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An opportunity for the Central American economy to reduce migration

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Learn more about Jenny Villatoro.
Jenny Villatoro
Program Manager, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative

The Bush Institute co-hosted a regional conference in Guatemala on Jan. 10 that discussed the root causes of migration from Northern Central America and explored new and creative ways to address it.

The conference featured panelists and guests from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras from the public sector, private sector, civil society, academia, and other sectors. 

Understanding the root causes of migration is best done by listening to and collaborating with experts on the ground working to better their countries so their neighbors don’t feel they have to leave. That is why the Bush Institute partnered with FUSADES of El Salvador, FUNDESA of Guatemala, and Fundación Eléutera of Honduras to co-host the event. 

The root causes of migration are complex and interconnected, but important to understand if the United States and regional governments are to make and promote sound policy. As the United States faces historic numbers of migrants at our southern border it’s important to understand this migratory flow in context: Global displacement is at the highest level it’s ever been in history. Humanitarian migration is not a U.S. problem – the entire hemisphere is navigating this new paradigm of high migratory flows. 

Corruption and impunity intersect with gang violence and insecurity – leading to an unstable business climate and tenuous living situation for citizens. Both investors and citizens lack confidence in the future, and the result is both a depressed economy and large outflows of people. 

The event, titled “An Opportunity for the Regional Economy | Investments to Reduce Migration,” focused on the opportunities the region has to address its longstanding challenges and how all stakeholders in society can partner and collaborate to reach innovative, practical solutions. 

The first panel, titled “The Private Sector’s Role in Addressing Gender Based Violence” featured both private sector and NGO leaders who are working creatively and collaboratively to reduce the levels of violence that women and girls face everyday. Across the region, 95% of crimes against women and girls go unpunished. The lack of physical safety drives migration, as does a general sense that the state is not in control. While reducing gender-based violence will take a communitywide effort, the private sector has many opportunities to engage on this issue. They range from developing an inclusive company culture and representation in management and on boards of directors to partnering with nongovernmental organizations on training opportunities. Safer communities are more prosperous communities, so economic development goes hand in hand with increasing citizen security. 

The second panel focused on the importance of a strong civil society and democratic participation by citizens. When there is no trust in the electoral process, when citizens cannot be sure their voice is heard at the ballot box, they vote with their feet. The state of democracy in the region also informs investors’ views of business opportunities. So the region’s democratic recession is cause for concern for businesses and citizens. Citizen engagement in their democracies, in their countries, and civil society’s ability to work, organize, and speak freely are critical to increasing a sense of hope for the region’s future. 

The next panel tackled regional digitalization – where the region currently stands and what opportunities are out there to leverage emerging digital technologies. Digital technologies can be leveraged in obvious ways, such as increasing access to financial institutions via online banking and reducing friction for investments by allowing digital signatures, as well as in less obvious ways, such as increasing government transparency and access to services for survivors of gender-based violence. 

The final panel, “Near-Shoring and Trade Opportunities,” focused on the opportunities that trade and nearshoring present for the region – including how to better take advantage of existing trade policy, such as CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement). One of the main takeaways from this panel was that while there is always time to evaluate and make the best of trade policy, the window of opportunity around nearshoring is not eternal. As businesses look to move operations closer to the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have a unique opportunity in this moment in time to create partnerships between the public and private sectors as well as with each other via a national plan to improve the business climate and to attract more investment. 

We were encouraged by the strong turnout at the event and are committed to working with the region’s thought leaders toward a freer and more prosperous region – reducing humanitarian migration to the benefit of us all.