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What’s new in the Root Causes Strategy for Central America?

By Justin Fugle

The Biden Administration recently announced its Root Causes Strategy to address poverty, violence, impunity and other causes of migration from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. One senior Administration official said, “The first [Pillar] is economic insecurity and inequality. We want to create jobs so that people want to stay home.” The Root Causes Strategy is also designed to address corruption and improve human rights; counter trafficking, gang violence and extortion; and reduce sexual and gender-based violence, including femicide and intimate partner violence, which have spiked to even higher levels during COVID-19 lockdowns. The Administration has requested $861 million to support the Root Causes Strategy in the next budget and has a vision of investing $4 billion over the next four years.

Plan International USA advocated for the Strategy’s dedicated focus on gender-based violence and applauds the holistic approach of this vital initiative. With decades of experience in the region, Plan also would pose two central questions:

1) What new and innovative programs — like a focus on young people’s voices — will the USG employ in order to advance these goals more substantively than through prior similar efforts?

2) How will the USG integrate programs across these pillars, for example, to promote women’s economic empowerment?

Women’s economics empowerment

Economic independence for women is a key factor for being able to exit abusive relationships. Therefore, pillars I and V are related: Greater success in generating economic security for women can contribute to greater reductions in domestic violence. Economic autonomy for women also depends on having access to good public education and health services. Corruption (and tax avoidance/evasion) deprives these services of funding, weakening their coverage and quality. In Honduras, around 12% of GDP is thought to be lost annually to corruption, which is more than the annual health and education budgets combined. So, there is a relationship between Pillars II and V.

Pillar I mentions inclusive economic growth just once, but this is critically important in the context of Central America, given the huge inequities. In Guatemala, a small group of perhaps just 240 people control more than half of the wealth of the whole country, while only 25-30% finish lower secondary school (and meet minimum requirements for most formal employment). This context especially affects girls and leaves female unemployment much higher than among men. Therefore, a gender lens and a focus on women’s economic empowerment is critical because, while more trade and legal certainty may help the overall economy, those effects do not always trickle down to support women in the informal sector.

Links between types of violence

USAID should also tap its prior experience and research on the links between domestic violence and gang violence and envision young people as part of the solution. That positive perspective on young people is reinforced by a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The Commission called on governments to respect the rights of young people and not to stereotype them as public enemies. It says many more young people are gang victims than gang members. It calls on States to have a “mindset of fully protecting their rights, as well as rehabilitating and reintegrating them into society.”

The report points out that many young people face violence in their homes and schools, as well as from gangs. Those sources of violence must be addressed “because one of the risk factors we found that is most important in predicting whether or not a youth will become involved in crime and violence is witnessing domestic violence.” So, rather than a hard line, what most young people really need are opportunities for employment, education and to feel heard.

Listening to young people

In Plan’s interviews with 600 young people in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, they said, “All the time people are asking us about what we want to do, but there are no social programs and no job opportunities.”

As one youth activist working in Honduras said, “My dream is this will mean more girls finish their studies which will help our country to progress and break the cycle of poverty. If I’m poor and I have a baby at 16 years old, my baby will also be poor and it creates a cycle. Plan International showed me that I can break that cycle by getting an education.

“I’ve got lots of dreams and want Honduras to flourish as a country. I don’t want girls to have to grow up to be housewives — we should run the world! I want us to be able to go as far in life as we want to and to be as happy as possible. I'm not on this planet just to have babies and do housework! Having a family is important — but I know I have so much more to give.”

For the Biden Administration’s strategy to work better than past efforts, it must be able to generate this kind of hope for the future among the young people of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This outcome can be achieved by offering more education and employment and reducing violence and impunity, but it must also offer young people a voice and a role in shaping their futures. Otherwise, the evidence shows that they will continue to seek a better life through migration.

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