Lessons from Europe: The U.S. Opportunity to Rethink the Links Between Development Assistance and Migration
Joe Biden’s first transatlantic trip as president offers an opportunity to learn from the European experience in linking up migration and development aid, and to reflect on how the emerging U.S. strategy to address the root causes of migration and displacement from Central America can improve upon Europe’s efforts in Africa.
The Biden administration has pledged $4 billion over four years to stem irregular migration flows from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, a commitment underscored by the visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala and Mexico last week. This funding has been primarily motivated by a sharp increase in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, rising from 78,000 in January to 180,000 in May. By doing so, the administration has reactivated the recipe of the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America aiming to curb migration to the United States by improving conditions in the region. Between fiscal years 2016 and 2021, Congress allocated $3.6 billion to the strategy; while results have been mixed, U.S. officials insist this time will be different.
To achieve that outcome, they would do well to examine a similar initiative, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), launched by the European Commission in 2015. Spontaneous migrant arrivals to Europe had reached an unprecedented level, and EU officials claimed the EUTF (which has expended nearly 5 billion euros) would help curb irregular migration and displacement from Africa. The European experience offers five main lessons directly applicable to the situation in Central America:
Lesson 1: Shaping Migration through Economic Development Is a Long-Term and Complex Strategy
As tempting as it is to announce a brand-new initiative that will address the challenges associated with irregular migration, a growing volume of research suggests that development assistance on its own is a blunt tool for reshaping flows. In fact, evidence shows that development can increase migration over the short term. As countries become richer, their citizens gain access to education and employment and have more resources to emigrate. And while employment may decrease the likelihood that an individual will migrate in some contexts, it increases those prospects in others. This does not mean that development assistance should be abandoned, but that policymakers must set realistic expectations as to what development can achieve in relation to migration management in the short term. There are no short cuts.
In the EUTF’s early years, European leaders often failed to distinguish between immediate operational needs at EU borders and long-term investments in Africa, instead claiming that “emergency” development funding would reduce migration to Europe. EU actors argued, in fact, the EUTF would generate more opportunities and anchor African youth to their home country. Five years on, the fund reported the creation of more than 130,000 jobs across 26 African countries. Not only is this result too small to have a significant impact on migration outflows, it also can be misleading in that the figures include everything from short- and long-term positions to cash for work.
Most importantly, the EU discourse hinged on a simplistic conception of the relationship between job creation and migration. Instead of dampening migration aspirations, increased wages can be a way to fund the journey abroad. Still, until recently, the European Commission was citing the EUTF as a factor in the decrease in migrant arrivals. Recent events, including the arrival of nearly 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers from Morocco to Spain over just two days in April, have shown this story is much more complicated, jeopardizing broader EU credibility on migration and development policies.
Lesson 2: Promoting Better Governance Is Much Needed, But Hard to Achieve
Development programs often focus on the economic drivers of migration, partially because job creation and vocational training are easier to count and claim credit for. But creating jobs does not address the constellation of other factors that affect people’s livelihoods and have a strong effect on their desire to stay or migrate. As noted in previous research on emigration from Central America, the primary intersecting drivers of migration beyond economic factors are insecurity and violence, corruption, lack of trust in government, and uneven application of the rule of law. Tackling these issues requires engagement that is much more political and time-consuming, with often uncertain outcomes. It also involves convincing governments to go down the complicated and sometimes unpalatable path of internal reforms, while at the same time maintaining their goodwill to cooperate on migration management.
In the European context, securing deals to bolster border control and migrant return has sometimes taken precedence over working towards better governance in countries of origin and transit, leading the European Commission to some unsavory tradeoffs. For instance, the EUTF allocated more than 150 million euros to Eritrea, though European policymakers previously had refrained from engaging with the authoritarian regime. Only recently did the Commission put these projects on hold, acknowledging Eritrean authorities had not provided the guarantees needed in terms of international oversight. The experience demonstrated Europeans were initially ready to turn a blind eye to serious human-rights violations in exchange for cooperation on migration. A similar dynamic was at play during the Trump administration as it conditioned development assistance to Central America on government efforts to reduce irregular migration, while deprioritizing progress on improving rule of law and anti-corruption efforts. This has left the new U.S. government with a long to-do list to tackle thorny governance issues—a daunting challenge given fear of U.S. intervention in the region.
Still, on governance issues, the European Union and its African partners have made progress in the areas of migration and asylum at local, national, and regional levels, all particularly relevant to the situation in Central America. Across Africa, the European Union supported the drafting and rollout of national migration policies and promoted a comprehensive approach to migration management and asylum. The EUTF also funded projects to help local authorities and civil society gain migration knowledge, increase cross-border cooperation, and support the regional integration of blocs such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These interventions could inform U.S. investments, especially as U.S. development assistance so far has focused less on increasing the institutional and operational capacity of migration and asylum agencies in Central America, and more on expanding governance capacity and buttressing security institutions (for example to prosecute crime and corruption).
Lesson 3: Tailor Investments to Local Needs and Promote Cooperation with Diverse Service Partners
The EU experience also demonstrates the need to invest in relationships with recipient countries, and to coordinate internal efforts. First, it is essential to consult government and nongovernment actors in partner countries to design projects that respond to local needs and are sensitive to local dynamics. This is no easy task, especially when donors are under pressure to quickly establish new projects and communicate immediate achievements. When the EUTF was launched, European policymakers kickstarted projects in a hurry, sometimes leaving recipient governments and other stakeholders out of consultations. The European Commission and its partners corrected this by posting dedicated staff in EU delegations across Africa to hold regular consultations with local migration stakeholders. Tailored to each national context, these efforts have involved central governments as well as subnational authorities, civil society, researchers, and international organizations.
