I traveled to Honduras recently to better understand how funding for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and for the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (APP) is being spent and accounted for by its implementers. Nearly half of the $750 million that the US government is channeling to the APP in fiscal year 2016 is specifically allocated to CARSI. These are historic levels of funding to the region, unparalleled since the early 1990s when the US was involved in Central America’s internal armed conflicts. Numerous reports indicate that military and police-perpetrated human rights abuses have increased since the creation of CARSI and there is no real evidence that CARSI has yielded minimal, if any, results.
In fact, very little is known about the efficacy or impact of these programs at all, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent. On September 7, I co-authored a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) that shows that the only publicly available impact assessment study of a CARSI program, published in 2014 by Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), doesn’t conclusively demonstrate, as the study claims, that the CARSI program has had positive results (LAPOP has published a critique of this report, and CEPR staff are now preparing a response to this critique).
The specific CARSI program that the LAPOP study assesses is a community-based violence and crime prevention program that is implemented by the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) and its partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. In late 2014 a USAID official told Congress that “We have evidence that these kinds of programs are working, and evidence is crucial so we can build on what really works.” Since there is no hard evidence that the CARSI/USAID program is working — in the LAPOP study or elsewhere — I decided to have a closer look at the program on the ground in Honduras, a country I have worked in for over a decade, and see for myself.
Early on a Thursday morning in mid-August, I went on a ride-along with a USAID staff member in the Democracy and Governance program. In a chauffeured, new model Chevy Tahoe, I rode to the Comayagüela barrio, about a 20-minute ride outside of downtown Tegucigalpa. When we arrived, my escort rolled down the windows and took off his sunglasses, explaining that this helped people in the neighborhood see and trust them. Comayagüela, he informed me, is the most dangerous neighborhood in Tegucigalpa and we were driving into a territory heavily controlled and monitored by rival gangs, primarily the MS-13 and the Dieciocho (18), both of which originated in Los Angeles and then spread to Central America with the help of the US government’s deportation policies. The outreach center we were going to tour is located at the invisible gang border. That’s why, he told me, USAID and Creative Associates, a private, for-profit development contractor, are trying to build another outreach center on the other side of this neighborhood, so the kids who can’t cross the gang borders still have access to an outreach center.
The outreach center is beautiful, situated on the terrace of a local Catholic church that donated the space for the project. It is clearly a new building — the white and blue paint still fresh and glowing in the morning sun. Latin Pop music is playing at dance party volume in the outdoor recreation area where volunteers in yellow Por Mi Barrio t-shirts are milling about, and a few youth in school uniforms are also wandering around. A petite woman walks out to meet us, the director and only paid employee of the outreach center. I am shown all around the shiny building — although I am candidly told by the Creative Associates representative who works directly with the outreach center on programming that it is the only outreach center that looks like this. The other buildings are much more humble he tells me, and most do not have paid staff.
I dutifully nod while the young, overworked directora shows us the recreation room, the classrooms (where children were writing in their “values” workbooks), and the public gym where they have weight machines and hold Zumba classes. The director explains that they’ve established the gym as a way to make money to support the outreach center — people pay for Zumba classes and trainers and instructors volunteer their time to teach them. This structure begs many questions: if this is one of the key strategies by which USAID and the APP programs claim they are supplanting and disrupting violence and gang activity, then why is there not more paid staff, and why is the outreach center not better funded? Where is the $346 million going? But there is no time to ask this question; there are more rooms to see.
My USAID escort and the Creative Associates staffer have repeatedly tried to reassure me, “the center makes such a big difference.” And tell me how great it is for the kids to have a safe place to come and play and learn. Of the latter I have no doubt. Having spent over a decade in Honduras, where it is estimated that 20 percent of the population has experienced severe trauma, I know the value of recreation and safe spaces for young Hondurans, but is this project really reducing violence and crime in the neighborhood?
Once in the room that houses the director’s desk and some paperwork and classroom space where some first-aid and very basic community nursing is taught by yet another volunteer, it is finally time to ask a question. I keep it very simple. I want to know how the center, and USAID and Creative Associates — the agency funding this project and the implementing partner, respectively — are determining the impact of the outreach center on violence and gang activity in the community. Do people get jobs with the training they receive? Is there any monitoring and evaluation (M&E as it is called in development parlance) or reports that show the effects of this outreach center program on violence and crime and gang activity? For example, are centers like this one tracking whether youth return to the street, whether they find employment (which assumes it’s available and in 2014 unemployment for youth under 30 in Honduras was as high as 41 percent), and whether they join or leave gangs?
The director’s eyes go wide and her lips tighten in a grimace, bracing for the potential of another burdensome bureaucratic responsibility to manage alone. Unfazed, my upbeat escort tells me, unequivocally and without a hint of irony that they “do not have monitoring and evaluation,” but that they “hope to have some in the next couple of years or so.” These programs are among the most extensively funded foreign security and development since the war-time era in the region. The State Department, USAID, and other CARSI implementers are under scrutiny to demonstrate efficacy, and not only are there no reports or evidence to date, but there aren’t even mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation. How do they know the programs are working? Without a systematic evaluation there is simply no way to know.
I looked for reports. I found one that the Honduran Youth Alliance (AJH), USAID, and Creative Associates produced in January of 2014. It includes a few quotes from youth who were apparently in the Por Mi Barrio program in La Ceiba at the time, but no program details and no assessments. It is a long brochure with poignant quotes from pre-teens that are intended to pull heartstrings. It also includes the methodology and objectives for implementing the Por Mi Barrio program, which is nice, but it’s not evidence that the programs are working nor does it include evaluation mechanisms. However, since the initiation of the first Por Mi Barrio outreach center in 2009, there are no data or statistics that show that the Outreach Centers are meeting the objectives of CARSI and APP initiatives.
There is no doubt that there is a strident public relations campaign to make it seem as though the CARSI/USAID program has merit and deserves more funding — when there is no evidence (and certainly not publicly available evidence) to support such claims. This should be concerning to US lawmakers and their US constituents, not only because incredible amounts of taxpayer funds are being directed toward Central America, but also because that assistance may be doing more harm than good.
Put simply, there is no data that supports the claims of State Department officials or USAID that the interventions being implemented in Honduras, or in the Northern Triangle in general, are having a positive (or any) effect. Congress should demand rigorous, independent evaluations that demonstrate — with certainty — that these interventions are having a significant impact.