A plan to rebuild commerce and hope in Central America
The White House last week convened corporate executives, academics and nonprofit leaders to discuss a bold goal for a troubled region of the world.
Media coverage focused on the bottom line: Companies including Mastercard, Microsoft and Cargill have pledged to invest $1.2 billion in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as part of the administration’s Partnership for Central America. These investments will translate into, among other gains, online banking access for 1 million small businesses, digital skills training for 100,000 individuals and sales contracts for 1,200 coffee farmers.
We and our colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health lead the partnership’s metrics pillar, so we’re always glad to see such statistics. At the same time, we believe this entire initiative hinges on a target that’s much harder to measure than jobs created or dollars invested.
It hinges on hope.
The partnership’s defining policy goal is to improve lives in the Northern Triangle so individuals and families can see a future for themselves there. Under current conditions, far too many residents of these countries risk their lives on perilous journeys across the border into the U.S. The idea behind the partnership is that coordinated public, private and nonprofit investments can create economic opportunity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and thereby reduce the incentive for people to flee their homes.
We support this approach but believe we need to look deeper as well. Each of these countries has been upended by decades of trauma: Civil wars, natural disasters, gang violence and stark inequities that have made a hard life all the harder for indigenous and rural populations. Civil society in each of these nations is extremely fragile. Trust has been shattered.
Without trust — in neighbors, in government, in employers, in society — there cannot be hope. And without hope, millions will continue to flee their homes in search of a brighter future. To truly effect change, we must first spark, and then sustain, a new hope across the Northern Triangle.
That’s why the partnership is so exciting: It brings together a cross-sectoral coalition that has the potential to rebuild trust and restore hope through sustained, synergistic investment.
We see the process unfolding in three steps: Reconciliation, reconstruction and restoration.
Reconciliation: We can’t (nor would we want to) force a political truth and reconciliation process on a sovereign nation. But we can use the partnership’s investments to address — and begin to correct — the enormous inequities in a country like Guatemala, where there’s a big gulf between the elite and the masses and a deep divide between the capital and the rest of the country. By steering investment to rural regions that have long been left to struggle on their own, we expect to steadily build local economies, strengthen social service networks, improve health care and generally raise the quality of life. If we can elevate these rural regions so they are closer to on par with the capital, we believe we will see the social fabric begin to knit back together, with less mistrust and more unity.
Reconstruction: To restore hope in shattered communities will require more than jobs; it will require a dedicated effort to rebuild public infrastructure — everything from water and sewage systems to roads to telecommunications. Synergies between the partnership’s investments should nudge this reconstruction along much more quickly than it would otherwise proceed. For instance, if Microsoft extends broadband to a rural region, other partners can piggyback on that investment to deliver online banking, online education, telemedicine and other services. This type of 360-degree investment in a community can create a far more durable recovery, rebuilding trust and sparking a genuine and lasting sense of hope.
Restoration and recovery: The reconstruction of infrastructure must be accompanied by a restoration of essential services, with special attention to the needs of marginalized groups. At the Harvard Chan School, we are building an interactive data dashboard for the partnership that will integrate multiple data sources, from household wealth to vaccine inequities to gang violence to the risks of hurricanes, to name just a few. Users will be able to zoom in to see these metrics at the neighborhood level. This should help us direct public health and social service investments to the regions that need it most and speed the recovery.
All of this is immensely challenging work. It will take time — years and decades. But it is also immensely important work.
If we get this right, we will not only achieve the administration’s policy goal of better control over our borders, but we will materially improve lives for millions of our neighbors to the south. And that would be the best outcome of all.
Patricia Geli, Ph.D., is the executive director, North American Hub, Reform for Resilience Commission at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Michelle A. Williams is dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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