Ending assistance to Central America is morally shameful

With news of an attempted immediate end to development assistance for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the three countries also known as the Northern Triangle, the past few days have been uncertain for many Central America observers in the United States, and even much more concerning for civil society in the region. What about the governments that are the target of the ire of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE? Not so much.

As others have made clear in the past few days, shutting off development assistance to the Northern Triangle is counterproductive. Adriana Beltran, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, called it a “shooting yourself in the foot” policy. This is because plenty of research shows that increased economic opportunity and security reduce the intentions to migrate. Whether you like development programs or not, without United States support, they will diminish in size and scope, while families who depend on them will suffer most and migration will further increase.

During the Bush administration and the Obama administration, not to mention the first half of the Trump administration, it was understood in Washington that foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries was a cost effective and productive investment in soft power. Yearly development assistance to all three countries combined was less than $225 million in 2018, half as much as the United States spends each year just to maintain the 528 miles of border fence built under federal law in 2006.

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Regional gains in reducing homicide rates, increasing economic growth, and prosecuting corruption in recent years, while far from complete or sustainable, still hold promise. Development assistance from the United States has played no small part in these needed improvements, primarily by supporting strong civil society and targeting the stalwart government officials keen on leading positive change. The punitive and rash decision by the Trump administration to stop some forms of aid to these countries will reverse progress on these issues and others.

Stopping development assistance will also do nothing to pressure the governments in the region that the Trump administration is actively targeting. They will not be motivated by threats of cuts to development assistance. Some officials may even quietly celebrate it. The aid in the crosshairs of the Trump administration is development assistance given almost exclusively to local and international agencies for projects that promote workforce development, primary education, citizen security, human rights, and good governance. Note this type of aid does not flow through local government coffers. Rather, it is often used to advocate for greater transparency and accountability of those governments.

It seems security aid to local governments will continue to flow while development assistance to civil society will cease. Only two days before the end of assistance was announced, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer Four heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities MORE was in Honduras to sign a memorandum of cooperation on security for the region to combat narcotics, human trafficking, and transnational organized crime. As a result, it is possible that even more individuals will suffer from ineffective and repressive police tactics, and migration will increase in their efforts to seek safety elsewhere.

You do not have to look far, particularly to Nicaragua and Venezuela, to predict what might happen when governments snuff out civil society, and what that ultimately means in terms of increased migration. For those watching more closely, recent investments by China in Central America, as United States support in the region has faltered, should give anyone pause about who might step in to fill the void, especially those keeping score in this transactional Trump administration in Washington.

The White House has finally made the link between what is happening at the United States border and what is happening in the Northern Triangle. Unfortunately, that link is devoid of any understanding of reality, empathy, or humanity. Geopolitics requires years of observation and study, but empathy and humanity is something of which we are all capable.

One of the first things we teach our children is to put themselves in the shoes of others. It is a simple exercise, but one that some in Washington seem to have forgotten. If we put ourselves in the shoes of anyone living in a marginalized community in the Northern Triangle, we would wake up every morning uncertain about feeding our families. We would live in constant fear the local gang coming to forcibly recruit our children.

When Pope Francis met with young migrants last week, he reminded the world, “Every person has the right to the future.” No one wants to leave their family to trek thousands of miles with their children in tow in search of a small chance for a better future knowing how much they will all suffer along the way. Migrants are not coming to the United States to “game the system.” They are coming with hope for a future. Development assistance to Central America and other countries is imperfect. However, ending it is counterproductive at best and morally reprehensible at worst.

Tom Hare is a senior researcher at the Initiative for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of “Zonas Peligrosas: The Challenge of Creating Safe Neighborhoods in Central America.” Raymond Offenheiser is the director of the Initiative for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame and a distinguished professor at the Keough School of Global Affairs. He is the former president of Oxfam America.