SAN SALVADOR — El Salvador, a small nation located in the Northern Triangle of Central America, has long struggled with political instability, violent crime and slow economic growth. However, U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador has been instrumental in assisting the nation’s struggling economy and strengthening its justice system.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) implements a majority of the programs funded by U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador. USAID’s strategy in El Salvador includes 18 sectors and 74 activities that improve education, health, disaster preparedness and response, government systems and economic opportunity.
President Trump recently announced his administration’s intent to cut U.S. foreign assistance to Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). This proposal is in response to illegal immigration emanating from these countries. However, eliminating effective aid programs could exacerbate the issues that motivate people to leave El Salvador in the first place.
Decrease in Migration
In 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate was as high as 103 homicides for every 100,000 people. A study of the link between violence and migration in the Northern Triangle found that for every 10 additional murders in a Northern Triangle nation, six more children migrated to the U.S.
However, the flow of emigration from El Salvador has slowed considerably. In 2016, more than 72,000 Salvadorans were apprehended crossing the U.S. border. In 2018, that number dropped to fewer than 32,000 migrants.
Many believe that the success of U.S. aid programs in El Salvador is a substantial contributing factor to the decrease in irregular migration. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan praised El Salvador’s progress, “What El Salvador is doing is working, both on the security front and on the economic opportunity front… We want to achieve these successes in Honduras and Guatemala as well.”
Improving El Salvador’s Governance
In 2017, USAID invested $35 million in programs working to improve El Salvador’s system of governance and civil society. From 2015 to 2017, USAID and the government of El Salvador successfully reduced homicide rates across 50 municipalities by an average of 53 percent.
USAID’s Justice Sector Strengthening Project has helped El Salvador reform criminal justice systems, improve the training of court officials and increase judicial transparency. Under the program, 15,000 community members have participated in community policing outreach, 25 victims assistance centers have been established and the completion time for non-complex cases has reduced from 540 days to just 39.A similar USAID program, the Crime and Violence Prevention project, has increased citizen safety in 33 municipalities in El Salvador. The project helps municipalities reduce violence by rehabilitating public spaces, setting up vocational training and community centers for at-risk youth and establishing councils that diagnose and prevent crime.
To reduce irregular migration, USAID partners with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) on the Return and Reintegration in the Northern Triangle Program. The program assists returning migrants and addresses the root causes of emigration.
Economic and Educational Improvements
USAID’s economic development programs help El Salvador create more jobs, improve educational opportunities and become a more competitive exporter. With the help of these programs, El Salvador has been able to generate 26,500 new jobs and increase the revenue generated by small and medium enterprises. These expanded opportunities for economic gain create alternatives to crime and irregular migration to the U.S.
Programs like Higher Education for Economic Growth and Bridges to Employment develop a more skilled workforce in El Salvador. These projects strengthen educational services that provide vocational training and academic programs that meet industry demands.
To strengthen El Salvador’s economic systems, USAID established programs like the Economic Competitiveness Project and the Fiscal Policy and Expenditure Management Program. Through these programs, USAID helps El Salvador create sustainable growth by expanding exports and technological innovation. They also establish a more transparent and effective taxing and budgetary system that spends on effective social programs.
USAID also helps El Salvador improve primary schooling through the Superate Program and Education for Children and Youth. These programs help keep children in or return them to school, especially in high crime areas. In this way, children in El Salvador can be better prepared to find jobs successfully or pursue higher education. Primary school enrollment in El Salvador rose to 93 percent in 2016 from 76 percent in the 1990s.
A specific example is a program that teaches young people coding languages. This class not only provides students with valuable skills but also gives them a safe place to learn.
The value of U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador is extensive. Geoff Thale, Vice President for Programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, explains the adverse effects of cutting aid to El Salvador, “People will be cut off from alternatives that offer them some hope and some sense that their future in El Salvador will be better.”
Cutting off U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador would revoke opportunities for program participants and impede progress toward a stronger legal system. The negative effects on the Salvadoran people are apparent, and possibly, emigration rates will rise without hopeful alternatives.
– Peter S. Mayer