U.S. wants to send $1 billion in aid to Central America – but where would it go?

Police patrol a low income neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 25, 2015. Honduras was designated the world's deadliest country for a nation not at war. (Credit: AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

President Obama requested $1 billion in aid to promote security, democracy and prosperity in Central America. The three countries to receive the aid package make up the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – the most violent, poverty-stricken countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The purpose of the aid package is trifold: to stem violence, weed out corruption and attract international investment to the region. The money would mostly be invested in border security, law enforcement and economic development, as well as the U.N.’s new human rights initiatives in the region.

Many of these measures are meant to address the waves of migrants fleeing the region and heading north in search of better prospects. Washington is hoping to discourage migration to the U.S. and keep Central Americans at home, busy with new jobs in safer communities under more transparent, responsive governments, according to Americas Program.

Vice President Joe Biden described this plan as “the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.”

But if U.S. foreign policymakers should take away anything from a history of struggling aid programs in this region, it is that throwing money at the governments of the Northern Triangle may do more harm than good.

The aid package, which roughly triples the past aid commitment to the three countries, includes $400 million (according to interviews with the newspapers El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa) for development and economic growth.

Investing this amount of funding in development could be helpful for these countries if the money were carefully delegated. However, previous funding for development projects in the region have had questionable agendas and have failed to address the needs of the people there.

“Development has traditionally meant the extraction of resources, mining, hydroelectric dams and other sources of energy, or the production of biofuels,” said Ana Paula Hernandez, Latin American program officer at the Fund for Global Human Rights. “But these projects are very problematic, and cause an unbelievable amount of harm in the long term for these communities.”

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This is because, historically, development projects have subsidized and protected large U.S. agricultural enterprises, while failing to support local, self-sustaining farmers.

“The people whose land is affected by development projects are not consulted first, and it destroys their lands,” Hernandez added.

And even if a project does create jobs for locals — which they often don’t — the jobs are not beneficial in the long term.

“A mine that employs locals, for example, will have a life span of seven years at the most,” said Hernandez. “After that, these people and their families are out of luck. … And the fact that these people can’t grow their own food on their land any more is what contributes to the starvation and poverty that we are seeing in these countries.”

Unfortunately, the result of this type of development will be to intensify the existing inequality in the Northern Triangle.

Washington’s plan also aims to foster democracy in part by investing $31 million in support of human rights efforts by the United Nations. But because these countries already suffer from such deeply rooted, systemic corruption, this plan may ultimately undermine real human rights.

One example of how these efforts can backfire, as laid out by Americas Program, is in the recent recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestor’s territories in Nicaragua and Honduras. This action was meant to make these lands more secure, but instead, the extension of property rights only made it easier for corrupt judiciaries to use violence and bribes to trick indigenous people out of ancestral lands that they rightfully held the titles to.

“The government just completely disregards titles for these lands,” said Hernandez. “They then illegally grant new titles and can use the lands for other purposes.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the people of the Northern Triangle, however, is not economic growth, employment rates or land rights, but violence.

The aid package will provide roughly $300 million for boosting security in the region. According to the United Nations’ 2013 Global Study on Homicide, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala ranked first, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, making the Northern Triangle the most violent region of the world. Authorities in these countries attribute most of this violence to youth gangs, a system which has forced millions of youth in increasing numbers to immigrate north (like the U.S.) in search of better prospects.

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To address this system of violence, the plan targets poverty, which Washington sees as the root of the issue.

“Combating poverty is definitely a huge factor,” said Hernandez. “But [investing in]it, again, depends – what is the money being thrown at?”

The aid package will invest in schools, job creation and will fund community programs such as sports and arts, according to National Interest. But, as Hernandez explained, if the jobs created are designed for temporary development projects, these efforts are not going to pull people out of poverty.

In any case, it is hard to view poverty as the root of the problem when neighboring Nicaragua suffers from even higher poverty levels than Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, yet does not experience even close to the level of violence afflicting the Northern Triangle.

Without specific policies to deal with these gangs, these countries will remain some of the most violent nations in the world. And without directly addressing the complex relationship between poverty and violence in this region, these people will continue to be forced to invest their resources in basic health care and food, leaving little to combat gang violence and crime.

How will a country like Honduras even begin to resolve their violent land rights disputes, for example, when the death toll of environmental and land activists in Honduras is higher than anywhere else in the world?

The issues burdening the people of the Northern Triangle are deep and complex that no aid package of any size is going to quickly fix. But if the U.S. really wants to help Central America, policymakers need to listen to the needs of the local communities and organizations. They will also need to take a closer look at investing in different sectors like sustainable education reform, health care, and the support of small business owners – things that will really be useful to the people of the Northern Triangle – because throwing money at the problem is not going to solve it.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com