November brought not one, but two devastating hurricanes to the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, decimating economies already brought low by Covid-19. This triple whammy could easily push thousands of desperate migrants toward the United States' southern border in search of an income to sustain their families.
While unique, all three countries are in profound financial and political distress. Resource-challenged in the best of times, this disaster trifecta has sapped the nations’ ability to function effectively. Inevitably they will have to appeal to the international community for foreign assistance to both rebuild and take care of their citizens’ immediate needs.
The United States will surely be called upon to provide emergency and reconstruction assistance as it has in the past. We believe the Biden administration should respond generously because it is the right thing to do but it should do so in ways that strengthen democratic institutions and contribute to the fight against corruption. The Biden administration should seize this opportunity to both improve the lives of Central Americans so they have an alternative to migration, as well as make long-term improvements in the region’s democratic governance that can improve citizen security and trust in government.
How can we accomplish this when past attempts at reconstruction, such as those following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, met with limited success? Promises to make Hurricane Mitch reconstruction transformative did not materialize in any meaningful way. So it will be necessary for the international community and affected Central Americans to take a different approach this time to ensure that we are not just rebuilding old systems of corruption and inequality. Transformation is possible if the following principles are adopted:
First, we must ensure that local civil society organizations have a seat at the table when reconstruction plans are being drawn up. This cannot be left solely to the international experts and the political and economic elites that have run, and stolen from, these countries for decades. Local organizations, churches, and academic institutions must be involved in defining the short- and long-term strategies for how aid should be invested.
Second, aid programs should go beyond requiring standard auditing practices (which are needed) and include innovative mechanisms for citizen oversight and greater transparency. Public access to information about funding sources, expenditures, and project implementation are essential to ensuring that Central American organizations and journalists can monitor and report on the reconstruction process. There is already a track record for this. One of our organizations (Association for a More Just Society) conducted extensive reviews of government COVID-19 spending that found significant evidence of corruption and has resulted in several arrests and changes in government procedures. We are just one of the organization doing this important watchdog work in the three countries. Central American governments resist this kind of oversight and have attacked and threatened those who dare to question, but citizen oversight must be built into any new hurricane relief and reconstruction assistance.
Additionally, the whole relief package must be audited by a second panel of international and national anti-corruption experts, financed by the donor community. This may include the creation of a temporary international entity where information about international donations are centralized and monitored by the panel. The panel should be empowered to score government’s progress, much like the Millennium Challenge Corporation already does, to make sure the goals laid out in the rebuilding plans are met—and only then will the next phase of aid be disbursed.
Foreign assistance should also contribute to other long sought policy goals. In Honduras and Guatemala that means strengthening democratic institutions so they can effectively fight crime and corruption. These include an independent Attorney General office and specialized anti-corruption units, the judiciary and anti-corruption courts, and the police. Nicaragua will require deeper political reform including a new electoral system with an even playing field and basic human rights for all. If effective, these reforms and transformed institutions will directly contribute to improving life in the Northern Triangle and help Central Americans see their future at home and not in the United States.
Finally, this plan can leverage short-term responses into long-term improvements in the region’s tattered social safety net. For example, aid can rebuild hospitals and schools but should also help reform the health and education systems families need to thrive in their home countries. We believe central to the short- and medium-term plan should be significant housing projects—which offer homes to families who have lost theirs in the floods. Owning a home is a significant incentive to stay and help rebuild one’s community, and housing projects also create thousands of urgently- needed construction jobs.
The northern triangle is not a lost cause. It is imperative that we respond now to the crisis created by the hurricanes and then stay to help build the institutions that can contribute to a better life for its citizens, who like the rest of us, would much rather stay home. The plan we outline above suggests how the United States might leverage the current crisis to make major gains against corruption and vastly improve democratic governance in the region. If successful, such changes will be transformative in nature and give the citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua the hope they have been fighting for in the streets and demanding at the ballot box for decades, while reducing the incentives for migration.
Dr. Kurt Alan Ver Beek is the Co-Founder and President of the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, a Honduran civil society organization addressing violence and corruption. Eric L. Olson is Director of the Central America-D.C. Platform at the Seattle International Foundation and a Wilson Center Global Fellow.