WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Feb 2015 | Commentary | News

After Decades of Neglect, a Promising New U.S. Strategy for Central America?

Originally published in The Hill’s Congress Blog.

The Obama administration has released its FY2016 budget request. It included $1 billion to fund a new strategy for Central America. According to the administration, the aid is intended to assist the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in addressing epidemic levels of insecurity and violence, poor governance, and lack of economic opportunities driving migration from the region. This squares with the concerns that Congress has expressed for the region.

Both Democrats and Republicans recognize the underlying problems. Last year, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), then chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, stated  “Poverty, crime, public corruption and a legacy of violence in the region have created a perfect storm that critically hampers economic growth and opportunity, luring youth into a seemingly endless cycle of crime and drug trafficking.” He continued, “I want to work with State and USAID to find better and more effective ways to help the countries of Central America to combat this scourge of criminality and empower economic growth and opportunity.” Recently, Vice President Joe Biden penned an op-ed calling the security and prosperity of Central America “inextricably linked with our own.”

The three-fold increase in funding the administration had requested for the region lays out a serious attempt to tackle the underlying causes that have made Central America one of the most violent places in the world. It expands the U.S. regional strategy from a largely security-centric approach to one that seeks to strengthen democratic institutions and invests in sustained economic growth and employment opportunities. The new plan and the willingness to support a comprehensive strategy presents a genuine opportunity for the United States–in concert with the people and committed governments of Central America–to help address the violence and economic challenges confronting the region.

However, addressing the violence, poverty, and desperation in the region is not merely a question of resources but one of choosing smart investments. The ability of criminal groups and the wealthy and well-connected to avoid arrest and prosecution remains one of the main obstacles to improving citizen security and the rule of law in the northern triangle, as it facilitates the spread of organized crime and violence.

To be effective, U.S. funding should be carefully directed to those countries or agencies that have demonstrated the political will and commitment to tackle these hard problems and deal with the deep-seated corruption and weak institutions that have hindered citizens’ access to basic services. U.S. assistance and Central American government investments must be accompanied by far greater transparency than we have seen in the past.

To be effective, aid for citizen security must be paired with a sustained effort to improve governance, engage civil society, and make public investments that generate jobs, particularly for young people and others who do not currently see a future for themselves in their home countries.

As Congress considers the specifics of the administration’s request, it ought to ensure that the assistance package to Central America includes clear, measurable short- and medium-term objectives that will allow policymakers to evaluate whether U.S. assistance is achieving the desired results.