In Central America, previous U.S. development strategies have sought to invest in local initiatives to reach local populations, with the assistance of key government actors. In practice, funds have largely been awarded to U.S. contractors and other large implementing partners. Civil-society organizations have raised concerns that contract awards to these agencies have resulted in support for the same set of programs and service locations, limiting reach and impact. To reach new populations and increase the impact of U.S. aid programs moving forward, U.S. policymakers would benefit from proactively expanding their list of partners. They should include those who have the most direct knowledge of migration, those who are best equipped with the technical capacity to implement small- and large-scale programs, and those who have been regularly left out of the process but could reach new populations, for example, indigenous and other marginalized groups. These efforts are essential to ensure that this latest flurry of U.S. interventions does not create further harm and is sensitive to the highly complex makeup and history of the recipient countries.
To deliver on this daunting task, the U.S. government will need a whole-of-government approach to ensure coordination and better synchronized channels of cooperation with Central America. In the past, development assistance objectives, priorities, and implementation were the brief of various U.S. departments and agencies. To avoid this outcome, the European Commission invested heavily in creating synergies between departments that were not used to working together on migration and asylum, even less so when engaging with third countries. Officials in charge of labor migration to Europe, for instance, now collaborate more closely with the EU development directorate and they engage together with migrant-origin countries. While these coordination mechanisms can still be improved, the U.S. government could build on some of this learning.
Lesson 4: Leveraging Migration as a Powerful Driver for Development
Over the past six years, European policymakers have sought to leverage development assistance to curb migration, but they have not paid enough attention to the ways in which migration can be a powerful lever for development. Remittances remain one of the most direct and effective drivers for development, yet the EUTF did not allocate sizeable funding to programs targeting this sector and no significant progress was made on lowering the costs of remitting money to Africa. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the critical role of remittances as a safety valve in times of crisis, and showcased opportunities for innovation, with the rapid shift towards digitalization and the boom of the fintech industry. In Central America, remittances account for a significant share of the countries’ GDP (about 20 percent in El Salvador and Honduras, and 15 percent in Guatemala) and constitute an economic stability buffer. Leveraging these to build resilient communities, increase financial inclusion, and ultimately improve public infrastructure and services are key opportunities for the region. Actors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have a critical role to play to support these evolutions, by going beyond shiny and short-term initiatives, helping to support structural changes in the remittances market, and re-engagement with diasporas to encourage knowledge transfers as well as trade and foreign investments. Development agencies could also encourage more public-private partnerships, working with money transfer companies and financial tech firms to enhance access to financial services for instance.
Expanded labor pathways can also address some of the challenges experienced in Central America, encouraging circular migration and, for instance, making it easier to recruit seasonal workers (a step announced recently by the U.S. government). Because labor migration is mostly outside the competence of the European Union, the Commission has not been very active on this front, though it launched a series of pilot projects on legal pathways in 2018 to promote new migration partnerships with origin countries, including global skill partnerships. This model could have potential in Central America, by allowing the training of workers in origin countries and the mobility of some of them to the United States, thus achieving a “triple win” for migrants and countries of origin and destination. The number of beneficiaries of these schemes, however, is usually small; it is also a persistent challenge to scale up these projects and one main lesson from the European experience is to manage expectations from the start.
Lesson 5: Investing in Program Monitoring and Evaluation Uncovers Blind Spots
With the U.S. strategy in its infancy, now is the perfect time to use research to inform programming and build in monitoring mechanisms from the start so that projects can be improved in real time and results can be rigorously analyzed (and disseminated). Since 2015, European policymakers have allocated significant funding for research to map out migration trends and the needs of local communities in Africa and establish recommendations for new projects. The United States and its partners could consider funding research on migration and displacement in Central America, particularly where migration scholarship has been rather limited. Such funding could support local research institutes and universities, with the goal of enhancing their capacity and ownership over this matter.
Finally, one of the main weaknesses of the earlier U.S. strategy in Central America has been its limited monitoring and evaluation (M&E) mechanism. It continues to be challenging to document the impact of these investments and hold U.S. policymakers, Central American governments, and their implementing partners accountable. This time, U.S. officials should aim for an overarching benchmarking of the shared goals and outcomes for the myriad projects they will fund over the next four years, with a focus on improving program design and advancing U.S. policy interests. Over the past six years, the European Commission invested about 15 million euros in cross-program monitoring to compile the reporting of all of its implementing partners. These efforts have produced an explanation of EUTF achievements in Africa as a whole, beyond the successes and failures of individual projects. Such an approach would be useful for USAID and its partners, helping stay the course for the overall initiative.
As Biden meets with EU leaders on June 15, migration will undoubtedly be on the agenda. This transatlantic discussion and future ones may be the opportunity for policymakers to shelve once and for all this idea that development aid for origin countries will curb irregular migration in the short term. The European experience has shown this discourse can raise false expectations and be counterproductive by suggesting the achievement of unattainable (and unrelated) objectives.
Beyond this strategic reframing, the Biden administration does not start from scratch and should have a lot to talk about with its European counterparts, to learn from the mistakes and successes that have emerged in the past six years of the EUTF’s existence.