Targeting and tailoring development programs to combat forced migration in Central America


Sarah Bermeo, Duke University

Prepared for Duke University workshop: “Responding to the Crisis in the Northern Triangle,” Washington, DC, May 15, 2019. Other workshop contributions available at

A complex mix of hardships drives asylum seekers and migrants to leave El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras bound for Mexico or the United States. Families flee because these countries – and cities within these countries – consistently rank among the world’s most violent. Rural residents, often from indigenous groups, are forced out by extreme food insecurity caused by years of drought and crop failure. Others leave looking for better economic opportunity.

Three broad reasons for leaving – violence, food insecurity, economic opportunity – have obvious overlap and crucial differences. Groups fleeing violence or extreme food insecurity contain large numbers of individuals and families who would not have migrated if conditions had not deteriorated. They are not traditional economic migrants. Targeting underlying causes can lower this need to leave.

Programs focused on drivers of forced migration should have broad appeal. Humanitarian groups and those wishing to lower migrant arrivals will favor decreasing forced migration. Targeted, local programs can achieve results in the short-term; in the long-term macro-level and regional changes are needed. While a two-track response combining both elements is necessary, I focus here on efforts that can produce results in the near term.


Targeting drivers of forced migration

An effective approach to decreasing these unplanned – or forced – migrations differs from strategies employed toward regular economic migration. Aid programs are unlikely to decrease traditional economic migration, as broad-based development is associated with increased ability to migrate. Strict border policy or tough treatment on arrival may deter economic migrants but is unlikely to stop people fearing for their survival at home, whether due to violence or extreme food insecurity. As seen elsewhere, even challenging and uncertain conditions in a host country can be better than conditions left behind.

While often ineffective at decreasing economic migration, correctly targeted development strategies can have significant impact on forced migration linked to violence and climate change. Aid needs to be evaluated, redistributed within countries, and ramped up to produce these results.



Increased homicides in an area within a country are associated with greater levels of out-migration from that area, including arrivals of unaccompanied minors in the United States. Studies rely on data for unaccompanied minors because they lack detailed data on broader migrant populations that can be linked to specific areas within countries. Investment is needed to map areas of highest violence-induced migration so security strategies can be targeted appropriately.

The U.S. has spent more than a billion dollars on the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  Studies show positive impact of local programs under this initiative, although claims are controversial. Others have criticized the program for funding a series of independent projects without an overarching strategy, and for prioritizing efforts to combat regional drug trafficking over programs to decrease local violence. This is problematic given the link between local violence and migration.


Food insecurity

Climate change is causing drought in Central America’s Dry Corridor. Food insecurity is high: in Guatemala 16% of the population faces chronic severe food insecurity and 22% lives with moderate insecurity; in El Salvador and Honduras respectively, 20% and 23% of the population lives with moderate or severe food insecurity. Childhood stunting is a significant problem (reaching 70% in some indigenous areas of Guatemala). Acute food security issues related to crop failure are forecast to worsen in coming months.

Rural population comprises 49% of total population in Guatemala, 44% in Honduras, and 29% in El Salvador; agricultural employment accounts for 32% of total employment in Honduras, 29% in Guatemala, and 19% in El Salvador. The World Bank estimates that the Honduran agriculture sector lost one-third of its revenue in the last 20 years, linked in part to lower export prices. Land tenure is insecure in Guatemala and Honduras, limiting investment by small scale farmers. In Guatemala, indigenous groups make up 43% of the population, live primarily in rural areas, and have a poverty rate of 79%.

Despite large rural populations, high rural poverty rates, and the importance of agriculture for providing food and employment, aid to agriculture comprised only 16% of U.S. aid to Guatemala, 14% to  Honduras and less than 1% to El Salvador in the 2015-2017 period. Examining aid from all donors reporting to the OECD (bilateral and multilateral), agriculture aid is 10% of total aid in Guatemala, 7% in Honduras, and 5% in El Salvador. These allocation decision do not mirror need or migration trends: the majority of people fleeing these countries are from rural areas.

Kostas Stamoulis of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) calls for “promoting food security, resilience to climate change, community organizations, and rural development” to counter forced migration. This requires investing in climate resilient and high-value crops, improving farming techniques and irrigation, reforming land rights, and connecting rural areas with markets.


New approach based on evidence and need

Research has shown that aid often does not flow disproportionately to neediest areas within recipient countries. To effectively combat violence and food insecurity, donors to Central America must buck this trend. A broad strategy is needed to allocate aid within countries to locations where forced migration is most severe and impact can be high. Once places are identified, programs can be designed to combat drivers of migration from these specific areas.

This combination of targeting and tailoring will improve the impact of aid expenditures. Investment in data collection is needed to determine particular places people are leaving and driving factors from these areas. Impact evaluation of individual programs is also important to ensure effective use of funds.

No program will stop forced migration immediately. The U.S. and Mexico need policy for current arrivals, which could include temporary residency for those fleeing unlivable situations in home countries. The region also needs to complement short-term strategy with broader reforms to lower corruption, increase tax revenue, combat organized crime and decrease US drug demand.

While not discounting the importance of confronting challenges on arrival and long-term regional solutions, a well-targeted foreign aid strategy is an essential tool for decreasing forced migration over the next few years.


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