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Diplomacy & International Relations Economics Latin America Uncategorized

The U.S. Needs to Restructure Its Foreign Aid Strategy in the Northern Triangle

The U.S. needs to alter its association of vast amounts of money to commitment and success. Poverty eradication and robust economic partnerships with Latin America will not be achieved through money alone. 

In 2021 alone, about 684,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador traveled to the southwest border of the United States. Those three nations are dubbed “the Northern Triangle,” and citizens are fleeing these countries over political corruption, devastating natural disasters, and food insecurity. The United States is looking to implement private sector investments to improve economic stability in those nations. However, giving money directly to those in poverty, or remittances, is more important. The economic frameworks crafted by American officials will almost always inherently be limited in scope. The U.S. would find more success in considering locals’ perspective when investing in development projects in order to fully assess their effectiveness in strengthening stability in the Northern Triangle.

President Biden’s response to minimizing migration is the “Call to Action” plan that states $750 million will be privately invested in the Northern Triangle from companies like Microsoft to Nespresso who pledged to financially contribute. However, the Biden administration should not be primarily targeting the economic sector for improvement. The Northern Triangle also experiences social and political issues, like gender violence and political corruption, that the Biden administration should strive towards addressing through carrying out anti-corruption efforts and countering political violence.

Biden’s response is a major improvement compared to the U.S. government’s decision during former President Trump’s term. The Trump administration’s approach involved massively cutting down on foreign assistance towards the Northern Triangle in March 2019, which was evidently a punitive action designed to coerce the Northern Triangle countries into stopping migration. However, the U.S. government’s action did not help reduce the economic struggles citizens in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were experiencing. As a consequence of the cutting back on foreign aid, U.S. agencies reduced their programs and data on the benefits of the assistance efforts was harder to collect. The Biden administration, on the other hand, requested $861 million in 2022 to start implementing systemic reforms and addressing the causes of Central American migration through a 4-year $4 billion plan.

Foreign spending should not have been cut from the Northern Triangle because numerous programs that assisted citizens with shelters and cash to purchase food were canceled. For example, Mercy Corps canceled vocational schools that helped at-risk youth women’s shelters for 2,850 survivors. Another USAID-funded emergency food program that gave money to 6,000 families, which included 20,000 kids, was closed in Guatemala. Those families depended on the money transfer to pay for their food necessities, but with the program’s closure, they faced more challenges in obtaining food without sufficient money. Unfortunately, the reduction in foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle brought devastating long-term effects with ineffective mitigation efforts. 

The U.S. government’s action did not prove to create long-term significant declines in migration rates amongst Central Americans because, under President Biden, there have been a greater number of asylum seekers and migrants arrested after crossing the U.S. southwest border in July 2021 than January 2021. About 75,316 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in January 2021, but that number increased to 200,658 six months later in July 2021. The vast majority of the group in the first period came from the Northern Triangle nations and Mexico, but later on various other countries’ citizens increased the number.

On the other hand, President Biden’s approach rests on first providing funds through private investments to strengthen stability and increase job opportunities to Central Americans. However, this will not effectively dissuade Central Americans from migrating northbound to the United States because not all citizens are leaving due to economic instability, but rather leave over distrust of the government, violence, and natural disasters. The Biden administration should take into account these factors and avoid situations where the ‘outsider’s dilemma’ will appear. Not all government projects guarantee success, and instead they demonstrate the importance of local knowledge and local context. For instance, a government aid effort in Ruhiira, Uganda offered $300,000 to locals to grow maize, but the government, or “outsiders,” brought harm instead of improvement in the community because they did not take into account the high transport costs to sell extra maize elsewhere nor the lack of storage areas for corn preservation in the village. Therefore, locals’ insights of crops could have avoided the problems arising from outsiders’ lack of knowledge about agriculture. The U.S. can learn from the Ugandan case and reshape its approach in addressing economic instability by considering locals’ perspectives about their community rather than carrying out plans that primarily achieve short-term success instead of long-term. 

Two nations of the Northern Triangle region have some of the highest homicide rates in South America: Honduras and El Salvador. In fact, Honduras is deemed the deadliest state in the Central American region. The COVID-19 pandemic only increased rates as instances of gender-based violence grew with stay-at-home orders. Private investments alone are not going to persuade citizens from migrating north since various people seek human security and liberty from the violent acts targeting women, children, and the LGBTQ+ community. The U.S. needs to assist with high rates of violence in the Northern Triangle because Congress approved a multi-year plan to minimize migration and President Biden strives to “improve security,” as well as address corruption, in order to increase the likelihood for Central Americans to reside in their home countries.

