'Play the long game:' US must continue aid in Central America, analysts say

People paint a mural at a school in El Salvador. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — In 2014, the unaccompanied minor crisis overwhelmed the southern United States border, prompting a government response to discourage people from the violent and economically underdeveloped “Northern Triangle” from crossing unauthorized into the U.S.

Then-President Barack Obama tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, with leading the international response to the crisis. Biden engaged directly that summer with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to craft a plan to reduce migration.

While the U.S. had been providing aid to Central America for decades, the new program, dubbed the Alliance for Prosperity, or A4P, was designed in conjunction with the Inter-American Development Bank and was aimed at giving Northern Triangle governments a stake in its success by requiring their own monetary contributions aimed at four main areas: Strengthening state institutions, increasing citizen security, investing in human capital, and energizing the private sector.

From 2016 to 2017, Northern Triangle governments committed $5.4 billion of their own money toward the program, according to the State Department.

Modeled after the success of Plan Colombia — which Biden played a role in crafting when he was a senator — the idea was that U.S. funds coupled with contributions from Northern Triangle countries themselves could uniquely tackle the problems keeping the countries from stabilizing and gaining wealth. Biden’s personal involvement and diplomacy with the Central American leaders was aimed at getting them invested and holding them accountable for the project’s outcomes. He met with the leaders in person three times during his last year in office.

While there are fewer Central Americans attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border today than there were in 2014, President Donald Trump has threatened to slash U.S. aid to the region if the unauthorized migration does not stop. His budgets have included cuts to U.S. aid in the region, but bipartisan support in Congress for the programming has largely protected the funding.

Vice President Mike Pence traveled late last month to the region, where he met jointly with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. He also delivered a message to anyone thinking of migrating to the U.S.: "If you can’t come legally, don’t come at all."

Trump's Central America threat backs USAID chief into a corner

Last month, USAID Administrator Mark Green faced questions from Congress about President Donald Trump's latest threat to cut U.S. foreign assistance funding.

Marcela Escobari, who served as assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean in the last year of the Obama administration, said if the new administration slashes the budgets it could jeopardize any progress U.S. investments have already made.

“You have to play the long game. It’s fine to add money, but when the commitment is volatile and your funding goes up and down constantly, you can end up creating more harm than good.” Escobari said.

She added, however, that so far, the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be dedicating the same human resources to the issue as the previous administration.

“I think they’re still figuring out the leadership. When you have the vice president personally committed to seeing this through, it creates a heightened level of prioritization,” Escobari said. “I think they are trying to maintain it [the A4P], but there is a different tone in the relationship.”

The Obama administration was not the first to recognize the role direct U.S. engagement in addressing challenges in the Northern Triangle could play in reducing migration and protecting U.S. national security. In selling the Central American Free Trade Agreement, President George W. Bush argued that the deal was a central piece of immigration policy because it would allow people to have better lives at home and reduce economic migration. Central American governments also supported the deal in hopes it would help attract foreign direct investment.

Direct and targeted engagement from the U.S. can also be a powerful tool in lobbying policymakers and elites, some of whom have benefited from widespread corruption and lack of accountability and are resistant to putting their country on a more stable path.

“In some cases these are problems that have to do with entrenched elites that don’t want to adopt certain changes,” said Manuel Orozco, the director of migration, remittances, and development at the Inter-American Dialogue. “This is where the U.S. role can help and shape the debate and discuss alternatives.”

“This is not an issue of money. It’s a much more complex problem,” he said.

Money can’t solve everything

The U.S. spent $465 million in fiscal year 2017 on foreign assistance to the countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, according to ForeignAssistance.gov. According to USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer, examples of USAID programming in Central America include $2.3 million for a United Nations Development Programme project to strengthen local government functions such as budgeting and revenue collection in Honduras; $7 million for a project with Mercy Corps in Guatemala to institutionalize violence prevention programs; $4.7 million for an RTI project in El Salvador to improve higher education; and $1 million for an Inter-American Dialogue project in Guatemala to help company and industry groups enhance business competitiveness.

