On May 1, 2021, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador removed the nation’s attorney general and all members of its Supreme Court. This sudden action sparked concern regarding the separation of powers in El Salvador’s government, with human rights organizations viewing it as a power grab by the country’s president, Nayib Bukele. USAID acted on the concerns by pulling all foreign aid funding previously dispersed through the Salvadoran government. The funding is now promised as direct aid to El Salvador’s civil society groups. Direct aid in El Salvador will ensure the most vulnerable El Salvadorans receive the help needed.
USAID Projects in El Salvador
USAID’s most recent foreign aid projects in El Salvador are designed to address the root causes of migration from Latin America to the United States. In January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that set aside $4 billion to address immigration from the Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The order states that improving livelihoods in these countries eliminates the need for migrants to flee to the United States. In May 2021, USAID launched an official Northern Triangle Task Force. The task force laid out a strategy for improving livelihoods by targeting three areas:
- Prosperity – USAID will fund economic development to prevent poverty in El Salvador. This strategy includes improving infrastructure, investing in higher-value industries to create job opportunities and fostering entrepreneurship. The Salvadoran organizations receiving aid to implement these programs are primarily private sector actors.
- Security – USAID will target crime and corruption as another root cause of migration. This strategy includes increasing government transparency and making justice systems more responsive to citizens’ needs. Originally, the governmental National Civil Police and Institute for Access to Public Information were involved with the implementation of USAID projects related to this target. However, the shift to direct aid requires non-governmental organizations in El Salvador to replace government actors.
- Governance – USAID aims to make governments in the Northern Triangle more effective at responding to citizens needs. This strategy includes increasing accountability for government spending, improving government delivery of services and promoting citizen engagement with democracy. Civil society is the main recipient of direct aid for this purpose.
Civil Society in El Salvador
Direct aid in El Salvador builds upon a preexisting robust civil society landscape. Civil society in El Salvador first rose to prominence in the 1960s by providing humanitarian services. The Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s saw the organizations taking on economic and social welfare work to replace overextended governments. The constitution of El Salvador protects the right of assembly and the Ministry of Interior and Territorial Development registers civil society organizations under that protection. Previous administrations promoted the creation and smooth functioning of civil society organizations. However, President Bukele mistrusts civil society organizations and his government stigmatizes them.
Civil society organizations previously received direct aid in El Salvador from USAID. In 2020, $7.5 million out of $60 million in USAID funding for El Salvador targeted improving governance and involving civil society. Experts had been lobbying for civil society organizations’ increased involvement with the distribution of aid long before President Bukele incited USAID’s action and many activists in Latin America praised USAID’s adjustment. Activists expressed hope that civil society organizations from other countries in the Northern Triangle would also secure larger roles in upcoming projects.
Strategy for El Salvador
While foreign aid from the United States circumvents the Salvadoran government, foreign policy officials continue to pressure the Bukele administration to restore the separation of powers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Costa Rica in June 2021 for an annual meeting with the member states of the Central American Integration System. During the gathering, Blinken met privately with the Salvadoran foreign minister to discuss the issue of aid. The Biden administration also decided to bypass the lengthy appointment process for an ambassador to El Salvador and instead sent former U.S. ambassador Jean Manes to El Salvador as charge d’affaires to handle diplomatic relations with El Salvador immediately.
While the programs in El Salvador that will receive direct aid are currently unspecified, the United States has successfully committed domestic private actors to invest in El Salvador. For example, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that Microsoft will give internet access to three million citizens in the Northern Triangle countries, including El Salvador. This demonstrates how private actors fulfill roles that governments traditionally perform, such as infrastructure expansion, when governments fail to provide services. USAID hopes to utilize civil society organizations to run similar programs for democratic reform in El Salvador.
The Salvadoran government’s decision to remove its top judiciaries led USAID to retract its trust in the country’s government with regard to aid funding. USAID chose civil society organizations to receive aid instead and also set aside direct aid to further democratic reforms. Official plans for redirected aid funding have yet to be released, but U.S. government officials have historically seen success in engaging private actors in tasks that governments usually complete. As the United States continues to pressure the Salvadoran government to increase accountability, foreign aid to El Salvador fosters more civil society engagement.
– Viola Chow
Photo: Wikipedia Commons