A plan to rebuild trade and hope in Central America


The White House brought together business leaders, academics and leaders of nonprofits last week to discuss a bold goal for a troubled region of the world.

Media coverage focused on the bottom line: Companies such as Mastercard, Microsoft and Cargill pledged to invest $ 1.2 billion in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in within the framework of the administration’s partnership for Central America. These investments will translate into, among other things, online banking access for 1 million small businesses, digital skills training for 100,000 people and sales contracts for 1,200 coffee producers.

We and our colleagues at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health lead the metrics pillar of the partnership, so we’re always happy to see such statistics. At the same time, we believe that this whole initiative is based on a goal that is much more difficult to measure than the jobs created or the dollars invested.

It is based on hope.

The overarching political goal of the partnership is to improve life in the Northern Triangle so that individuals and families can see a future for themselves. Under current conditions, far too many residents of these countries risk their lives on perilous journeys across the border into the United States. The idea behind the partnership is that coordinated public, private and non-profit investments can create economic opportunities in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and thus reduce the incentive for people to flee their homes.

We support this approach, but believe that we also need to dig deeper. Each of these countries has been shattered by decades of trauma: civil wars, natural disasters, gang violence and glaring inequalities that have made life even more difficult for indigenous and rural populations. Civil society in each of these countries is extremely fragile. Trust has been shattered.

Without trust – in neighbors, in government, in employers, in society – there can be no hope. And without hope, millions of people will continue to flee their homes in search of a better future. To truly effect change, we must first generate, and then sustain, new hope across the Northern Triangle.

This is why the partnership is so exciting: it brings together a cross-sectoral coalition that has the potential to restore confidence and restore hope through sustained and synergistic investment.

We see the process unfolding in three stages: Reconciliation, reconstruction and restoration.

  • Reconciliation: We cannot (and would not) impose a process of political truth and reconciliation on a sovereign nation. But we can use the investments of the partnership to address – and start correcting – the huge inequalities in a country like Guatemala, where there is a big divide between the elite and the masses and a deep divide between the capital and the rest of the world. country. By directing investments to rural areas that have long been left to fend for themselves, we plan to gradually develop local economies, strengthen social service networks, improve health care, and generally improve the quality of life. If we can elevate these rural areas so that they are closer to the capital, we believe that we will see the social fabric begin to reconnect, with less distrust and more unity.

  • Reconstruction: Restoring hope in shattered communities will take more than jobs; it will take a dedicated effort to rebuild public infrastructure – everything from water and sewer systems to roads and telecommunications. The synergies between the investments of the partnership should accelerate this reconstruction much faster than it would otherwise. For example, if Microsoft is expanding broadband to a rural area, other partners can leverage this investment to provide online banking, online training, telemedicine, and other services. This type of 360-degree investment in a community can create a much more lasting recovery, restore confidence, and instill a sense of genuine and lasting hope.

  • Restoration and recovery: The reconstruction of infrastructure must be accompanied by the restoration of essential services, with particular attention to the needs of marginalized groups. At Harvard Chan School, we’re building an interactive data dashboard for the partnership that will integrate multiple data sources, from household wealth and vaccine-related inequalities, to gang violence and hurricane risks. , to name a few. Users will be able to zoom in to see these metrics at the neighborhood level. This should help us direct investments in public health and social services to the regions that need them most and accelerate the recovery.

All of this is extremely difficult work. It will take time, years and decades. But it is also extremely important work.

If we do this, we will not only achieve the political goal of the administration of better control of our borders, but we will significantly improve the lives of millions of our neighbors to the south. And that would be the best result of all.

Patricia Geli, Ph.D., is Executive Director, North American Hub, Reform for Resilience Commission at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Michelle A. Williams is Dean of the Faculty of Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.


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