A decision by the U.S. government to cut aid to three Central American nations is "counterproductive," likely to backfire and fuel rather than stem the flow of migrants north fleeing gang violence and dire poverty, charities said on Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department said on Saturday it would carry out President Donald Trump's repeated threats to end foreign assistance to programs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - known as the Northern Triangle.
Trump has criticized the three nations for doing little to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom are seeking better lives in the United States.
Charities that receive funding from the U.S. government to promote economic and social development in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras say aid cuts not only will do little good but will make matters worse.
"The people who are really going to get hurt by this are the people who are the region's most vulnerable, including small farmers and teenagers trying to avoid the pressures of joining gangs and escape violence," said David Ray, vice president of policy and advocacy at global charity CARE.
"Poverty, violence and insecurity - those are exactly the drivers of migration. So to undercut those programs seems to be self-defeating," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars every year for development projects in the Northern Triangle, including crime and gang violence prevention, efforts to strengthen agriculture and justice systems, anti-corruption programs and job skills training.
U.S. foreign aid to Central America dropped to $527.6 million this year from $655 million in 2017, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think-tank.
Trump's idea to cut aid to the Northern Triangle could add to migration north as conditions at home worsen, experts said.
"He is concerned about border security," said Robert Zachritz, vice president for advocacy and government relations at charity World Vision. "If you want to solve that problem, what he is proposing is counterproductive."
World Vision relies on $127 million of U.S. government funding for Northern Triangle projects.
CARE would have to scale back in the Northern Triangle on efforts that include a project helping poor farmers in Guatemala grow sustainable crops.
"That program would be severely curtailed without the U.S. funding," Ray said.
Fierce Battle Ahead
But cutting aid will likely face strong opposition in the U.S. Congress, which must approve Trump's plan to change spending bills already passed.
To win Congressional approval, the Trump administration must provide a formal notice explaining its plans for reallocating the aid money.
"It is Congress that decides on how much foreign assistance the U.S. is going to provide," said Adriana Beltran, head of WOLA's Citizen Security Program and Central America expert.
"Congress has control of the purse, so it's going to lead to a fierce battle," she said.
Rick Jones, senior advisor for charity Catholic Relief Services, which last year planned projects in the Northern Triangle with the help of $34.4 million in U.S. government funds, also said aid cuts would fuel migration.
"Cutting off aid is morally wrong and is counterproductive," Jones said. "It will undermine the gains that have been made in reducing violence and will spur more migration."
One of its endangered projects provides training and jobs to more than 5,000 young people in poor and violence-torn communities in Honduras and El Salvador, he said.
"Cutting aid will provoke greater instability in Central America, provoking ever more migration," said Vicki Gass, senior policy advisor at Oxfam, a British-based charitable confederation that does not receive U.S. aid. "We know that people are leaving because of the widespread violence, devastating climate change, endemic corruption, and structural economic inequality - not addressing these fundamental problems is not the answer."