WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

15 May 2017 | Commentary

What’s in the Fiscal Year 2017 Spending Package for Central America?

In early May, the U.S. Congress approved a spending package to fund the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, which ends on September 30. The legislation provides US$655 million in U.S. assistance to Central America, primarily to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to help address the endemic violence, poor governance and lack of economic opportunities driving migration from the region. This follows the $750 million allocated in FY16, most of which made its way to Central America in early 2017.

Despite the Trump administration’s request to drastically reduce funding for foreign assistance, Congress appears to recognize that helping Central America address the underlying factors fueling migration is in the interest of the United States. The success or failure of U.S. assistance to Central America, however, will depend on whether the aid is strategically targeted and on the commitment of the Central American governments to advance needed reforms. This will require careful monitoring of where and how U.S. assistance is being spent and of conditions on the ground.

What’s in the Aid Package for Central America?

The FY17 $655 million package to Central America marks a slight decrease from the $750 million appropriated in FY16. The drop is due to cuts to the Development Assistance and Economic Support Fund accounts, which fund economic reforms, educational initiatives, and environmental protection, as well as crime and violence prevention programs, among other programs.

As the chart below illustrates, of the funds appropriated for FY17, 43 percent ($279.5 million) were granted to support Development Assistance, 16 percent were allocated for the Economic Support Fund ($104 million), and 34 percent to support security initiatives ($225 million). Despite the decline in development funding, the overall figures continue to support a strategy focused on institutional strengthening and economic development over relying solely on a security-focused strategy. However, the aid package does include a $3.1 million increase in military assistance, most of which will provide training, arms, and equipment. This is on top of Pentagon funding for counterdrug operations in the region, which in FY15, totaled just under $67 million.

Aid to Central America

Unequivocal Support for Anti-Corruption Efforts

The package also includes specific funding to support the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción e Impunidad en Honduras, MACCIH). These international bodies have been on the front lines of combatting corruption, helping to strengthen the capacities of local institutions and advance the investigation of high-profile cases. The progress they have achieved so far underscores how important it is for the U.S. to continue to support them both politically and financially.

To bolster this support, this aid package also provides significant funding to Central American attorneys general to support their efforts to tackle corruption and impunity, a first for Congress. Moreover, the legislation requires the State Department to certify whether the governments of Guatemala and Honduras are providing the CICIG and MACCIH full access to information and documents, including budgetary information. It also calls on the State Department, in consultation with other U.S. agencies, to make available to the CICIG and the Guatemalan Attorney General any information that can assist with their investigations.

These measures are encouraging and reaffirm once more that fighting corruption and impunity in Central America is central to both Republicans and Democrats.

In a show of this bipartisan agreement, in March 2017, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously approved House Resolution 145, which recognizes the anticorruption efforts of the CICIG, MACCIH, and the region’s attorneys general and calls on Central American governments to provide the resources, support, and independence to the attorneys general to carry out their work.

Aid Tied to Strong Conditions

The aid package sustains the set of 12 requirements that Congress wisely put in place in FY16 to help ensure that recipient countries demonstrate a firm commitment to strengthening the rule of law, tackling corruption, and addressing poverty and inequality. These requirements are important and will help ensure that U.S. assistance is well spent. Ultimately, U.S. aid will not make a difference unless the countries of the Northern Triangle demonstrate the will and firm commitment to address the region’s challenges.

According to the law, 50 percent of the funds can be withheld from the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras unless the State Department certifies that the governments are taking effective steps to:

  1. Work cooperatively with an autonomous, publicly accountable entity to oversee the Alliance for Prosperity.
  2. Combat corruption, including investigating and prosecuting government officials credibly alleged to be corrupt.
  3. Implement reforms and policies to improve transparency and strengthen public institutions, including the capacity and independence of the judicial systems and Offices of the Attorney General.
  4. Establish consultation mechanisms for civil society and local communities, including indigenous and marginalized groups.
  5. Tackle criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and organized crime.
  6. Investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the militaries and police forces who have violated human rights.
  7. Cooperate with anti-impunity commissions and regional human rights bodies.
  8. Support programs to reduce poverty, promote equitable economic growth, and create jobs in migrant-sending communities.
  9. Implement a plan, with goals, benchmarks and timelines, to create professional and accountable police forces and end the role of the military in civilian policing.
  10. Protect human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, other civil society activists, and political opposition parties.
  11. Implement tax reforms and strengthen customs agencies.
  12. Resolve commercial disputes.

The package also maintains language that conditions 25 percent of the funds on measures aimed at deterring irregular migration north and strengthening border security. As WOLA has reported in the past, efforts to increase border security and combat the flow of illicit drugs and other contraband should not be at the expense of prioritizing protection for people at risk. Increased efforts to stem northbound migration at Mexico’s southern border and at the Guatemala-Honduras border in recent years have undermined access to asylum for Central Americans fleeing violence and persecution and led to the abuse of migrants.

WOLA’s Central America Monitor: Effective Aid Requires Smart Investments

To have a lasting impact, U.S. assistance needs to be strategically targeted, properly implemented, and matched by concrete reforms on the part of the Central American governments. Better information on the goals, aid levels, and programs in each country, as well as objective indicators to gauge progress on the ground, will allow for greater ability to assess whether or not U.S. assistance is achieving its desired results. Clear metrics will also enable a better assessment of the Central American governments’ commitment to fulfilling their end of the bargain.

To that end WOLA, in collaboration with a group of respected Central American organizations, will be launching the Central America Monitor. The Monitor will track and analyze U.S. assistance programs in the region and evaluate the progress in Central America to reduce violence and insecurity, strengthen the rule of law, improve transparency and accountability, protect human rights, and combat corruption. To do this, we have developed a comprehensive series of quantitative and qualitative indicators to systematically assess progress on the ground—and to move beyond abstract discussions of reform to specific measures of change. The Central America Monitor is a tool to identify areas of progress and shortfalls of the policies being implemented in the region in a form that is useful for policymakers, donors, and the public.