2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

agriculture, Food Security

El Salvador’s Ongoing Struggle with Food Security (Part 2)

Food security and water issues in El Salvador are partially caused and definitely worsened by the effects of climate change.  The unpredictable patterns of rainfall and drought that are characteristic of climate change negatively affect crop production, thereby leading to reduced yields and higher market prices.


José Camilo Rodriguez, mayor of the community of Tonacatepeque, remarked in an interview conducted by the World Bank on the stress that has been put on the poor farmers in his community, due to the effects on the market that were caused by precarious weather conditions, such as floods.


Floods, in addition to harming crops, often tend to lead to the contamination of rivers as sewage and rainwater combine and flow back into rivers as the floods subside. FAO estimates that a mere 16% of Salvadorans have access to water that is safe to drink.  The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) additionally notes that only 2% of the rivers in El Salvador hold water that is suitable for human consumption.  MARN alleges that one of the most contaminated rivers is the Lempa River, which reaches a large number of communities over its 360-kilometer span and is highly polluted by fecal bacteria.


In regards to food related security, FAO cites that 9% of the Salvadoran population is undernourished, missing about 190 calories from their diet.  Inequality in access to food is troublingly high.  Despite all of the challenges and problems the Salvadoran people face, at least a few communities have come together in community-based projects to improve their food and water security situations.


Grassroots community efforts to improve food security and water quality are making concrete, positive impacts in El Salvador.  We at Voices on the Border have had a direct hand in working with communities in the Lower Lempa to help develop irrigation systems that facilitate crop cultivation, especially during the dry season and periods of drought, which threaten crop yields.


In addition, communities in Santa Marta, El Salvador, with the help of an international NGO have successfully worked to raise fish, harvest honey, and crops.  These products are sold at market and some of the profits are invested back into the venture, to keep it growing.  This project enjoys the help of many members of the community, who take turns fishing or selling their products at market.  Grassroots level improvement of the food security situation in El Salvador is promising and seems to be gaining popularity.


Supplementing these grassroots initiatives are the efforts of various international organizations that have attempted to help improve the food security situation in the country.  On March 24, the USDA, under their Food For Progress (FFP) initiative, donated 30,000 metric tons of wheat to El Salvador.  The sales of this wheat are intended to generate about $11 million of revenue that will be utilized to finance infrastructure and development projects to help farmers affected by Tropical Storm Ida. Food For Progress  also urges them to take advantage of the trade opportunities afforded to them under the DR-CAFTA agreement. Since 2001, USDA has delivered 130,400 metric tons of food to El Salvador, for a total value of approximately $27.5 million.  While this form of aid seems both promising and beneficial to food security measures, due to the direct investment in domestic production El Salvadoran agriculture, other programs have not been as conscientious.


USAID’s “glass of milk” project, was launched in 2009 with the intention of providing a daily glass of milk to 3,790 students in 15 schools of Ataco, Ahuachapán, with the aim at improving the physical health and development of Salvadoran youth.  USAID invested $76,317 for the provision of these resources and the program was successful with the caveat that it missed a prime opportunity to invest in the Salvadoran economy.  Instead of cooperating with local dairy farmers within the country, USAID financed the importation of dried milk imported from northern US states.  This large-scale importation of milk drove down market prices for dairy products, creating adverse consequences for local dairy farmers.  While the aid of international organizations is necessary for food and water improvements in El Salvador, this project is an example of why organizations need to be wary of the manner in which they seek to make improvements.


Food and water security is a vital issue for communities in El Salvador who are experiencing unpleasant consequences on their agricultural sector from the economic interdependence that has arisen from globalization and the effects of climate change.  These factors continue to complicate El Salvador’s quest to better its food security situation, but through domestic investment in agricultural infrastructure and products and grassroots community efforts to promote sustainability, it is likely many of these problems could be mitigated.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, Politics

Among Apparent Rampant Corruption in the Region, El Salvador Ranks Surprisingly Low

The second part of USAID’s survey on the political culture of Latin America examined the effects of crime and corruption on democracy. As trust is a necessary facet of democracy, fear of violence and a lack of confidence in the police or other public officials are detrimental to its development.

When survey respondents were asked about their perception of personal security, 44% of Salvadorans reported feeling “somewhat” to “very” unsafe, the third highest level of insecurity in the Americas, ranking behind only Peru and Argentina. El Salvador also has one of the highest rates of violence in the Americas, so these results aren’t surprising. In fact, these abstract perceptions of insecurity are approximately in line with the crime respondents have actually experienced: 38.6% of households report having at least one member who was a victim of violent crime in the past 12 months (crimes specifically mentioned in the survey question are robbery, burglary, assault, fraud, blackmail, extortion, and violent threats). This rate places El Salvador in the group of countries with the highest levels of victimization, on par with Mexico and Venezuela – an alarming place to be. Generally, the young, the wealthy, and those who live in urban metropolitan areas are most likely to be victimized, though citizens with greater economic problems also report high levels. USAID interviewers further found that respondents in neighborhoods with gang presence (pandillas) were more likely to have been victimized, though it is impossible to determine from these data whether this is causation or simply coincidence.

