Vice President Kamala Harris chaired a White House meeting the other day in which several corporations promised to bring programs and money to the three nations of the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, the source of so much pressure on the southern border.
While some of these proposed initiatives hold real promise, at least one of them is bound to be counter-productive, something you will not hear from the media or the White House, which showed equal enthusiasm for all of the ventures.
The two most potentially useful interventions will come from Microsoft’s proposal to expand broadband access to three million people in the next year, and from an arm of Nestle that will buy more coffee in Guatemala, and start buying it in the other two Northern Triangle nations, El Salvador and Honduras. We were given no numbers about the coffee plans.
The broadband expansion, a kind of infrastructure deal, will be useful for a number of reasons; it will provide direct and indirect economic opportunities to individuals, and to local firms using the internet to sell products. It may offer a hidden benefit as well, just as ready access to computer linkages kept many Americans off the streets during the Covid-19 crisis, perhaps it will keep some Central Americans at home (at their computers) rather than trying to enter the U.S. (That’s my take, not something I saw in the reporting.)
Buying more product (such as coffee) can’t do anything but help the Central American economy, but how much of the additional money will reach the farmers is another question.
While most of the media coverage was slim on details, a Voice of America report added this:
Chobani has agreed to bring its incubator program for local entrepreneurs to Guatemala, while Mastercard will aim to bring 5 million people in the region who currently lack banking services into the financial system and give 1 million micro and small businesses access to electronic banking, the official said.
Chobani is a yogurt maker, and encouraging the residents to make and sell yogurt is a good idea, but it cannot be but a small one. Central America is not known for a large number of milk cows.
As for Mastercard expanding its activities, this strikes me as a dubious good, shouldering aside local financial institutions and simply adding another stream of profits to those of a world-wide, U.S controlled bank.
But the very worst of the ideas hailed by the White House is this one, as reported by ABC:
Luis von Ahn, CEO of the language-learning app Duolingo, said in a blog post Thursday that about 500,000 people in the Northern Triangle region already use Duolingo’s advertising-driven free app, mostly to learn English and improve their job prospects. The company also offers a $49 online English proficiency test accepted by many colleges in the U.S. and elsewhere, and as part of the White House call, he said it’s going to waive the cost of the test for many Central Americans.
The objective of private and public sector investments in the Northern Triangle is to encourage the residents to stay put. If we are going to teach Central Americans another language it should be Portuguese (as spoken in Brazil) or maybe the French of Quebec.
Maybe Harris did not get the memo. And ABC News certainly did not get the irony.