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Corruption, weak institutions and natural disasters: is there hope for Honduras to rebuild?

Honduras is experiencing dire symptoms of a failed state, accelerated by a pandemic and two hurricanes, and nurtured by weak state capacity, corruption and poor rule of law. How to fix that?
Juan Pablo Sabillon is the founder of El Milenio, a youth platform for free speech and empowerment in Honduras.
In handout image provided by the Spanish Royal Household, Queen Letizia of Spain is seen speaking with children affected by the hurricanes at Patria Institute on December 15, 2020 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Crédito: Handout/Spanish Royal Household via Gett

After a cataclysmic year marked by the mismanagement of a global pandemic and two devastating hurricanes, there are serious doubts about the Honduran government’s ability to reconstruct the country's infrastructure and restore delivery of public services such as housing, water and electricity to thousands of displaced citizens.

Just as wavering, is the country’s ability to restore its social fabric and commitment to a path that will strengthen democratic institutions and propel sustainable economic opportunities.

This week, hundreds gathered at a bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, departing on a migrant caravan with hopes to find sympathy at American borders that will soon be under Joe Biden’s administration.

While many of these migrants leave because they have recently lost their homes, it is bad governance, not hurricanes, what has been causing migrant caravans for the past years.

Corruption in Honduras has become a case study for political academics.

This year will not only be marked by the mobile hospitals corruption scandal, where officials grossly overpaid for seven mobile hospitals (five of which have yet to arrive) through a phony intermediary. It will also be remembered as the year when Honduras' Congress fired OAS’ anti-corruption mission MACCIH and approved a highly controversial new penal code, which shamelessly reduced corruption sentences.

While these anecdotes are scathing, the data is clear.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which provides foreign aid to developing countries contingent on their improvement on key indicators such as corruption and governance, has disqualified aid to Honduras for the past nine years due to its poor performance in corruption and rule of law indicators, which stand in a downtrend at 18% and 7%, respectively.

Though Honduran corruption is the hot topic, the government’s lack of effectiveness and ability to provide basic necessities is an underlying, but equally worrisome issue. The MCC indicator for government effectiveness gave Honduras a 33% grade, lower than neighboring Nicaragua (67%) and El Salvador (46%).

With over 236,000 bureaucrats, many of which are hired through party clientelism, the state’s apparatus is too slow and often inoperant. A prime example is last week’s frenzy to meet a deadline to acquire the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. As the Ministry of Health went through red tape and bureaucratization, the Honduran Private Sector Council (COHEP) had to service a last-minute $53 million warranty to secure 1.4 million vaccines for those enrolled in the social security network.

Even though corruption is the main issue that pumps indignation into the hearts of Hondurans, the ineptitude shown by the government through the years is just as threatening. With time, the confabulation of these factors has exponentially fueled the public’s distrust in government, making it even more difficult for officials to gain credibility and govern effectively.

Unquestionably, Honduras portrays the tale of a country that is experiencing dire symptoms of a failed state-- symptoms that have been accelerated by a pandemic and two hurricanes, but have been nurtured by weak state capacity, corruption and poor rule of law.

Can the people save the people?

Concepts like legitimacy and trust in government have transcended theory - they are vital for effective distribution of humanitarian aid.

As relief efforts continue, NGO’s, both domestic and international, are reluctant towards working alongside the government. During the hurricanes, groups of citizens rushed to flooded neighborhoods with boats to save people that were left stranded on their rooftops, others prepared supplies, volunteered and donated to shelters.

“Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (Only the people save the people) was a common phrase heard in the north coast of Honduras and shared throughout social media.

However, the admirable solidarity of the Honduran people also led to duplicate efforts and ineffectiveness.

It is naive to think that we can “replace the state.” Government-- speedy and honest, is required in times of crisis and was nowhere to be found.

What are Honduras’ chances of physically and socially rebuilding our nation?

A simplistic answer might lie in the November 2021 presidential election. But is it possible to be hopeful when candidates that have been involved in corruption cases are running for re-election? And, given the shallow reforms to the electoral system, their victories are almost guaranteed. Unfortunately, the chances of a renewed leadership that can lead institutional changes in the short term are slim.

The country's best bet, without a doubt, lies in a generational succession of political leadership. Young leaders are slowly rising to the occasion, taking leadership positions in organizations like Transparency International (ASJ), the National Anti-Corruption Council and FOSDEH, an economic policy think tank.

This generational change has also given birth to a new movement of altruistic, but also fierce advocacy organizations.

Initiatives like Operation Eta, a digital fund-raiser organized by more than 30 youth-led organizations that raised more than $300 thousand, demonstrated that creativity and strategic thinking can push for a sustainable impact. Another youth advocacy organization, EsLibertad, led an unprecedented cyber protest against congress earlier this year, where more than 10,000 people automated emails to all congress members seeking accountability after their vote for the new penal code. Other organizations like El Milenio and EspacioH are also promoting new forums for youth political participation and policy-oriented discussion.

This flourishing of new leadership in well-established civil society organizations and emerging advocacy organizations show a glimpse of what can be replicated in the private and public sector.

While it might sound romantic, this might be the country's last shot. Renewed leadership can restore credibility and also produce results. Young, brave and honest professionals must enter the political arena in the upcoming years and strive to reverse the plague of corruption, fight against the ineptitude that cripples the bureaucratic apparatus and restore confidence in government, which is a necessary evil we must learn to tame in Latin America.

Juan Pablo Sabillon is the founder of El Milenio, the first nonpartisan youth platform for free speech and empowerment in Honduras. He is a graduate of political science and business from Emory University in Atlanta.