“It is not just money that has made us effective in the region — there is a lot of hard-earned experience, trial and error, and institution building that is slowly reaping results. The worst thing that could happen now is to go back to zero.”

— Marcela Escobari, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

Analysts emphasize that while cutting off U.S. aid funds would be counterproductive to the Trump government’s crackdown on unauthorized migration, problems found in the region — violence, food insecurity, lack of economic opportunity, endemic corruption, weak institutions — cannot solely be solved by aid dollars.

“The United States can help these countries in many ways, if they decide to do that,” said Orozco. “Aside from political issues and priorities, the reality is that the U.S. government can play a fundamental role by informing the decisions of policymakers in Central America as to what priorities should be taken into account.”

While money itself is not the silver bullet to solving the Northern Triangle’s challenges, implementers and policymakers are eager to know if the funds already spent on A4P programs are having the intended effects of improving people’s lives at home and reducing the need to migrate. But just three years into the program, it is too soon to evaluate the impact many of them have had, said Sarah Bermeo, a Duke University associate professor who studies development.

“What does success look like when you’re in a situation like this? Success might be just keeping it from getting worse before you can make it better. What are right benchmarks and milestones? I don’t think that we have a good measure of that. And that’s not a criticism, I think it’s just a reality,” Bermeo said.

“When you look at it in terms of success, it’s hard to know how to measure success in the Northern Triangle countries because would things have been even worse if we hadn’t done anything? We don’t know what the counterfactual is.”

Escobari said that violence in the Northern Triangle has been a sustained shock on the countries’ societies, swelling the number of people migrating beyond those who meet the typical profile of a migrant: Young people, and those looking for economic opportunity.

Many of those fleeing cite violence and personal safety as reasons for leaving their homes. The continued violence also plays a role in limiting the impact of aid programs that aren’t even directly related to gangs or crime because of the way it has taken over so much of society, Bermeo said.  

“It really does seem that the violence has become endemic in the three Northern Triangle countries and [is] preventing them from benefiting from programs that otherwise might actually be good and pro-development programs,” Bermeo explained. “The evidence on the ground would suggest that they’re not making progress, at least [not] as quickly as the governments there or the United States government would like. And I don’t think there’s an easy solution to that.”

There aren’t yet comprehensive figures on USAID programs’ efficacy. But Escobari said that despite these challenges, she has seen their impact on the ground.

“We have been in Central America for a long time. Along with the increase in funding [with the A4P], we were able in the last administration to really ramp up capability. It is not just money that has made us effective in the region — there is a lot of hard-earned experience, trial and error, and institution building that is slowly reaping results. The worst thing that could happen now is to go back to zero.”

Improvements to the A4P

Orozco said that one thing that could be done to increase the chances of success for the A4P is to tie some of the programs to migration and formalize funds that flow from remittances and diaspora tourism.

“I’m not confident that the Alliance for Prosperity will arrive at the promises that it made because the process is incomplete,” Orozco said, noting that with the massive numbers of people migrating, development programs being implemented must recognize the hole this leaves behind in communities and the local economy.

He argues that there need to be targeted efforts to link those who are receiving remittances from friends and relatives who have migrated to the formal economy, promoting financial inclusion, and discouraging people from storing their cash in their own homes. Orozco advocates for financial education for remittance recipients, access to credit for microenterprises, and more efforts to include the diaspora in improving the financial status of those they left behind.

Bermeo said that U.S. development programs must learn to adapt as they are being implemented if failure or success becomes apparent, and that implementers must be committed yet patient.

“To expect the countries or the U.S. government assisting the countries to get it right on the first try might be setting [the] bar too high. You’re dealing with a situation that is so complex and it has so many different facets that need to be addressed almost simultaneously,” Bermeo said.

“But clearly before economic development can really take off and provide opportunities to people in the countries, the violence has to be under control.”

You have 2 free articles left
Log in or sign-up to unlock all of the free news on Devex.

About the author

  • Img 0739

    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.