How Evidence Can Help USAID Address Irregular Migration from the Northern Triangle

The Biden-Harris administration has made addressing the “root causes” of irregular migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras a top policy priority. Its first budget request included $861 million for the region, a level nearly triple previous commitments. Though Congress hasn’t yet finalized its FY2022 spending bills, which will ultimately determine the amount of funding committed, a significant increase appears likely.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages most US foreign assistance in the region, will play a key role in programming this new spending. In doing so, the agency will face pressure to demonstrate “results.” But which results matter, how can USAID and its partners measure them, and which evidence-based actions should they prioritize?

In a paper published today, CGD and Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) outline the existing research evidence on “what works” to reduce irregular (also sometimes referred to as undocumented) migration from the Northern Triangle. Specifically, our research looks into how to reduce violence, how to build resilience to climate shocks, how to expand job access and economic security, and—perhaps the intervention likely to yield the most immediate impact—how to increase the use of legal migration pathways. We then explore a concrete set of steps USAID should take to ensure that its programming responds and contributes to this evidence base.

How USAID’s objectives shape its approach

USAID’s primary goal in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is to address the “root causes” of irregular migration. To do so, the agency has traditionally prioritized investments aimed at strengthening governance, promoting economic prosperity, and improving physical security, while recognizing each country’s distinct needs within those common categories.

Yet these objectives largely ignore the important influence of demography on irregular migration. Over the last ten years, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have experienced a surge of young people reaching working age, while opportunities for employment, training, or education remain limited. With few alternatives, a growing number of young people have sought opportunities elsewhere. And given demographic trends in the Northern Triangle, this dynamic is likely to persist for the next decade or so.

Opening legal pathways could reduce irregular migration

While USAID will continue to focus on improving conditions in countries of origin, the agency—as part of a broader administration-wide push—is increasingly recognizing the important role that regular migration can play in improving economic outcomes. Furthermore, opening legal pathways could reduce irregular migration. Development agencies in other countries (such as Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Germany’s Development Agency) play a central role in facilitating migration to achieve development benefits. A potentially larger role for USAID in expanding regular migration is therefore a welcome development. It is the best poverty-reduction tool we know of.

A new push to deliver “results”—but what results?

With the potential for new resources comes the likelihood of increased scrutiny. That could mean increased pressure on USAID to account for the impact of its programming in the Northern Triangle countries, not only on development objectives (e.g., better governance, improved economic opportunity, reduced violence) but also on irregular migration rates. There are (at least) three potential challenges the agency might encounter:

Increased development doesn’t necessarily translate into reduced migration(in fact, it can have the opposite effect

  1. USAID seeks to influence migrant decision-making through improvements to development outcomes, but increased development doesn’t necessarily translate into reduced migration (in fact, it can have the opposite effect).  Using irregular migration rates as a measure of success could end up undervaluing or even jeopardizing programs that are otherwise successful on their development merits.
  2. Migrant decision-making is multi-causal, and narrow programmatic interventions cannot fully address these interlinkages. Several important factors, including demographics and the political will of elites, fall largely outside the scope of what foreign aid could reasonably be expected to influence.
  3. Measuring the impact of programs on irregular emigration rates is complex, expensive, and time-consuming. USAID may not have the methodological tools, funding, or political buy-in to tackle it.

Despite these challenges, USAID is tracking a consistent set of indicators on program participants’ migration experiences, attitudes, and intentions. These are intended “to assess the impact of relevant programs on migration,” though USAID is clear that irregular migration is not an indicator of program performance and the agency does not set targets for its achievement.

What works to address the root causes of irregular migration?

As USAID implements and refines its country strategies for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it should be guided by evidence and invest in new learning.

So, what does the evidence say about “what works” to reduce the “root causes” of irregular migration, namely violence, lack of economic opportunity, and inaccessibility of legal migration pathways? CGD and IPL convened a workshop in May 2021 that sought to answer that question. Our paper summarizes approaches presented during the workshop that have been shown to be more or less promising, and where there are still gaps in evidence (table 1).

Very few of the studies we looked at focused explicitly on reducing irregular migration, but they do provide valuable insight into intermediate steps along the causal chain. If one hypothesizes, as USAID does, that improving development outcomes will lead to reduced irregular migration, it is important to understand whether identified interventions actually impact these development goals. Understanding the extent to which these interventions also influence irregular migration is often an area for further study.

