DOLORES, El Salvador—In September 2007, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) invested $461 million in the infrastructure of northern El Salvador. Today, the residents of this area are seeing dramatic improvements in their quality of life.
In the 1980s, gross inequality and poverty in El Salvador led the nation to civil war. By the time the opposing sides entered a United Nations-brokered peace agreement in 1992, the 70,000 El Salvadorians were killed and the country was left with more than $2 billion in damage.
But while conditions seemed bleak, with swift political and economic reforms El Salvador began to recover.
But then El Salvador’s growth was quickly stunted by natural disasters. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch swept through the country followed by a series of earthquakes in 2001. This destroyed the country’s infrastructure and left millions homeless. El Salvador was also hit by the global recession in 2008.
Once again though, El Salvador proved resilient.
Since the new moderate President Mauricio Funes’ election in 2009, growth in El Salvador is staggering. Annual GDP growth recovered from a low of -3.1 percent in 2009 to a stable 2.2 percent in 2011. Poverty rates decreased from a high of 40.6 percent in 2011 to 29.6 percent in 2013.
While this growth is mainly attributed to the policies of El Salvador’s new president, credit is also due to the $461 million investment by the United States in El Salvador’s infrastructure as well.
This investment was part of a five-year compact entered between the MCC and the Government of El Salvador in 2007. The MCC is an independent U.S. foreign aid organization, much like USAID, established by Congress in 2004.
The purpose of the five-year compact was to improve the lives of El Salvadorians through water sanitation projects, electricity, hygiene, teacher training and student scholarships. The largest component of the compact was the infrastructure developments of El Salvador’s Northern Zone.
By 2012, the MCC left El Salvador with 23 complete bridges and the expansive Northern Transnational Highway.
One bridge in particular, the Nueva Eden de San Juan Bridge, has been extremely helpful in promoting trade and education in El Salvador. The bridge allows El Salvadorans to traverse the Lempa River, which previously was a time consuming and even dangerous endeavor.
Abel Humberto Hérnandez, a dairy producer in the town of Dolores recalls a time when he took six trips across the Lempa River a day, waiting hours for the ferry and spending eight dollars per trip. With the Nueva Eden de San Juan Bridge, Hérnandez now takes as many as nine trips per day, each trip taking as little as 10 minutes. His production has nearly doubled and he has since hired additional employees to his business.
“I know that all people of this area are happy and grateful for the project. Dolores is the town that has benefited commercially, because traffic is up and more businesses are thriving,” Hérnandez said in an interview with MCC.
The Nueva Eden de San Juan Bridge is also impacting the children of northern El Salvador.
With fast and trustworthy ways to get to travel, attendance at schools all across the region has increased. For example, enrollment at the Laura Urquilla vuida de Azurdia school in Dolores increased by close to 250 students.
The Northern Transnational Highway also brought similar advancements in business and education.
Spanning 138 miles, the Northern Transnational Highway connects people from remote villages to bustling towns. Existing businesses are seeing increases in customers and many new businesses are cropping up alongside the highway.
One teacher notes that her commute to school has decreased from two hours to a half hour on the new highway.
In addition to economic and educational advancements, El Salvadorans are seeing benefits in other services such as healthcare. Mayra Naomi Martinez de Escobar notes that, “Before we had to walk a lot, and when someone got sick, it was difficult to transfer to a medical center. They had to bring them in a hammock on the sidewalk, and that was very complicated in bad weather.”
Now, transportation is quick and cheap which can make all the difference in saving someone’s life.
Sources: BBC, Millennium Challenge Corporation 1, Millennium Challenge Corporation 2, U.S. Department of State Blog 1, U.S. Department of State Blog 2, World Bank
Photo: Millennium Challenge Corporation