Central America aid is crucial to address the humanitarian crisis

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When it comes to Central America, there are many conflicting, confusing, and, sadly, inaccurate representations of poverty, violence, corruption, and social dysfunction plaguing the region. Some believe the United States should pull all support, including foreign aid, and others feel the U.S. should remain steadfast and increase assistance.

Despite these differing opinions, what remains true is that Central Americans are willing and capable partners in addressing the challenges. Of course, they bear the ultimate responsibility for the conditions in their countries. But they cannot tackle these challenges alone. Washington’s support is needed. Further, the United States has a security issue at its border and our own communities are suffering. Should we pull assistance, we risk exacerbating our own problems.

I recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee urging Washington to not cut foreign aid to Central America. Over the years, we have offered strategically-focused assistance to the region. Since 2014, U.S. appropriated assistance to the Northern Trianglecountries has exceeded $2.5 billion. That includes over $1.2 billion for citizen security initiatives, representing 0.47 percent of total U.S.government spending on foreign assistance during that period.

Americans sometimes seem to assume that the United States is bearing all or most of the cost of public security in the recipient countries. Infact, even though $2.5 billion is a lot of money, it is a little more than a quarter of what El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have spent on security and justice under the Alliance for Prosperity out of their own resources. And then there is the far more important fact that dozens of Central American law enforcement officers have lost their lives in the line of duty in carrying out these programs. The Central Americans are applying resources and making sacrifices to improve conditions in their own countries.

A common misconception is that these funds line the pockets of corrupt governments. But in reality, the funds are channeled through contracts with nongovernmental organizations, educational institutions, and other third parties to provide goods and services directly to the citizens of the country. U.S. foreign assistance, particularly since the inception of the Alliance for Prosperity in 2014, has been instrumental in helping CentralAmericans focus their own efforts to address the region’s challenges. This compassionate, supportive aid encourages the governments to adopt American priorities, in effect extending the reach of our own law enforcement agencies and curtailing corruption and enhancing transparency.

For example, to help train police in Central America, the U.S. will contract with a third party like the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. Officers are selected by the U.S. after a background investigation to ensure that the trainees are not corrupt or vulnerable to blackmail. In all of these ways, hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers are leveraged many times over to the benefit of our own people and communities. As a result, a real cut-off of aid to the region would be counterproductive for our own security and could set back hard won progress.

However, foreign assistance must also be coupled with regional leadership to develop a long-term growth agenda that will boost job creation. My conversations with regional thought leaders and other observers suggest that a promising approach would be creating a digital strategy in the region. Wider use of digital technologies would curtail corruption by making tax and customs fraud almost impossible. Digital technologies also would reduce informality by making compliance with registration requirements easier and less costly. Further, small and medium-sized businesses would have improved access to global markets, increasing their ability to grow and create job opportunities for Central American workers.

A digital approach does not address every challenge and cannot restore social trust and rule of law. But the experience of countries like SouthKorea and Kenya suggests that it can reduce corruption and informality. And, perhaps more importantly, it represents a commitment by abroad and influential network of Central American leaders to the hard political work of driving reforms that will strengthen the foundation for future prosperity. As such, it is an example of the potential multiplier effect of U.S. foreign assistance when it is well aligned with the region’s own economic initiatives.

More broadly, this model – a practical strategy and a network of Central American partners committed to implementing it – can make a downpayment on reforms needed to put Central America on a more robust and more inclusive growth trajectory, leveraging U.S. foreign assistance dollars to further promote U.S. interests.

Matthew Rooney is the managing director of the economic growth initiative at the George Bush Institute and Southern Methodist University. He previously served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

Tags Central America Diplomacy Government International United States World

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