New Report Questions Effectiveness of U.S. Aid to Central America

Latin America and the Caribbean

Despite more than $1.2 billion in U.S. assistance since 2008, perceptions of citizen security in Central America have continued to decline and rates of violent crime have continued to rise, contributing to large numbers of children and families fleeing for the United States in recent years.

In light of the worsening situation in Central America, a new report from the Wilson Center calls into question the implementation and effectiveness of U.S. assistance programs in the region, particularly the Central American Regional Security Initiative, known as CARSI.

Photo credit: USAIDAt an event promoting the release of the year-long study, Cristina Eguizábal, a Senior Fellow at the National Foundation for Development, characterized CARSI as a series of projects rather than a cohesive strategy for improving citizen security. Most panelists also agreed that impunity, corruption and lack of political will on the part of U.S. partner nations will continue to present significant challenges for such initiatives going forward.

The United States has allocated $803.6 million in CARSI funding and another $558 million for CARSI-related goals since Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, but Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America and the Caribbean Francisco "Paco" Palmieri claimed that the aid package has "not been funded at sufficient levels to have had a systemic impact."

The Wilson Center report also concluded that CARSI programs have, "with a few exceptions,” lacked adequate evaluations of their impact and effectiveness. Seeking to improve this situation, the U.S. Congress recently called for “detailed spend plans” and a report from USAID “on progress toward achieving the goals” of CARSI in the approved omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2015. However, Congress did not require the administration to conduct detailed evaluations of each of the projects to see which projects are working.

The FY2015 Omnibus Appropriations Bill recently approved by the Senate calls for "$260 million to respond to a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America," though it is unclear if these funds are connected to CARSI. This aid would be used to help address "border security and the reintegration of migrants, as well as causes of the migration, including programs to improve education and employment, support families, counter gangs, coyotes and drug cartels and professionalize police forces” in Central America. 

Earlier this year, the governments of the “Northern Triangle” countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) called on the United States to help fund $10 billion worth of economic development and security capacity-building programs in the region over the next five years.  

Last month, the presidents of the Northern Triangle nations met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. to discuss the vaguely defined objectives outlined in the "Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle," which focused largely on infrastructure projects in the region.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told Congress days after that meeting that her agency has assessed "that it could take $5 billion over 5 years to fully implement" effective citizen security and development initiatives in Central America, ostensibly referring to the “Alliance for Prosperity” plan.

Last week, Guatemala's president stated that the governments of the Northern Triangle countries would be willing to match a five-year, $5 billion U.S. aid package with their own funding. However, it is not likely that the incoming U.S. Congress will approve any new funding for CARSI or in support of CARSI goals above the roughly $600 million approved for FY2015.

Considering these political and budget limitations and high levels of corruption, more rigorous evaluations of current programs are needed to ensure the effectiveness of U.S. government-funded projects. Additionally, U.S. agencies should coordinate more closely with each other and with their partners to establish clear goals and metrics for success as well as a cohesive strategy.

The promise by regional governments to match U.S. funding up to $5 billion is a welcome sign of Central America’s commitment to addressing serious, long-standing issues. Capitalizing on this commitment to develop an agreed strategy and effective implementation of the strategy will be important. Without it, U.S. assistance may have little impact.