The Need for Foreign Assistance for Central America


WASHINGTON, D.C. — On March 30, the Trump Administration announced plans to revoke aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This action would halt the transfer of around $500 million in funds for a number of USAID and State Department programs in the region.

In response, Congress has expressed bipartisan support for the aid programs in question. On April 10, the Committee of Foreign Affairs held a hearing drawing on the expertise of two former Ambassadors (Roberta Jacobson and Roger Noriega) and the former Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (R. Gil Kerlikowske). Their testimonies and discussions from this hearing highlight why foreign assistance for Central America is crucial.

Difficult Conditions Cause Instability and Migration

Recent figures reported by the Department of Homeland Security show a significant increase in immigration from Central America over a short period of time, with border apprehensions showing 70,000 inbound migrants in February 2019 and nearly 100,000 entries in March. Data also reflects a 370 percent increase in those traveling in family units compared to March 2018 and additional increases in the number of unaccompanied minors.

Ambassador Jacobson noted that “the countries of the Northern Triangle have long suffered from violence, corruption, and slow economic growth.” In the absence of safety and security, advertisements warning of the dangerous trek “have very little impact,” Kerlikowske stressed.

USAID Programs Target Causes of Instability

USAID programs operated directly by Department of State officials and U.S. law enforcement officials have demonstrated progress in combating drug trafficking and corruption by training local law enforcement officials and reducing crime in at-­risk areas. According to Ambassador Noriega, in Honduras, policing and youth programs managed by USAID and the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement are credited with reducing homicide rates by as much as 73 percent between 2013 and 2016. USAID also targets causes of economic instability through programs supporting agriculture and natural resource management, creating more jobs with higher salaries in rural areas across all three nations.

Cutting off aid is likely to result in a reversal of progress

Ambassador Jacobson argued the programs that the “Administration intends to stop are programs carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Treasury and therefore directly relevant to our national security and safety. He stressed that these pro-democracy programs are “hard politically,” and without U.S. financial and moral backing it is unlikely that any action will be taken to address the reasons behind outward migration.

Furthermore, the U.S. maintains strong and transparent oversight to ensure that aid is being used effectively and efficiently. While the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras may face challenges, Ambassador Jacobson notes that “the vast majority of such funds do not go directly to governments… aid is “projectized”— that is, destined for non-governmental organizations or very specific projects.”

As restoring faith in democratic institutions and promoting human rights is a key goal of USAID, cutting foreign assistance to Central America is inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives. It subverts the Trump Administration’s efforts to address the migration crisis by eliminating programs that target the root causes of migration.

Foreign Assistance Protects National Security

USAID’s Central American strategy directly links the security and prosperity of Central America to the security and prosperity of the United States. Foreign assistance, according to USAID Administrator Mark Green, “must always be in the national interest.” As a result, USAID training of law enforcement in Central America benefits domestic national security by providing data on related criminal activity on U.S. soil.

An example of a recent aid­-funded policing victory came from the FBI’s anti­-gang “TAG” program. In 2015, more than 30 members of MS­-13 — a gang often identified as among the drivers of violence in both Central America and the U.S. — were arrested in North Carolina. The arrests were a direct result of the work of U.S. trained police in Central America. Congressmen McCaul (R-TX-10­), Lead Republican on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, highlighted that “these programs are highly effective and that cutting these programs would be counterproductive and make the situation worse, not better.”

How to Take Action

Following the announcement, Department of State officials were left in limbo and scrambling to maintain programs. Currently, USAID is reviewing the programs in operation and will report its findings to the White House.

The Borgen Project is working hard to oppose these cuts to foreign assistance for Central America. The money earmarked for this year in aid programs is only one tenth of what taxpayers will pay to deploy guards on the southwest border. It represents just 0.00035 percent of the U.S. federal budget. Not only are these programs cost-efficient, but they are part of a larger U.S. effort to exercise global leadership. Tackling violence and poverty in these countries ensures that “children and families are not forced to make the journey north”, as explained by Congressman Engel (D-NY-16).

One way to help protect these valuable programs is to email or call your congressional representatives. This template will send an email urging both of your Senators, and your Congressional Representative, to oppose the cuts to foreign assistance for Central America.

The proposed cuts are not aligned with U.S. foreign policy objectives. It is critical to continue to mobilize Congressional leaders in order to protect the progress made by USAID in Central America and support the programs working to create conditions under which aid is no longer necessary.

– Holly Barsham
Photo: US Embassy in Honduras


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