WASHINGTON — If presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election in November, he will be met with a Northern Triangle in crisis — and it will not be the first time the former vice president has considered how to approach challenges in the region.
In 2014, record numbers of unaccompanied children were arriving on the southern U.S. border, fleeing violent and economically depressed countries in the Northern Triangle.
As U.S. immigration services became overwhelmed, then-President Barack Obama named Biden as White House point person for the crisis. Biden, a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was tasked with working with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to improve economic development and reduce violence and corruption.
The program that was developed, dubbed the Alliance for Prosperity, pledged $750 million in U.S. funding while requiring each regional country to commit its own domestic resources. The goal was to allow citizens of the Northern Triangle to lead successful lives in their own communities, reducing the need to migrate.
That approach was abruptly halted by President Donald Trump, who insisted the only way to stop refugees and migrants from traveling north was to build a border wall. He repeatedly threatened the three countries for not stopping their citizens from leaving, and last year cut off foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle until migration numbers decreased. The administration got each Northern Triangle country to sign a “migration cooperation” agreement, which restricted access to the U.S. asylum system and instead required refugees to ask for protections in the region.
Hours after U.S. lawmakers questioned Trump administration migration deals with Guatemala and El Salvador in a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill, the U.S. signed a third such agreement with Honduras at UNGA in New York.
Now, if Biden becomes president, he will again have to contend with how to reduce migration from the Northern Triangle. The number of people traveling north spiked during the Trump administration, and while it has slowed during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure is expected to increase again as COVID-19 decimates regional economies.
According to his campaign website, Biden would “renew a robust commitment to U.S. leadership in the region,” developing a four-year, $4 billion regional strategy to address migration drivers in Central America. This plan would include mobilizing private investment, addressing corruption, prioritizing poverty reduction and economic development, and improving security and the rule of law. It also requires regional countries to take responsibility for addressing those conditions.
The power of personality
The original Alliance for Prosperity used three indicators to determine where to focus efforts in each country. Poverty, violence, and migration were mapped on a community level, and areas with the highest measurement of all three were prioritized.
Biden met multiple times with the presidents of the three countries, traveling to Central America, chairing meetings, and using personal diplomacy to lobby for an agreement that included pledges to reduce the corruption that has long been endemic in the region.
The vice president’s personal engagement was key to getting El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to agree to serious reforms, as well as to significant financial contributions of their own, according to Mark Feierstein, who served during the Obama administration as assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“He felt very strongly that the only way we’re going to solve the migration problem is getting at the root causes of it and backed this large package. And the reason that we got as much money as we did is because of him,” said Feierstein, who also served as senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council. “He has [an] ability to connect with foreign leaders in a way that I’ve seen no one else do.”
Biden understood the domestic constraints that the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were under but also insisted they take responsibility for the poverty and violence that were causing their people to leave if they were to receive international assistance. Conditioning U.S. funding on contributions from the countries, as well as on action to combat corruption, led the region to contribute $5.4 billion in domestic funding toward the Alliance for Prosperity goals from 2016 to 2017.
Reorienting all U.S. foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle would fundamentally change the way organizations can respond to challenges in the region.
This gave the U.S. the ability to seek reforms in exchange for funding, Feierstein said, while Biden also used the relationships he developed in Congress to secure U.S. dollars.
“Foreign aid’s not going to succeed unless foreign countries do their own part, and we’re not going to solve these problems by throwing money at them. It requires genuine reforms by these countries, and we can support that, catalyze resources. We can’t do things for them,” Feierstein said. “The conditions … gave us more leverage, and it was important to force countries to live up to them. Otherwise, this wasn’t going to work.”
More localization needed
Biden’s involvement in the Alliance for Prosperity signaled to the Northern Triangle that the Obama administration took reform in the region seriously. It also meant the program was high-profile, raising expectations for how quickly and successfully it could meet objectives of addressing violence, corruption, and economic opportunity.
Mauricio Silva, former Inter-American Development Bank director for Central America, said this was problematic because it took longer than anticipated to get the program off the ground with so many entities involved in negotiations: the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; IDB; and the U.S. State Department, Treasury Department, White House, and USAID.
It took three years to reach an agreement for the scope of the Alliance for Prosperity. Contracting and procurement policies delayed the rollout another two years.
Silva said it would have been much more efficient to award the bulk of the program contracts to Central American NGOs and civil society, rather than international organizations with headquarters in the U.S. He also said money allocated under the program should have all been earmarked for development activities, instead of sending some of the funds to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Some money was also allocated for military activities.
“It’s worth considering whether we consolidate all of USAID’s programs — and all the U.S. government money, frankly — into one pillar of an objective.”— Mark Lopes, former U.S. executive director to IDB
“It got stuck in the implementation,” Silva said. “[Programs] were not implemented to the needs of the communities — they may have been designed like that.”
It is difficult to measure what direct impact the Alliance for Prosperity had on migration from the Northern Triangle. Researchers say it is tricky to link any reductions in migration to specific development policies because so many factors can impact a person’s decision to migrate. While the number of people leaving El Salvador dropped — a shift that could be attributed to demographic changes — the number of people migrating from Honduras and Guatemala increased.
Yet when the Trump administration was determining its policy to stem migration, Fernando Cutz, who served in the National Security Council under both Trump and Obama, said he recommended that it adopt an Alliance for Prosperity-type approach because of the program’s success. This suggestion was rejected because it was “branded as an Obama approach,” Cutz said.
Despite years of Trump’s “build the wall” rhetoric and foreign assistance cuts, Cutz said that if Biden wins in November, relationships with the Northern Triangle governments are not beyond repair.
NGOs must scale back or altogether cancel programs, lay off staff, and reduce operating expenses following U.S. funding cuts to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
“For a lot of our foreign policy, we can’t just snap our finger and go back to it. I think there’s a lot of different areas around the world that we’re really going to have to rebuild trust with friends and allies and partners, and I think to an extent that’s certainly the case here,” Cutz said. “But … in Central America, I do think that — more than almost any other foreign policy area that I can think of — we probably can, in many ways, just rebuild the old program.”
Doing so will require reestablishing trust with communities and local civil society partners. When the Trump administration cut off funds to the Northern Triangle, some NGOs had to prematurely halt programs, restrict activities, and lay off staff. Rebuilding this infrastructure, as well as trust from communities that may feel they were abandoned, will be a challenge, Feierstein said.
More money, fewer programs
A Biden approach could take lessons from the original Alliance for Prosperity but should not replicate it exactly, Silva said. He said migration trends — and the impact of the pandemic — mean that Mexico should be more involved in any efforts to reduce migration from the region. He also recommended accelerating the timeline to get money into communities more quickly, while also engaging the private sector.
This will be more important than ever as Central America reels from the economic impact of a pandemic that has left millions out of work and unable to meet basic needs, said Mark Lopes, who was U.S. executive director to IDB during Alliance for Prosperity negotiations. To maximize impact, the U.S. should focus more money on fewer sectors in each country.
“It’s worth considering whether we consolidate all of USAID’s programs — and all the U.S. government money, frankly — into one pillar of an objective,” Lopes said. “Take the ‘Biden billion,’ say for example, and address one thing or two or three things per country, and just hyperfocus with compounded resources and do away with the divergence of AID [USAID] sprinkling this and that across the country. … It becomes very insignificant if they’re spread out over 10 or 20 different objectives.”
In the near term, Lopes said a Biden administration would be likely to see an increase in migration, because of both the pandemic and a perception that Biden would make it easier for Central Americans to enter the U.S. than Trump has.
“There’s a sense that that’s likely to get worse before it gets better,” Lopes said.