Fighting Corruption and US Foreign Assistance

May 27, 2021 By John Glenn

As Vice President Harris prepares for her upcoming trip to Central America, recent events have raised concerns around corruption as one of the root causes of migration. For example, on May 1st — the first day of a new term after Salvadoran President Bukele’s party won a supermajority in February’s elections – the National Assembly voted to remove all five judges on the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and dismissed the country’s attorney general, who had been investigating potential cases of corruption. 

  • Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency Internationalwarned, “The latest chain of events follows the alarming pattern of executive overreach observed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social accountability mechanisms were curtailed in the name of the emergency.” 

Vice President Harris responded by expressing the Administration’s deep concerns and observing that an “independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy – and to a strong economy.”  Recently, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced the agency would redirect funding for programs originally intended for El Salvador’s government to other programs for promoting transparency, combating corruption, and monitoring human rights in partnership with local civil society and human rights organizations. 

  • El Salvador received $60 million in U.S. foreign assistance administered by USAID in 2020, of which $4.1 million (7%) was obligated for good governance projects in El Salvador in 2021. More broadly, according to the Congressional Research Service, only about 2% of American assistance is provided directly to foreign governments around the world. 

Addressing Corruption and Migration

Addressing dangerous levels of violence, corruption, poverty, and extreme weather driven by climate change that have led families to flee their homes across the region has been a priority for U.S. Administrations since the arrival of unaccompanied children from Central America arriving at the border in 2014. 

  • President Biden’s FY22 budget request includes $861 million to address the root causes of migration from Central America – part of a four-year, $4 billion commitment – to strengthen host government accountability, provide security and services to their populations, promote rule of law and combat corruption, combat violence, and promote economic opportunity. 

In El Salvador, Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco suggested that President Bukele “thinks he has a winning card to play against the United States — immigration.” When the Biden Administration and others expressed concerns about the removal of the judges in May, Bukele tweetedto his “friends in the international community” that “We want to work with you…But with all due respect: we are cleaning our house … and that is none of your business.” 

Strengthening Accountability

Redirecting foreign assistance from governments to civil society in response to corruption and injustice is not unique to the Biden Administration nor to Central America – the United States has also recently redirected foreign assistance in Myanmar and Ethiopia. Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, emphasized that the Biden plan will prioritize assistance to nongovernmental organizations and programs for single mothers, youth training and similar groups, “so that in the end, you are strengthening the societies and not enriching these governments.” 

El Salvador is currently negotiating with the IMF for a $1 billion loan program, and Human Rights Watch argued that the United States should use its leverage “to insist that, before approval, the Salvadoran government restore the independence of state institutions that are vital to transparent governance and effective accountability for corruption, in line with the IMF’s commitment to address serious governance gaps in all its loans.”  The United States could also urge the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to review planned and ongoing projects in El Salvador and assess whether these developments risk harm their goals. 

Renewing U.S. leadership in partnership with civil society

As with Plan Colombia, when U.S. foreign assistance is integrated into a sustained, comprehensive approach to the challenge, these investments can improve safety and stability.  In 2014, the United States launched the “Alliance for Prosperity” where an initial U.S. commitment of $750 million catalyzed more than $5.4 billion in funding from the Northern Triangle countries.  

  • Guatemala’s president at the time, Otto Pérez Molina, reported that then-Vice President Biden repeatedly pressed him to support a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission, saying Biden “told me it was practically a condition” for receiving U.S. aid. 

Policymakers like Senators Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have raised concerns about renewed U.S. leadership in the region.  At USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s confirmation hearing, Senator Portman said, “we have spent $3.6 billion of taxpayer money in the Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, in the past five years. The results are not impressive.” 

  • USAID Administrator Power noted both progress in reducing violence in municipalities in El Salvador from 2015-18 and that the previous Administration had suspended aid to the region in 2019, which “unfortunately, gave us less influence in using our programming to work with those reformist officials who were willing, again, to crack down on violence within their neighborhoods.” 

Tackling the complex challenge of migration will require sustained support and partnership with leaders, local civil society, and citizens in these countries.  As Claudia Paz y Paz, former attorney general of Guatemala, noted of her country, “When we achieved these advances, there were many factors. There was the presence in the streets, the CICIG, an international community beyond just the U.S. in support of the idea of strengthening the justice system, and honorable officials and courageous judges.”