What Will the White House’s Halt to Aid Mean for the Northern Triangle? Here’s What We Know

The U.S. Administration announced Saturday that it has halted all aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle. It is the latest move designed by the White House aimed at punishing the Northern Triangle governments for “allowing” their countries’ citizens to emigrate.

(Note that actively blocking emigration, as the administration apparently hopes these nations will do violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United States. Its Article 13 states that all people have the unconditional right to leave any country.)

Here’s what this decision to halt aid could mean, according to data and evidence:

First, violence in the Northern Triangle is a major driver of emigration from there.

I used unprecedented data from US Customs and Border Protection to study this effect among Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs), kids who arrive at the US border without an older family member. I studied all 179,000 of them who were apprehended between 2011 and 2016. Ten additional homicides in their home municipality caused about six additional apprehensions at the US border over that six-year period. Violence explained as much UAC migration as economic factors like chronic unemployment did. The migration appears driven by a complex and inseparable mix of security and economic motives.

So, an important question is whether aid can contribute to preventing major outbreaks of violence. The short answer is yes.

There is substantial evidence between foreign aid and a reduction in the tendency for low-grade violence to explode into civil war—across all countries. Foreign aid investments, particularly made in the wake of economic shocks, can moderate government spending and provide resources for the government to respond to the needs of different aggrieved groups, bolstering against a slide into greater violence.

Are there exceptions? Yes, in the case of civil war.

After civil war has broken out, aid does not have a good track record of reducing violence. A systematic review of the best evidence found that aid in settings of full-on civil war is as likely to increase violence as to reduce it. This suggests, in the broadest terms, that there might be a window of opportunity before state collapse when aid can make a real difference to violence, but after a tipping point it becomes too late.

What do we know about aid preventing violence in the Northern Triangle specifically? Not enough.

There is one strikingly rigorous impact evaluation of US aid-funded violence prevention work across the region. It randomized, at the neighborhood level, a complex package of interventions including community policing, youth mentorship, graffiti removal, and other programs. The uncommon research design allowed it to confidently attribute the effects to the program itself: a 50% reduction in reports of homicides in the treated neighborhoods, and big reductions in other kinds of crime.

So what should we do?

The existing research does not at all mean that there is a “formula” that “works” or that all US aid to Central America has these effects. It does mean that some of the work supported by American aid in the region has gotten where it was intended to go and had the intended effect, working in partnership with local champions of peace and security. This is at least something to build on when innovating to build even better forms of partnership against violence in the region. Ending all US cooperation with the entire region does the exact opposite.


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.