Table 1. Evidence base—and research gaps—for tackling the “root causes” of irregular migration

More promising approaches Approaches with mixed evidence Less effective approaches Research gaps
Preventing violence
• Focused deterrence • Gang truces
• Community policing
• Criminal procedure reform
• “Hot spots” policing
• Repressive tactics • Consistent measurement of migration in violence prevention programs
• How to change the incentives for extortion and engaging in violence
For a complementary review of civil society programming for violence prevention, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or community-based education, please see Knox et al. (2021) and Campie, Tanyu, and Udayakumar (2019).
Increasing resilience to climate shocks
• Humanitarian aid
• Index insurance schemes
• Access to financial markets • How technical assistance affects distressed migration
• How conditions on investments reduce household vulnerability
Improving wellbeing through cash transfers
• Conditional cash transfers • How to improve quality of service provision in coordination with cash transfers
• Which modalities of cash transfers work best for different circumstances and outcomes
Expanding labor market access
• Initiatives that help workers access different labor markets • Vocational training
• Rural public works programs
• Temporary wage subsidies
• Search and matching programs
• Linkages between labor market programs and irregular/regular emigration decisions
• Effectiveness of rural public works programs in Central America
Improving—and communicating—accessibility of legal pathways
• Providing information on legal rights and working conditions • Information campaigns to discourage migration • How to inform potential migrants of available pathways
• How visa access and prevalence impact irregular migration in the Northern Triangle

How USAID can advance the evidence base

Next year, USAID will release a new agency-wide learning agenda. Among other things, it’s expected to focus on how the agency can better use data and evidence to address the drivers of irregular migration. In addition, USAID is working with the State Department and other agencies to develop a monitoring, evaluation, and learning plan for the administration’s “Root Causes Strategy.” And each USAID mission in the three Northern Triangle countries has its own learning agenda and performance management plan that outline how the agency will generate and use data and evidence.

As Congress deliberates the level and composition of funding to the region, we hope that it bears in mind the value of investment in evidence generation and use.

In our paper, we offer five recommendations for USAID to consider as it develops, refines, and implements its learning strategies in the region. It’s also important to note that good monitoring, evaluation, and learning takes resources—both money and staff time. As Congress deliberates the level and composition of funding to the region, we hope that it bears in mind the value of investment in evidence generation and use.

1. Seek evidence for the steps along the causal pathway, including key assumptions

USAID’s current country strategies rest on a number of assumptions about the linkages between “root causes” and irregular migration; it is important that these linkages are tested. A 2020 report from Management Systems International (which is currently unavailable due to technical problems) found that USAID-funded evaluations rarely tested intermediary causal steps. Doing this systematically will be important to understand the extent to which USAID’s interventions actually achieve the outcome of interest (e.g., improved governance, better resilience, higher employment) and the extent to which changes in those outcomes influence migrant decision-making.

2. Ensure evaluations respond to the questions being asked

A 2017 study found that 20 percent of USAID’s evaluations weren’t designed to adequately answer the questions being asked. Since then, USAID has revised its policies to help ensure evaluation methods match the research goals, but implementation will be key. For example, the El Salvador mission’s planned evaluations are all performance evaluations or contribution analyses, both of which can yield valuable information but neither of which capture attributable, causal impact. Yet some of the mission’s priority questions do appear to ask about impact (e.g., “To what extent have USAID crime and violence prevention activities led to a change in real and perceived security in the targeted areas?”).

3. Seek opportunities for replication (within and across missions)

One of the key barriers to evidence use in program design is the (not unfounded) concern that findings from past studies are unlikely to be applicable in a different place and time. Replicating tests of similar interventions across different contexts (such as in rural areas across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, for example) can help strengthen the evidence base.

4. Develop evidence with local partners to reflect their priorities

USAID must integrate key decision-makers and researchers in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at all stages of evaluation planning, implementation, and dissemination. Finding key partners among government ministries and academic entities is critical to informed learning. Doing so can help integrate priority learning needs of communities and governments, ensure the evaluation is relevant for decision-making, improve questionnaire design, and integrate local context into assumptions and implementation. USAID could also consider supporting longer-term evidence-to-policy partnerships with Northern Triangle governments or other local actors.

5. Build evidence use and generation into the procurement process

For interventions that don’t have a strong evidence base, more flexible award types should be used to encourage experimentation and testing. Bids should be judged, in part, on how well they identify evidence gaps and carve out opportunities to test them. Where the evidence base is stronger, solicitations should clearly reflect the state of evidence and seek to advance it through causal evaluation.

Communication matters, too

In addition to developing a robust evidence strategy, USAID must communicate to stakeholders about its learning process. Not all of the agency’s interventions will be successful. But a clear commitment to using evidence—and expanding the evidence base—will help the agency respond credibly to those who demand “results” in the Northern Triangle.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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