Critics deriding President Donald Trump's decision to cut American aid to the "Northern Triangle" nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — to prompt more willingness by those governments to halt population transfers to the U.S. Southwest Border — betray an almost childlike naiveté about how the world really works.
The Trump administration's plan is to cut off $450 million in aid unless, as President Trump once put it, those countries "get with it" to deter and physically halt emigration to our southern border, projected to reach one million Central American family members by the end of this year. The so-called "caravans" of late offer the most visible evidence of Northern Triangle governmental reluctance (and Mexico's too) to slow the flow, as security forces easily give way to violent young male migrants forcing their way past them by fist, rock, and numbers.
Human rights groups, anti-borders proponents, and various pro-illegal immigration idealists have pushed back against the aid cuts with arguments that usually follow along these lines, never with any accompanying causal evidence: Cutting American aid in those countries will make the problem worse, since the money has been effectively applied to counter push factors such as gang violence, deep poverty, corrupt judicial systems, and abusive security forces.
What should finally be said out loud about this narrative is that the real purpose of most foreign aid is and always has been to pay off mostly corrupt receiving governments to do the bidding of wealthy donor nations. Foreign aid is the quid in this diplomatic kind of pro quo. Foreign aid, security assistance, and the like work to this design because receiving government officials steal the cash outright not only for themselves but for their cronies, who help maintain their power. Key allies in developing country governments must be kept satisfied lest they switch allegiances to a more sharing new government.
Foreign aid amounts to bribe money, which the U.S. government pays to purchase friendship and help when it wants it, as both carrot or stick; we'll give it to you to help you stay in power through payoffs, or we'll take it away and weaken your power, unless you do our bidding. The quaint narrative about how U.S. foreign aid puts down El Salvadoran gang-bangers runs smack into this reality about the world and is, in its way, almost adorable in its idealism.
In this light, Trump's March 29 declaration that "We were paying them tremendous amounts of money and we're not paying them anymore because they haven't done a thing for us," is right. The plan is shown as just another in a long line of pragmatic pivots using aid to gain a foreign policy need, in almost perfect alignment with decades of tradition among all of the world's developed donor nations.
Lead or Gold: Coercing and Incentivizing Cooperation a Time-Honored Practice
Plenty of good company accepts the view of foreign aid as bribe money for corrupt developing country governments. For instance, in the book The Dictator's Handbook, esteemed political scientists Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith invoke this dynamic to posit that all actions taken by giving and receiving political leaders — autocrats and democrats alike — are at all times intended to preserve power and position. Here's how De Mesquita and Smith say it works: Achieving and preserving power requires that leaders prioritize the welfare of relatively small groups of "essential" constituents, elites who make up "winning coalitions" and without whose support a supreme leader can be removed. National leaders understand that continued loyalty of those who make up essential coalitions lasts only as long as the privileges, favor, and cash they receive in return.
From this vantage point, De Mesquita and Smith argue that foreign aid is a resource that "thieving" leaders of recipient poorer nations tap to pay off their essential loyalists, such as military generals or agricultural magnates. Knowing this, donor countries use foreign aid to create a kind of power dependency in developing countries, which can then be leveraged to achieve outcomes the donor nations want when they're needed.
In The Dictator's Handbook, De Mesquita and Smith describe such relationships, cynical though this view might be, as entirely transactional and symbiotic:
Yes, it is true that a lot of aid is given to corrupt governments, but that is by design, not by accident or out of ignorance. Rather, aid is given to thieving governments exactly because they will sell out their people for their own political security. Donors will give them that security in exchange for policies that make donors more secure too by improving the welfare of their own constituents.
