A new focus on opportunities and good governance for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras
Last month, USAID Administrator Samantha Power formally launched USAID’s Northern Triangle Task Force to address the causes of irregular migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Led by Executive Director Michael Camilleri, the task force will ensure a coordinated, unified, bold, and creative approach, as directed by President Biden’s Executive Order.
We interviewed Michael to get his take on the challenge of irregular migration and where USAID fits in.
1. You’re the executive director of USAID’s recently activated Northern Triangle Task Force. What is its mission?
USAID is already doing important work across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras: keeping youth out of gangs and in schools, helping farmers adapt to climate change, supporting women to build small businesses, combating corruption and impunity, providing emergency relief to hurricane victims, and much more. Our objective with the Task Force is to ensure a coordinated approach that is bold and creative.
As we scale up our efforts in the Northern Triangle, the Task Force will work to optimize our programs, evaluate and implement new ideas, explore potential partnerships, and assess our progress.
2. Why are people leaving El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras?
When I lived in Guatemala in the mid-2000s, I met community leaders, human rights lawyers, students, priests, and public servants committed to their country’s future. But I also saw the challenges they and their compatriots were up against. Parents struggled to feed their families because their crops were failing, or because they lacked the necessary skills to get a well-paying job. Violence and insecurity seemed to lurk around every corner, shaping decisions both mundane and life-altering. And politicians who pledged to work for the marginalized appeared far more interested in preserving their own privileges.
At times, the crime, corruption, and lack of opportunity were enough to cause one to lose hope — and many Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans have. Today, COVID-19 and natural disasters have made hard conditions even worse. And certain groups, including indigenous and LGBTQI+ communities and women and girls, are exposed to particular forms of violence and discrimination.
That’s why Vice President Harris spoke about needing to address both the recent factors causing people to leave — hurricanes, droughts, acute food insecurity, and the pandemic — as well as longstanding root causes of migration, such as corruption, violence, and poverty.
3. These are chronic challenges, and something that President Biden worked on when he was vice president. What is different about USAID’s approach this time?
It’s important to acknowledge that transformative change in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will take time, and it must ultimately come from the countries themselves. When President Biden focused on the Northern Triangle as vice president, he showed what was possible. Some of his achievements remain intact, while others — successful anti-corruption commissions for example — were abandoned under the last Administration.
So, first, we need to ensure that we approach the long-term structural challenges that drive irregular migration with a clear theory of change and a consistent, sustained approach. The decades-long bipartisan consensus that characterized U.S. policy toward Colombia can be a model here.
Second, we’re learning from past experiences and employing data to inform our decisions. USAID has used data to plan strategically, pivoting programs to focus on migration hotspots, work directly with would-be migrants, and help returned migrants reintegrate into their communities. For example, USAID recently inaugurated a new agriculture center in the Western Highlands, an area that many Guatemalans are leaving, to help more than 20,000 small farmers improve their productivity and product quality to increase incomes.
Finally, the Biden-Harris Administration will hold Central American governments accountable to robust, yet achievable, benchmarks. U.S. assistance can be a catalyst, but without political will in the countries themselves, any gains are likely to be short lived.
If we can do these things, our message to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans — that the United States is committed to helping them build better lives at home — will resonate much more powerfully.
4. Corruption is a perennial challenge in the region, and something that undermines progress in every other area. How is USAID tackling this issue?
Vice President Harris was absolutely right when she said that no matter how much effort we put in — on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity, on any of it — we will not make significant progress if corruption in the Northern Triangle persists.
Corruption is a critical barrier to investment. It corrodes the relationship between the state and its citizens, breeding anger and despair. And at a very human level, corruption kills.
In Guatemala a few years ago, the government’s social security institute gave a $15 million contract to a pharmaceutical company to provide dialysis treatment. The only problem: the company was not qualified to provide this treatment, and at least 13 patients died. Meanwhile, the executives of the institute pocketed more than $2 million. Believe it or not, there was a similar case in Honduras a year earlier, this one involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
The fact that we even know about these scandals is due in part to the support of the United States to courageous local prosecutors and groundbreaking international commissions such as CICIG in Guatemala. Where we have committed counterparts, USAID partners with prosecutors, access to information offices, and procurement agencies to strengthen transparency and accountability and build stronger institutions for long-term impact.
Just as importantly, we support civil society in the region to play its essential watchdog role. To underscore USAID’s unwavering commitment to empower and enable civil society, Administrator Power met recently with civil society leaders from El Salvador and Honduras.
Of course, the recent summary dismissal of the Attorney General and the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in El Salvador is the latest reminder of how fragile accountability and rule of law remain in the Northern Triangle.
But make no mistake, combating corruption will be central to U.S. engagement in the region, and we will bring the full range of our tools to bear. Just last month, for example, the U.S. Government imposed sanctions on a sitting legislator and a former presidential chief of staff in Guatemala. And in El Salvador, USAID responded to the government’s power grab by redirecting assistance away from the implicated institutions and toward civil society groups working on transparency and human rights.
5. What do you hope to see as a result of USAID’s efforts?
Something is fundamentally broken when so many people can only envision a better future for themselves and their children by risking everything on a perilous thousand-mile journey into the unknown.
The people of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras deserve better. They deserve to live in peace and security. To have an opportunity to provide for their loved ones. To have recourse to a government that advances their interests and is responsive to their needs.
In short, to have a hopeful future in their own countries.
This is President’s Biden’s vision for the Northern Triangle, and it is what drives USAID’s efforts in the region.
About the Author
Michael Camilleri is Senior Advisor to the USAID Administrator and Executive Director of USAID’s Northern Triangle Task Force.