Over 71,500 Salvadorans and 247,000 Hondurans have experienced internal displacement due to violence since 2018. This number of both Salvadorians and Hondurans should steer the United States’ approach to addressing migration rates. Funds should be going towards local organizations that work towards gathering more concrete data on homicide rates and establishing safe spaces for victims to take refuge while cases are documented and assessed. Women and the LGBTQ community experience higher rates of violence and murder in South America, thus there needs to be more safe spaces created to protect them and offer them support. 

The Biden administration passed the “Call to Action” agreement to decrease migration into the United States from the Northern Triangle, address economic insecurity, and strengthen democratic systems. Although Central Americans may be influenced by economic reasons to leave their home country, the United States should not necessarily assume the citizens’ needs and directly hand them money through the direct money transfer strategy because the United States does not know what those in poverty are experiencing. For example, USAID provides U.S. assistance to other nations, but it has a history of failures in showcasing “its ability to solve large-scale problems.” American policymakers believe that large amounts of money and development projects improve Latin America, but that is an “outsider” perspective not taking into account locals’ viewpoint. If USAID-funded agricultural research centers in Egypt fail in their projects, then the USAID agency leaves it to create “another within the same agricultural ministry.” The U.S. agencies should not have left the centers if projects fail, but instead they should have fully investigated what the problems were and even include local residents’ feedback in order to improve the development projects and, ultimately, witness long-term success.

The plans enacted by U.S. government officials will always be inherently limited in scope. They are the “planners” whose understanding of poverty and economic insecurities in host countries are often fractured and incomplete, and as is their knowledge of the variety of social, political, and historical factors that influence one’s decision to leave their hometown. Migration cannot be stopped with simple solutions as increasing money inflows.

However, it is important to note that the U.S. has an active role in collaborating with humanitarian organizations and NGOs on strategies to foster economic growth in Latin America. In fact, the U.S. is the largest single donor of humanitarian aid in Central America. Organizations like Accion, Pro Mujer, and World Economic Forum recently committed to the Biden administration’s Call to Action and claim to work towards improving people’s financial state, healthcare services for women, or generation of jobs. Nonetheless, granting money is not equivalent to crafting a sustainable economy. The U.S. needs to alter its association of the spending of vast amounts of money to commitment and success. Goals will not be achieved through money alone. 

Plans need to be fully assessed with locals’ inputs about the consequences of carrying out actions because the U.S. might not be familiar with the particular foreign environments and local conditions that vary across regions. It can be done through roundtables because with both locals, U.S. ambassadors, and even media present, there is a greater chance for people to keep their word and accountability to be established. Data and accountability are needed during the duration of development programs because it is challenging to evaluate the actual impacts of US-funded projects. According to the 2019 GAO report on Central American aid, the U.S. government and USAID planned to measure progress, but limited information resulted because the plan did not include data of all the agencies’ programs. Success of obtaining accurate data was not reached even when $2.4 billion was spent for five years of aid. Thus, large sums of money does not signify that problems will be easily solved if resources like data gathering are not utilized.

The U.S. should implement development strategies that consider locals’ perspectives or direct cash transfers to low-income communities. Receiving direct cash is tremendously effective in reducing poverty because it offers flexibility and is more cost-effective as it avoids expensive and time-consuming transportation of goods and services. If the poor were to buy a variety of products with the amount directly given, then nonprofit organizations would not utilize that amount of money for deliveries and administrative tasks.

The “big push” development plan of private investments and U.S-funded programs that the U.S. government implemented is not going to be as successful as it hopes unless it ensures that data will be collected to understand the actual, accurate impacts various types of development projects have in local communities in the Northern Triangle region. The U.S. government spends large sums of money to improve economic development in Central America, but it needs to focus on setting rational goals with close inspections in order to avoid lack of accountability. If the U.S. wants migration to decrease at the southwest border of the United States, then it must account for locals’ points of view and undertake nuanced data collection to fully understand the impacts of, and ultimately the root causes of, migration.





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By Paula Zepeda

Paula Zepeda studies Political Science with a concentration in Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA, class of 2024. As a first-gen Latina whose family immigrated from Mexico, she grew up with Spanish being her first language and came to develop a deep bond with her cultural background. Her research revolves around anti-immigrant sentiments and its impact on societal viewpoints towards Latin Americans.

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