After discussing crime, survey questions turned to the issue of corruption. When asked directly how common it was for public officials to be corrupt, 66.7% of Salvadoran respondents answered that it was “common” or “very common,” a decline from 2008, and only 8.2% believe the problem of corruption is non-existent. Though at first glance these rates may seem high, it’s important to note that this is the 2nd lowest rate of perceived corruption in Latin America, lower even than that of the United States (69.9% of U.S. respondents think corruption is common practice in the country). Furthermore, only 11.4% of Salvadorans polled said they had been victims of corruption: again, one of the lowest levels in Latin America. These numbers would appear to be heartening, but given what we know about El Salvador, they are mostly just perplexing.  Nor do the results match up with other surveys, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which places El Salvador more moderately, as the 16th most corrupt country in the region (out of 28).  According to Transparency International’s metrics, corruption in El Salvador definitely exceeds levels in the US, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil, among others.

It is difficult to determine whether these responses of perceived corruption correspond to the real levels.  Any number of factors can influence the accuracy of responses, be it a misformulation of the survey questions, the well-known ‘honeymoon period’ of recently elected President Funes, who still enjoys a 72% approval rate, or the simple subtlety of corruption.  A cultural accustom to corruption, along with differing personal definitions of the term can greatly affect the public’s perception.  On the other hand, since there is no way to measure the actual level of corruption in a country, there is no evidence contrary to the survey’s results.  The level of perceived corruption could very well be an accurate representation of the level of practiced corruption.  Also, the percentage of those who perceive the country to be corrupt, puzzlingly, seems to be lower than that of those who note that police don’t protect their citizens.  Many people would consider corruption to be a factor in situations where police fall short of their responsibilities.

Perhaps this is because corruption motivated by power is inherently harder to measure than that motivated by money. Even financially-motivated corruption, however, is much more complex than the survey implies.  The only question used to assess the entire culture of actual (rather than perceived) corruption is about authority figures asking law-abiding citizens for bribes. This is where the survey’s information most significantly falls short of a full investigation of the issue.  Corruption is more than actions, it is a culture.  When it takes hold of a society, it builds impunity and a weak rule of law, which erode democratic values.

If the perception of corruption is so low, relative to the other nations in the region, then the lack of respect for the law is puzzlingly high. More than 52% of interviewed Salvadorans agree that officials would be justified in occasionally acting outside of the law in order to catch a criminal, giving El Salvador the 2nd lowest population support for rule of law. Moreover, just over 50% of citizens say that a coup d’état would be justified in conditions of high crime and high corruption.

Overall, the seemingly low level of perceived corruption relative to other nations in the region is promising.  Although the true level of corruption is extremely important to the success of a democratic system, the public’s perception of corruption is also important.  The more corrupt the public views the government, the less trust people have for the government, which eventually destabilizes democracy.  The public’s optimistic attitude towards the level of corruption implies a certain level of trust in the government’s democratic system.

Economy, El Salvador Government, Politics

Economic Well-Being Strongly Tied to Democratic Attitudes in El Salvador

The AmericasBarometer survey has recently published their biannual report, The Political Culture of Democracy in El Salvador.  Funded by USAID and other organizations, it focuses on a multitude of social and economic factors and their effect on citizen’s evaluation of democracy in El Salvador. Given the variety of important topics covered in this report, Voices will be publishing a series of articles on the results and their significance.

AmericasBarometer conducts surveys on the political culture of democracy in the Americas every two years, meaning that 2008 was the last year of data collection prior to the current. Since 2008, the economic recession has hit the Americas, and the rest of the world, hard. In Latin America especially, the rates of unemployment and the ‘extreme working poor’ (defined in the report as those who live on less than US$1.25 a day) rose significantly.  Unemployment rose to 8.5%.  Additionally, 9.9% of citizens are now considered members of the extreme working poor. Further, remittances from the U.S. to El Salvador (which account for 17% of El Salvador’s GDP) declined by approximately 12%. Thus, a special focus in this round of AmericasBarometer surveys emerged: the effect of hard economic times on citizens’ perception of democracy.

