USAID’s New Localization Approach Can Address Migration in the Northern Triangle

By Pilar Roig Minguell

In November 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power outlined USAID’s New Vision for Global Development. Administrator Power announced the following two ambitious targets: 25 percent of the agency’s assistance will go to local partners within the next four years; and 50 percent of USAID´s programming will be led or driven by local communities.

To kickstart the new agency commitments, the USAID Administrator launched Centroamérica Local, a five-year, $300 million locally-led development initiative to “empower local organizations in the Northern Triangle, to address the drivers of irregular migration to the United States.” In response to migration pressures from the Northern Triangle – namely El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – the U.S. has budgeted millions of dollars in aid over the years to strengthen the region’s governance systems, promote economic prosperity, and improve security and law enforcement efforts. However, in some cases this assistance has been found to accelerate migration years later. The question remains, how effective will USAID’s localization push be at reducing irregular migration from the Northern Triangle?

The Migration-Development Nexus

In the last decade, more than two million people have left the Northern Triangle. Migration from these countries, however, follows two different patterns: short spikes that last months and long waves that last years. Extreme weather events from climate change and an uptick in violence and corruption are the main drivers of short spikes of migration. For example, in May 2019, arrivals at the U.S. border hit a high of 144,000 people fleeing violence, drought and hunger in Central America. In turn, long waves of migration from the Northern Triangle are caused by the lack of economic and social development, coupled with demographic changes. Young and educated people tend to emigrate more than poorer and less educated ones, a phenomenon also known as “brain drain.”

In February 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that called for the development of a Root Causes Strategy to address the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle. The strategy, released in July 2021, aims to work with different partners to address key issues like economic security and inequality, violence prevention, and respect for human rights. Engaging the private sector, local leadership, and community-level organizations in the Northern Triangle is at the heart of the Root Causes Strategy and coincides with USAID’s renewed locally-led development push.

Development assistance targeting these issues is expected to reduce insecurity in the Northern Triangle and lower the incentive for people to migrate. However, research on the development-migration nexus might point to the opposite effect. The relationship between the traditional development model and migration flows is in fact positive, meaning the more developed a country is, the more aspirations and resources its citizens have to migrate, at least in the short term. Vice President Harris acknowledged in her introductory remarks of the strategy that “providing relief is not sufficient to stem migration from the region.”

Nevertheless, migration experts have noted that the Root Causes Strategy is a step forward in recognizing the structural and complex fragility behind immigration from the Northern Triangle, particularly when comparing the strategy with President Obama’s Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) and President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, whereby all adult aliens apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border irregularly were prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, regardless of whether they were asylum seekers or adults with minor children.

Now, the Biden administration has shifted away from his predecessor’s policy and intends to invest in the region’s sustainable development through the Root Causes Strategy. But these efforts should be accompanied by investing in local communities and empowering them to build opportunities and improve their lives. This is where USAID’s Centroamérica Local might play a key role by promoting locally-led development in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Localization in U.S. Global Development Policy

Localization is not a new concept. For the past three administrations, USAID has attempted to diversify and localize its programs and pursue a new development model pivoting away from reliance on big contractors and encouraging all stakeholders involved in the process to rethink their roles in development.

Under the Obama administration, former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah hoped to direct 30 percent of funding to local actors and institutions by 2015 through the Local Solutions initiative starting in 2010. The 30 percent target, which some deemed arbitrary, was not achieved. However, USAID showed five years of steady growth and nearly doubled its program funds directed to local governments, civil society, and the private sector from 9.7 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2010 to 18.6 percent in FY 2015.

During the Trump administration, former USAID Administrator Mark Green sought to create a localization strategy for U.S. foreign assistance through the Journey to Self-Reliance initiative. The initiative aimed to build capacity in partner countries to enable them to take charge of their own development and reduce their dependence on foreign assistance. USAID operationalized the Journey to Self-Reliance through a data-based toolkit, which experts characterize as a “unifying development philosophy” for the agency and its partners. The principles of Green’s initiative remain foundational for current Administrator Power’s New Vision for Global Development, which includes a more inclusive, local, and evidence-based approach to development from the agency.

The Challenges of Localization

Past localization efforts have shown that there are several challenges, both from the intermediaries’ and beneficiaries’ side, that USAID must consider when thinking of locally-led development.

As of 2017, an estimated 60 percent of USAID funding went to just 25 organizations, most of which were large international NGOs. A number of these intermediaries have shown resistance to hand over control to local partners when it comes to the implementation of aid projects, especially due to financial reasons. Localization might also be seen as a slow and complex process, as USAID tries to identify local partners and begin compliance and contractual processes with them. To address these concerns, the agency recently created, a free resource hub that outlines how new local partners can work under USAID guidelines. Lastly, there is a common misconception that doing assistance through local actors entails higher risks of corruption or mismanagement. However, there is no evidence suggesting that localization increases the likelihood for these events to happen.

From the local organizations’ perspective, accessibility issues are a main concern: lack of internet access, limited financial and compliance knowledge, language barriers, and limited access to resources for capacity development. USAID’s administrative structures and jargon can be considerably foreign to new local partners. In addition, some community-based organizations might not be able to access USAID’s resource hub, leading to an exclusion of more marginalized voices in the partnering process.

Localization for the Root Causes Strategy

Centroamérica Local outlines a plan for USAID to listen to and work with local communities and address the short spikes of migration in the Northern Triangle. At the same time, USAID will need to take steps to overcome the challenges of localization implementation and ensure an effective strategy.

  1. Adapt USAID’s practices to reflect its evolving development approach

To ensure that localization initiatives reach local partners in the Northern Triangle, USAID will have to mobilize resources and efforts to reduce administrative and compliance burdens, translate documents into local languages, and expand its outreach beyond internet-based contacts. Making sure that the agency’s personnel is more inclusive, diverse, and equal will also serve as an example to future local partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras so that the most marginalized voices (i.e., women, elderly, and indigenous groups) are brought in. A positive step in this direction has been the launch of the new Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, which will report directly to USAID Administrator Power.

  1. Advance interinstitutional collaboration on localization

Centroamérica Local and other localization initiatives should be paired with other immigration policies within and outside the Root Causes Strategy to maximize USAID’s development impact and reach communities that need the most assistance in the Northern Triangle. Building strong partnerships between each USAID mission in the Northern Triangle countries and congressional stakeholders, State Department members, and immigration bodies could help deliver better and long-lasting results in the region and prevent contradictory policies or duplicated efforts.

  1. Enhance research and data collection

Understanding the long and short-term drivers of irregular migration and evaluating the impacts of locally-led development are no easy tasks. USAID should develop a toolkit with appropriate metrics to monitor and evaluate Centroamérica Local’s progress, community members’ views, and weaknesses. In addition, each USAID mission in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras should have their own performance management plans that outline how the agency will generate and use data and evidence. Interagency collaboration to better use data and evidence to address the divers of irregular migration should also be a priority.

Looking Ahead

Migrant decision-making is complex and multi-causal, and important factors such as demographics, climate change, and the power of political elites fall outside the scope of what the U.S. government and its agencies can influence.

However, learning from the experiences of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as from past U.S. administrations, can be extremely valuable for the implementation of the Biden administration’s Root Causes Strategy and USAID’s Centroamérica Local. Localization presents a window of opportunity for many U.S. agencies to collaborate and integrate decision-makers and researchers in the Northern Triangle at all stages of project planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Ultimately, a combination of a legal pathway approach to migration and aid localization into existing programs has the potential to transform how the U.S. addresses migration challenges of the Northern Triangle.

Pilar Roig Minguell is a research intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.