Last Friday, following months of negotiations, the U.S. Congress approved the annual budget for 2016. Among the issues under debate was the Obama administration’s one billion dollar aid request to help the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala address the violence, poor governance, and lack of economic opportunity driving migration from the region. The number of Central American children that continue to migrate should serve as a stark reminder that unless the factors that drive them to flee are addressed, migrants will continue to seek refuge in the United States rather than stay to become victims of the violence ravaging their communities.
Fortunately, the finalized 2016 budget leaves room for cautious optimism: Congress appears to have recognized that the economic and insecurity challenges facing Central America need to be addressed. As passed, the law:
- Provides a significantly higher level of assistance for Central America. The 2016 budget includes $750 million in assistance to Central America, in particular to assist Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras address the violence, lack of opportunities, and weak governance driving migration from the region. As the chart below illustrates, the amount approved is below the one billion requested by the Obama administration last February, but higher than the $675 million initially allocated by the Senate and $450 million above the amount allocated by the House in each of their respective appropriation bills. The amount approved represents a significant increase from the $294 million appropriated to the region for 2015, and is likely to spur increases from other donors and from lenders like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). This spending package excludes the anti-drug funds appropriated to the Pentagon.
- Expands the U.S. regional strategy from a security-orientated approach to one that seeks to strengthen institutions and invest in economic development. Of the funds appropriated, 40 percent ($299.4 million) were granted to support Development Assistance, 24 percent were set aside for the Economic Support Fund ($183.5 million), and 30 percent ($222 million) will go to support security initiatives. Of course, greater spending alone is not enough. Ultimately the details of this funding, and how it is implemented, will determine the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in addressing the underlying causes of the spiraling violence in Central America.
- Establishes clear planning and coordination requirements for the State Department prior to the release of funds. Before any money can be obligated, the State Department has to provide Congress with a multi-year spending plan that includes clearly defined objectives, indicators of progress, and a timeline for implementing its strategy. These measures will improve oversight of the use of funds and allow for a greater ability to evaluate whether U.S. assistance is achieving the desired impact. With these requirements, Congress appears determined to ensure that the assistance is actually contributing to stronger and more accountable institutions, better governance, and lower levels of violence in Central America. The spending plan must also specify how U.S. assistance will differ or complement aid provided by other donors and multilateral institutions.
- Establishes a series of strong conditions on what Central American governments have to demonstrate before funds are released to them. According to the budget, 50 percent of the funds can be withheld from the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala unless the State Department certifies that the recipient government is adopting effective measures to:
- Establish an autonomous, publicly accountable entity to provide oversight of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity.
- Combat corruption, including investigating and prosecuting government officials credibly alleged to be corrupt.
- Implement reforms and policies to improve transparency and strengthen public institutions, including the capacity and independence of the judicial systems and Attorney Generals’ offices.
- Establish consultation mechanisms for civil society and local governments.
- Tackle criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and organized crime.
- Investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the militaries and police forces who have violated human rights.
- Cooperate with anti-impunity commissions and regional human rights bodies.
- Support programs to reduce poverty, promote equitable economic growth, and create jobs in migrant-sending communities.
- Develop and implement a plan to create professional and accountable police forces and curtail the role of the military in civilian policing.
- Protect human rights.
- Implement tax reforms and strengthen customs agencies.
- Resolve commercial disputes.
This is a significant set of pre-conditions. It reflects a belief that U.S. assistance should help Central America address the conditions in the region that are driving irregular migration, and a conviction that U.S. aid will not make a difference unless these countries demonstrate a firm commitment to strengthening the rule of law and addressing corruption, poverty, and inequality.
The spending package, unfortunately, also conditions 25 percent of the funds on measures to increase border security and reduce irregular migration. These measures have potential to fuel the mistreatment of migrants, and are unlikely to have a lasting effect on migration rates. Here too, however, there is a silver lining: the conditions at least recognize that deportation and repatriation should be reserved for those who “do not qualify as refugees, consistent with international law.”
- Requires consultation with civil society and local governments. It is worth noting that as part of the series of conditions in the budget, the Central American governments must consult with local communities, civil society organizations (including indigenous and other marginalized groups), and local governments in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the activities of the Alliance for Prosperity that will affect them. If consistently implemented, this could be an important and positive step.
- Provides significant attention to Central America’s ongoing fight against rampant impunity and corruption.The budget includes $7.5 million to support the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG), which is a significant increase over Congress’ past contributions. It also provides for possible funding to support international commissions against impunity in Honduras and El Salvador, should such bodies be established and provided they have levels of investigatory independence and authority comparable to those of CICIG.
- Establishes a formal review and suspension process. The budget tasks the State Department with reviewing the progress made by the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala on the established conditions and submitting a report to Congress no later than September 30, 2016. Both Congress and the State Department can suspend assistance, in whole or in part, to any particular government. The law also takes changes in government into account, requiring the State Department to certify that any newly-elected administration has committed to meeting the series of pre-conditions.
The significant increase in assistance to the region, and overall shift away from a predominantly security-centric agenda in Central America, are welcome steps. Nonetheless, tackling the rampant levels of violence and inequality is not just a question of funding but also one of smart investments. The multi-year spending plans that the State Department is required to submit to Congress will determine whether sufficient attention is given to generating employment and education opportunities for youth, to community-based violence prevention, and to the creation of independent justice systems and professional and accountable police forces, as well as to tackling corruption and ensuring the meaningful participation of civil society.
Additionally, the inclusion of pre-conditions demonstrates that real results in the fight against corruption, the protection of human rights, and the strengthening of public institutions are high on the agenda of many U.S. lawmakers. Now it is up to the governments of Central America to demonstrate a similar commitment. The pending election of the Attorney General in El Salvador, the cabinet picks of incoming Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales and his support for the CICIG and Attorney General, as well as the upcoming election of the Supreme Court in Honduras and viability of an international mechanism with the muscle to effectively tackle corruption and bring about meaningful reforms in Honduras will be some of the first indicators that these countries are fully dedicated to strengthening the rule of law.