Similarly, a Brookings Institution analysis by Avi Dicter and Daniel Byman points out that leaders of donor nations have always essentially purchased foreign policy achievement by corrupting developing country leaders with foreign aid. For instance, Dicter and Byman point to Israel's experience giving and taking away foreign aid to achieve Palestine Liberation Organization cooperation with counterterrorism. Israel poured billions of supposedly humanitarian assistance aid into the coffers of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat as the only means to leverage his help busting terrorists in the Palestinian Authority territories. Arafat often enough complied while diverting the billions to himself and enough cronies to maintain personal power, they write.
It's a story repeated everywhere, almost all the time. And if American leaders are able to navigate the realities of a rough world to achieve that which is in America's interest, then doing so is not only right; it is good, too.
The United States sent untold billions in development and military aid to Pakistan after 9/11 in exchange for that country's military and intelligence crackdowns on al Qaeda. What happened with all the money is anyone's guess. Likewise, the United States sent billions in developmental assistance aid to Turkey in exchange for access to bases for the Iraq war. In recent years, European governments led by Germany sent billions in humanitarian aid to Turkey in exchange for an agreement that Turkey would accept large numbers of Muslim immigrant deportees, essentially putting an end to the 2015-2017 European migrant crisis.
Does anyone actually think all that money went entirely to develop Turkey, where corruption is widespread throughout the nation's public and private sectors, particularly in public procurement and construction projects?
Central America's Hunger for Corrupting Foreign Aid Cash
The Trump tactic of offering or withdrawing aid to compel Northern Triangle commitments to retard the migration outflows is hardly a cruel vengeance move to make life in the barrios tougher for the common people, as his critics are saying. It merely acknowledges an aid-for-power-maintenance equals favors-to-donor calculus reflecting the way the world unfortunately works.
As with any state-asked favors by a wealthier patron, leaders in Latin America can be expected to cooperate with American desires on this migration issue only if the price is high and right. Or, especially, if the money spigot gets turned off entirely. Latin American nations are among some of the world's most impoverished and needy; so foreign aid bears great political utility for the top political leaderships needing to spread some wealth around.
They certainly have proven highly responsive in helping out with America's drug war.
Since 2000, American security assistance investments of many kinds in Latin America has amounted to well over $12 billion, almost all of it going to help Colombia (Plan Colombia, etc.) and Mexico (The Merida Initiative, etc.) to suppress drug trafficking (but plenty also to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador). In return, those governments have given up a political commodity so precious that it can only be bought or forced: sovereignty. Latin American countries have allowed significant numbers of U.S. counter-drug personnel, military units, and intelligence officers to work in their territories year after year to target drugs and anti-government cartels and militias.
Of course, it should be noted that little information can be found suggesting how and to what extent, form, or fashion that leadership elites in Central America have doled out U.S. aid among themselves to stabilize their power bases. Such activity obviously is rarely conducted in the light of day.
But according to the corruption-tracking group Transparency International, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador remain plagued by widespread governmental corruption, nepotism, and clientism, exactly the conditions ripe for diverting American aid to cronies. Political leaderships in all three countries have remained embroiled in almost non-stop corruption investigations and allegations for years.
Pragmatism vs. Naïve Simplicity
The goals and purposes of U.S. foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries are written to appeal to the highest ideals of altruism and morality.
USAID's Obama-initiated Central America Strategy, for instance, which was maintained by Trump, describes lofty purposes for the $2.1 billion in aid sent to the region since 2016, including "reducing crime and violence, addressing corruption and impunity, disrupting the activities of transnational criminal organizations, and providing citizens with greater economic opportunity." Since 2016, hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been poured into programs such as "Security, Justice and Violence Prevention", "Good Governance, Transparency and Human Rights", and "Borders and Drug Control", according to the human rights research group Washington Office on Latin America.
Those who would interpret the words literally might be forgiven their idealistic preconceptions about what really happens once American funds are sent to corrupt, cash-strapped governments around the world. There can be no doubt that at least a little of it has been used for publicly stated purposes and showcased on local television news.
The smart money is on these probabilities: Fairy tales are not true, and surprising new cooperation will follow President Trump's cut in aid to Central America.