The economic recession seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a decline or even reversal of democratic development in many developing countries. El Salvador is no exception, reporting a 4-point decrease (68 to 64 on a 0-100 scale) in public support for democracy since 2008. This decline makes sense, especially in light of a 1996 study by Adam Przeworski, a democratic social theorist and political economist, analyzing the link between income and political stability.  Called the Przeworski Threshold, his finding was that no democracy has ever collapsed when the per capita income exceeded $6,055. Unfortunately, El Salvador has not reached that threshold, pointing to a connection between the country’s constant state of political unrest and its ongoing economic struggles. The reason behind this connection is two-fold: besides a lack of funds to support basic infrastructure, public discontent over the government’s money management and institutionalized economic inequality can incite violent political protests. In keeping with this analysis, survey data consistently indicated that democratic dissatisfaction increased as household income decreased, and household income has decreased the most for those who were already the poorest.

Interestingly, though there is a correlation between a survey respondent’s worsening personal financial situation and a lower level of support for democracy, respondents tended to be much more critical of the democratic system when it was the wider government that was in economic trouble. In a way, this is a positive indicator of citizens’ understanding of the democratic system: it signifies a recognition that the success of a country as a whole and the competence of its leaders have a more permanent positive effect than does individual prosperity. At the same time, however, these statistics highlight how important it is that the democratic government in El Salvador dedicate itself to improving the system in place, so as not to lose the support of its people in times of hardship.  It is during difficult times when public support is the most necessary.

Interviewers also asked participants to rate and compare their levels of ‘life satisfaction’ between 2008 and 2010 (note that 2008 life satisfaction levels are retrospectively reported, and results thus do not reflect real satisfaction in 2008). The results are still astounding: 40.8% of Salvadorans reported a decline in life satisfaction in these two years, most closely influenced by a negative perception of their personal economic situation, which has resulted in lower levels of confidence in democracy.

Other significant factors in a respondent’s appraisal of democracy are education, gender, and class. There is a positive correlation between higher levels of education and support for democracy: 61.7 % of Salvadorans with no or only primary education ‘at least somewhat’ support democracy, compared with 64.1% of middle/ high school graduates, and 68.4% of those with a post-secondary education. Historically, women in El Salvador have been less supportive of democracy, most likely due to their lower social status and rising violence towards women. The survey’s 2010 results confirm this. Only 61.7% of women professed support for democracy, compared with 66.7% of men. Lastly, as one descends through the quintiles of wealth, support for democracy likewise declines, confirming the correlation between economic well-being and approval of the democratic system.

We must ask, then, if a decrease in support for democracy necessarily a) implies a denial of the legitimacy of the political system or b) threatens political stability in a region. It seems to not do either. Despite a significant decrease in support for democracy as a political theory, survey results from El Salvador indicate a 7.1% overall increase in support for the functioning political system, most significantly tied to perceptions of the government’s economic success. The indicator for political system support is calculated based on responses to five different survey questions, which address the fairness of the judicial system, the respectability of the country’s political institutions, the protection of basic rights, citizens’ national pride, and, more abstractly, the perceived ideal level of support for the system. Many of the significant factors in determining support for democracy (such as economic well-being) remain significant when considering system support. In practice, though, they indicate opposite trends. Where the most highly educated were the biggest supporters of theoretical democracy, they show the lowest levels of support for the current political system as a whole. This is unsurprising, however, as this general trend appears in most developing and developed nations. Likewise, though women were more likely to be democratically disinclined, they reported higher levels of support for the actual political system than did their male counterparts. The general increase in system support seen here is also due to citizens’ perceptions of improvement in government economic performance, a hopeful indicator that the Americas may soon emerge from the recession.

The results of the AmericasBarometer survey are in keeping with those of the El Faro survey we covered previously, though the former is notably less partial. Where the El Faro survey tended to ask leading questions and thus overstate respondents’ dissatisfaction, AmericasBarometer kept questions as open as possible and seemed to do its best to remove bias and suggestion. That said, anti-democratic sentiment is still unmistakably present in El Salvador: on AmericasBarometer’s 0-100 scale, El Salvador scored third highest in public support for military coups (40.9 in 2010). Still in keeping with El Faro’s results, where the majority of respondents agreed that they would “support an authoritarian government if it resolved economic problems,” AmericasBarometer finds that support for a coup is highest among those who see the (national and personal) economic situation as grave. Again, significant determinants in support for a coup are education level, relative wealth, sex, and age: the more educated and/or wealthy the respondent, the less likely it was that he or she would support a military coup; and men and older members of society were less likely to be in support than women or youth.

The results of the survey show, for the most part, that economic well-being, whether that of individual families or that of the nation’s government, is one of the strongest factors that affect the public’s support of democracy.  In El Salvador, recently, personal economic well-being has been decreasing, and along with it, the support of democracy.  On the other hand, the public’s perception of the government’s well-being has brought an increase in support for the current system.  While public support for democracy as a political theory is important, support for the current, though imperfect, democratic system is more important to immediate political stability, and this does not seem to have been negatively impacted by the recent economic troubles.