PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Inequality, poverty and violence have displaced thousands of people in Central America in the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated poverty, one of the root causes of such displacement. This has spurred efforts from global agencies and receiving countries to facilitate recovery through new initiatives in Central America. In June 2021, USAID announced several initiatives in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, totaling up to $175 million in foreign aid.
These new initiatives in Central America address long-standing issues. As of 2020, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported that there are 470,00 refugees and migrants in the world originating from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. There are many reasons why people flee the region, including heightened violence caused by cartels and gangs, inequalities, persecution, weak institutions and political turmoil.
The UNHCR assists migrants by increasing receiving countries’ capacities “to provide access to fair and efficient refugee status determination procedures.” Additionally, the UNHCR works closely with relevant agencies to support displaced persons through supportive programs and grants. Also, the UNHCR urged the U.S. to contribute $165.5 million in aid to the region in 2020 to properly address increasing displacement.
The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that the number of people suffering from poverty in the region rose to 209 million by the end of 2020. This is a 22 million increase from 2019. Of those 209 million, 78 million suffer extreme poverty. These extremes have not occurred in the region in more than a decade. They were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities in Central America, particularly labor and employment participation rates among women. Children, indigenous people and Afro-descendent citizens in rural areas also generally suffer higher rates of poverty in Central America. A lack of strong structural government support is the likely cause of poverty and inequity among these vulnerable populations. So, ECLAC suggests new initiatives in Central America to remedy the economic impact of the pandemic. The organization sees this as an opportunity to build back on solid foundations with stronger economic and institutional pillars.
USAID announced a variety of initiatives in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in June 2021. These new initiatives in Central America aim to address the issues that displace thousands of people each year and trap millions in poverty.
Five million dollars is dedicated to a region-wide gender equality initiative. The Regional Challenge to Advance Gender Equality in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala invites cooperation across sectors to promote women’s employment. It will start in the fall of 2021. The announcement highlights that the initiative aims “to close the gender gap in technology and innovation by building a more inclusive digital ecosystem.” Additionally, this initiative will tackle gender-based violence in the region.
Honduras received nearly $24 million in aid, with USAID allocating $10 million toward youth employment initiatives projected to reach at least 500,000 young people in five years. An additional $10 million will strengthen the agricultural market with hopes of tackling food insecurity and developing sustainable farming practices. The remaining $3.7 million will address election transparency and promote civic engagement.
El Salvador received $12 million toward the recovery of small and medium-sized businesses from the pandemic. However, USAID allocated up to $115 million toward preventing and responding to violence and providing greater economic and education opportunities to vulnerable populations. It is hoped that these initiatives will prevent further displacement from communities.
Guatemala received more than $19 million toward increasing employment, economic development, strengthening institutions and combating corruption. The bulk of the funds support strengthening Guatemala’s financial management system and NGOs working to increase fiscal transparency on a national level. An additional two million dollars will fund the Kem Project that promotes greater youth and indigenous civic engagement, as well as collaboration between the Guatemalan government and Indigenous Peoples’ authorities. USAID will also support the expansion of a midwifery program that recruits, trains and empowers indigenous women in Guatemala to take community health into their own hands.
USAID has also allocated five million dollars toward further development of youth employment and entrepreneurship in Guatemala. The Guatemala Entrepreneurship Development Innovation initiative will “support entrepreneurs and innovators, prioritizing youth, women and Indigenous Peoples, creating technology-driven, market-led solutions to the conditions driving people from their communities in Guatemala.” USAID secured $31 million in commitments from private sector partners for this initiative.
Economic development, preventing violence and strengthening civic engagement are consistent themes in this new aid package. USAID’s new initiatives in Central America strive to improve conditions in origin countries to address the root causes of increasing migration in the last decade. These measures entail both prevention and response to pervasive issues in the region, in particular gender inequality. Though the pandemic exacerbated inequalities, new initiatives provide hope to build back on stronger foundations.
– Mckenzie Howell