US Congress voices concerns over Central American aid plan

The dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Will the U.S. Congress approve the proposed $1 billion aid plan to Central America? Photo by: Evan Parker / CC BY-NC

U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about the Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion aid plan to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador at a hearing Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Administration officials hope Congress will approve the proposal — which marked the largest aid request in the 2016 presidential budget and is meant to address the root causes of the recent unaccompanied minor migration crisis — but they are still trying to convince skeptics the plan can work.

The main points of contention are whether the leaders of the three countries have demonstrated enough commitment to curb corruption and address unemployment; whether the plan hits the right balance of addressing security, prosperity and governance; and whether it sufficiently addresses concerns raised about past development programs for the region.

“I'm looking for signs that these countries are committed to doing what they need to do to stop the flow of people coming over,” Albio Sires, Democratic representative from New Jersey, said in a House subcommittee hearing. “Somebody has got to make a real commitment, and I want to see transparency.”

Since 1971 when the infamous war on drugs was announced, the U.S. has spent about $2 trillion, Ted Yoho, Republican representative from Florida, pointed out at the hearing, and hardliners say they “want results.”

“What else do we need to do to get the message across that we’re not playing?” Yoho said.

Slightly more than one-third of the proposed budget would be allocated toward education and vocational training, effective tax collection and building transparent judicial systems. Twenty-five percent would go toward “security” — community-based violence prevention plans. And about one-third would aim to improve transparency and fight corruption.

Recent U.S. funding to the region has focused heavily on security issues, but the goal now is to ramp up governance and prosperity programs to reach the most economically marginalized and violence-prone communities, Scott Hamilton, Central America director at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told Devex on the sidelines of the hearing.

“But some need more convincing of that position,” Hamilton added.

The administration needs to show why it is worth investing in the plan now to achieve sustainable change, he said. What’s at stake is a continued migration “crisis” — 6 million young people are predicted to enter the workforce in the next 10 years, and without job opportunities in their home countries, they are more likely to migrate to the U.S.

“If the U.S. does not invest now, future costs will be far higher, and permanent,” Hamilton said.

And conditions now are more optimal than in the past, the official said. The migration of women and children was a “wake-up call” that sent a “chilling statement fundamentally different than men migrating for work.”

The three countries have also brought in independent auditors to monitor corruption: Transparency International and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, the Millenium Challenge Corp. in El Salvador, and the recently renewed U.N. International Commission Against Impunity that investigates and prosecutes criminals in Guatemala. And, the U.S. is “better organized after learning what works and doesn’t from interventions in Colombia and Mexico,” the officials said.

Regional organizations have reacted positively to the plan, and nongovernmental organizations are already offering their services, but, Hamilton pointed out, “without the vote from Congress, we can’t discuss resources.”

China’s increasing presence as a donor to Central American states has added some urgency to questions about the U.S. government’s role in the region.

“China is scaring a lot of people in this country with the influence they have in these countries, and we need to refocus on the Western hemisphere,” Sires argued.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is already staffing up its regional missions, said Paloma Adams-Allen, deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Latin America and Caribbean Bureau, and the agency would expand existing partnerships and programs to implement the plan if Congress funds it.

The vote is expected to take place this summer.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.