On Monday, the State Department announced details of President Trump’s promised cuts to foreign aid for the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, warning that future U.S. funding will require these countries to improve efforts to decrease migration. The announcement comes as the number of Central Americans crossing the southwest U.S. border continues to increase, with 144,000 migrants and asylum seekers taken into custody in May.
While cutting aid, the Trump administration has sought to stem migration by tightening the U.S. border and increasing pressure on Mexico. Last week, a threat to implement new tariffs on Mexican goods was postponed after Mexico agreed to rein in “irregular migration.” Critics of the aid cuts argue that they are counterproductive and that aid can be used to decrease the underlying conditions leading people to migrate.
Why do the numbers continue to surge? Are there other potential solutions? Here are some answers.
1. Why do Central Americans head north?
Individuals and families flee El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras because these countries — and cities within these countries — rank among the world’s most violent. In addition, years of drought and crop failure have caused extreme food insecurity, forcing rural residents to abandon their homelands. Others leave looking for economic opportunity.
2. Can foreign aid help resolve these issues?
The link between foreign aid, development and migration is complicated and likely varies across the three main drivers of migration from Central America: violence, food insecurity and lack of economic opportunity. A closer look at existing research can help illuminate these connections.
My work on foreign aid demonstrates that the United States and other donors promote development when and where it is in their self-interest. As additional research with David Leblang shows, this includes employing foreign aid to improve economic opportunities in migrant-sending countries, as part of a strategy to decrease migration. Other studies show this can be counterproductive for donors: In some cases economic development may provide resources that make it economically viable for families to finance planned migration.
But those arriving at the U.S. southern border in recent months aren’t people who suddenly have the resources to finance a planned move. Rather, they are often desperate families or unaccompanied minors fleeing violence or extreme poverty and food insecurity; they fear for their survival. As a result, they are willing to travel thousands of miles and face death, rape, extortion, human trafficking and other dangers, with uncertain prospects at the end.
3. Why hasn’t aid worked so far?
The United States and other donors have sent more than $2 billion in foreign aid to Central America in recent years. Nevertheless, migration has increased.
Research shows that donors tend not to prioritize funding that targets immediate causes of forced migration. In the Northern Triangle, donors often fund regional security initiatives and governance projects, devoting resources to counternarcotics plans and strengthening the justice sector. Long-term prosperity and security in Central America would require increased economic opportunity, reduced corruption, increased tax revenue, efforts to contain organized crime and decreased U.S. demand for drugs traveling through the region.
But investing in these long-term strategies would be unlikely to slow migration today. Parents worry about children being raped or killed on the way to school. They want to prevent starvation or stunting. With such concerns, the possibility of long-term improvement is unlikely to sway migration decisions.
4. How can aid address causes of forced migration?
Research shows that local programs by the U.S.-funded Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to reduce violence have successfully lowered crime victimization and increased citizen’s perceived security. However, experts criticize the overall effort for placing too much emphasis on broader counternarcotics programs rather than these community-based projects. The link between violence and migration suggests that efforts to end local violence could also reduce immigration. U.S. government officials have pointed to evidence from El Salvador that is consistent with this possibility.
Further, Northern Triangle countries cannot cope with challenges posed by globalization and climate change. Food insecurity in the region is high and forecast to increase. In Guatemala, 16 percent of the population faces chronic severe food insecurity and 22 percent lives with moderate insecurity; in El Salvador and Honduras, 20 percent and 23 percent of the population, respectively, lives with moderate or severe food insecurity. Funding the transition to new agricultural practices might help ameliorate these problems, and help reduce the pressure to leave.
More than 40 percent of the population in Guatemala and Honduras live in rural areas; that’s true for 29 percent of El Salvador’s population. However, secure legal rights to land are lacking for many in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, particularly for vulnerable and indigenous groups. This can limit farmers’ ability or willingness to invest in the land. Of all the U.S. aid to Guatemala from 2015 to 2017, according to the OECD data set, only 16 percent went to agriculture; in Honduras, only 14 percent; and in El Salvador, less than 1 percent of U.S. aid was channeled to the agriculture sector.
Foreign aid could facilitate investment in climate-resilient and high-value crops; improve farming techniques and irrigation; finance efforts to reform land rights; and connect rural areas with markets, including those for regional trade. Donors could finance efforts to ensure food availability in the meantime, reducing pressure to migrate.
The problems driving migrants and asylum seekers from Central America are complex, and no aid program can eliminate them overnight. And in the long run, differences in economic opportunity will continue to provide incentives for migration that research suggests can benefit both sending and receiving countries.
Research also demonstrates that foreign aid can reduce the drivers of forced migration, such as local violence and food insecurity. It further shows that previous aid flows have not always prioritized these areas. Targeting aid to local communities with high out-migration and tailoring projects to address area-specific drivers presents a possible pathway for improving the ability of foreign aid to decrease flows of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America.
Sarah Bermeo is associate professor of public policy and political science in the Sanford School at Duke University, associate director of the Duke Center for International Development and author of Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World (Oxford University Press, 2018).