A US partnership brings hope to El Salvador

For most Americans, the stories coming out of Central America over the past year have been grim. We have seen troubling images of migrants at our border, some of them unaccompanied children fleeing poverty, and the highest murder rates in the world. No less troubling have been stories about corruption, rule of law problems, and political disputes.   

Many Americans want to help bring stability and opportunity to Central America, because it’s the right thing to do and will ease pressures at the border. But Americans also want to be sure their taxpayer dollars are being used effectively.   

{mosads}I sit on the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency working to reduce poverty in the region. Last month, I traveled to El Salvador to see MCC’s work up close. What I saw confirmed the seriousness of the challenges facing Salvadorans—but also provided reason to hope for a better future. 

El Salvador’s challenges are daunting. While the country’s 12-year civil war ended over two decades ago, scars still linger. Political tensions run high, gang violence is widespread, and there is a basic lack of trust and understanding between government and business.  

Traffic was a mess, in part because bus drivers were striking to protest gang assassinations targeting them. Armed guards protected restaurants and office buildings. Salvadoran students told me they dress inconspicuously in public to avoid catching the eye of gangs and change into nicer clothes when they get to school.  

And yet, while I learned a lot about El Salvador’s challenges, I heard strong agreement from all walks of life on one point—MCC’s new investment is key to overcoming these obstacles. One U.S. official called the investment a “game changer.” A Salvadoran official described how MCC has sparked a national consensus on economic development. Business leaders called it the best chance to move the country forward.

This new optimism is rooted on the success of MCC’s existing efforts in El Salvador. From 2006-2012, MCC invested in the country’s isolated northern region, which suffered most heavily from the civil war.  During my visit, I met amazing young Salvadorans who traveled on an MCC-funded road to attend an MCC-funded technical college thanks to MCC-funded scholarships. When asked how many of them prefer to stay in El Salvador rather than look for work in the U.S., they all raised their hands.  

At a farm cooperative, workers talked about their gratitude to MCC for providing training and tools that allowed them to diversify into more lucrative crops. Overall, I learned that poverty rates in Chalatenango—where a large portion of MCC’s investments were made—are down.

MCC is building on this success. Its new five-year, $277-million investment in El Salvador is designed to improve productivity and attract private-sector investment. The program will also spur trade by building highways and border crossings, and pay for education and training so Salvadorans have the skills businesses need.   

When MCC invests in a country, it doesn’t simply write a check—it lays out clear expectations. In the case of El Salvador, that means a commitment from the government to work with the private sector to slash red tape and create public-private partnerships. It also means Salvadorans will contribute $88 million, and that they will do the hard work of implementing these programs, with MCC oversight and advice. 

It won’t be easy, but this investment is intended to bring government and business together to create jobs and opportunities—and establish the basis for a more productive relationship. The stakes are high, but everyone understands that the country can’t afford more of the status quo.   

As Americans, we have a stake in the success of these investments. Relations between our countries are close—around one third of the country’s population lives in the U.S. Many are refugees. If this investment increases productivity and creates jobs, the young Salvadorans I met will have an alternative to gangs and less incentive to leave their country.    

Too often we hear stories about government programs that aren’t working. Americans deserve to know our hard-earned dollars are spent wisely and effectively. I’m confident that one small agency is doing just that—and providing hope and the promise of a better future for a country in desperate need of both. 

McCue is president of Message Global and a Millennium Challenge Corporation board member. She served as chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from 1998 to 2007, was the founding president and CEO of ONE, and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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