USAID in Central America: Less Is Better

Policymakers argue that more aid money will reduce the incentive to emigrate, while remaining stubbornly oblivious to the fact that past money did not fulfill its promise to do the same.


Photo Source: John Moore / Getty Images

The Biden administration’s approach to tackling migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America is a traditional one that centers on sending large amounts of aid. Without a more rigorous assessment of effectiveness, we should remain skeptical of that approach. Policymakers argue that more aid money will reduce the incentive to emigrate, while remaining stubbornly oblivious to the fact that past money did not fulfill its promise to do the same.

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden proudly wrote of spearheading a $750 million aid package to reduce irregular migration in Central America, and called for $4 billion more. He did not mention that past expenditures had no discernible effect on migration.

Similarly, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is a central source of U.S. assistance, claims that it “addresses the economic, security, environmental, and governance challenges that drive irregular migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States.” Without a hint of irony, the agency praises itself for “a history of partnership with the people of these countries,” a history that has apparently failed to solve the complex challenges facing the Northern Triangle.

Once elected president, Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of overseeing the United States’ policy toward Central America. In July, she announced the release of a “Root Causes Strategy” to reduce migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It accurately noted the devastating issues that Central America faces, especially from corruption, and referred to hundreds of millions of dollars that would flow in as a result of U.S. engagement. Some of that is intended to come through private investment, but much of it is aid.

Inevitably, that brings USAID to the table. Led by Samantha Power, a high-profile policymaker who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama, the organization was even given a spot on the National Security Council to demonstrate Biden’s commitment to development aid. The president was ready to spend. USAID has a long history of doing so around the world. It also has a history of failing to demonstrate its ability to solve large-scale problems. 

There is a long-standing and pervasive belief among U.S. policy makers that aid can solve structural problems. They have employed USAID to reduce undocumented immigration, spark economic growth, stem drug trafficking, improve security, and to generally create a favorable impression of the United States. They are, as political scientist Lars Schoultz writes, “uplifters,” well-meaning individuals who believe that large sums of money and development projects can improve Latin Americans.

The problem is that we have no evidence that USAID’s spending advances those grand policy objectives in Central America. Since aid flows into highly corrupt governments, we can have no doubt that much of it simply disappears. Corruption is a major problem in public-private partnerships like health, housing, energy, and infrastructure. Sending aid directly to local civil society groups, as USAID has done in El Salvador, might help, but there is no way civil society can absorb billions of dollars.

As far back as 1966, two academics pointed out that with USAID in Latin America, there is “some lack of follow-up or maintenance of projects once they are started or completed.” For Central America, former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís wrote earlier this year that “U.S. agencies have often been unable to measure the real impact of U.S.-funded programs in the Northern Triangle.” A 2019 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on aid to Central America concluded that “while State and USAID had a plan to assess progress, the plan didn’t include all agencies’ activities.” After five years of aid, which reached $2.4 billion, the GAO could say only that “limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security in the Northern Triangle.”

Yet according to USAID, it “is a leader among federal agencies in monitoring and evaluation.” Its efforts “help to foster an environment where families can envision their futures in their home countries.” This is hard to square with continued emigration.

USAID’s overall 2021 budget was $41 billion, and President Biden requested it be raised to $58.5 billion in 2022. For the U.S. government, high levels of spending indicate commitment. In December 2021, USAID announced a new program in partnership with Mexico, called “Sembrando Oportunidades” (Sowing Opportunities) that would begin by providing employment opportunities to Honduran youths. That is only the first of many more projects to come.

The Biden administration should focus more squarely on fighting corruption, which it accurately raised as a central challenge and a driver of emigration. It recently announced a comprehensive strategy on corruption, which it should apply to Central America. That should entail cutting the size of the aid packages, setting reasonable goals, and reducing inflated claims. Finally, the process will have to include rigorous assessment of success that is not undertaken by USAID itself.

Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015).

Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT.

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