, introduced a bill last week that would obligate the administration to spend the money Congress appropriates for the Northern Triangle.

The 36-page bill mandates that “no less than” $490 million be made available for the three countries and explicitly states that funds in the bill cannot be “reprogrammed, transferred, or used for any purpose not specifically authorized.” A congressional aide speaking on background said the committee intends to mark up the bill soon.

This week, Senate Democrats reintroduced their own bill, the Central America Reform and Enforcement Act, which was also introduced last session.

Led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, the bill would condition assistance on efforts by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to “restore the rule of law; create a more secure environment for children and families; strengthen democratic public institutions and reduce corruption; and promote economic opportunities.” It would also expand refugee processing in the region, improve efficiency in the U.S. asylum system, and crack down on human and drug trafficking.

O’Keefe said reviewing the way U.S. money is spent can be positive, but that the Trump administration seems to believe that U.S. assistance is currently being given directly to the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“There’s a misunderstanding: Some seem to have the sense that it’s money going to corrupt governments. And so stuff’s getting glommed together that shouldn’t be. Having a review, again, is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s be intelligent about it. Let’s be targeted, focused, and specific,” O’Keefe said.

He stressed that U.S. assistance is given to “credible organizations” such as CRS that help people improve their livelihoods and leave gangs.

“We all have an interest in seeing those projects be implemented full speed ahead. Just throwing obstacles in front of them is not in anybody's interest — the people’s, the countries’, our country — it just doesn’t make any sense,” O’Keefe said.

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.