Fifty years ago, young men and women went to live and work in El Salvador and Honduras for the first time “… to serve their country in the cause of peace …” as Peace Corps volunteers, but neither country will be able to celebrate this anniversary. This year, Peace Corps put programs on hiatus in Honduras and El Salvador, two of the poorest and most unequal countries in the region.
Peace Corps’ withdrawal is a troubling sign that lack of social progress in Central America jeopardizes the sub-region’s political stability. Rather than pulling back, there should be wider hemispheric engagement to improve social progress in these countries.
Roughly one out of every two people in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras is poor, and many live in impoverished urban communities which lack access to basic services and infrastructure. These urban slums are fertile grounds for crime, which now threatens local democratic governance in major cities in these countries. Many Latin Americans think their countries’ income distribution is unjust. Most Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans feel that their governments work only to help a privileged few. Taking advantage of this discontent and armed with populist policies, leaders like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua are centralizing power and undermining civil liberties.
Foreshadowing a key area of interest for hemispheric engagement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly criticized Latin America’s low tax collections and urged governments to collect more taxes to fund more social spending. Despite the United States’ internal missteps — such as the extension of tax breaks to corporations and the ultra-wealthy — Secretary Clinton’s calls for social advance in Latin America are affirmations that equality of opportunity is critical to democracy and growth.
While Secretary Clinton’s recommendation for increasing public revenues would help, regional social progress depends on better targeting of existing government resources and improving the quality of public services. Public transfers and taxes do little to reduce income inequality in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Although governments have launched innovative and low-cost programs that help the poor, they have largely failed to reform the traditionally ineffective and expensive ones. Poor service quality has real consequences. Education policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua left more than half of third-graders in 2008 without basic reading comprehension skills.
Some reforms will be politically difficult for Latin American governments to implement. Americans can understand this — the struggle to improve health care in the United States is testimony that certain groups will fiercely resist social policy reforms, regardless of current policies’ failures and excessive costs.
Nonetheless, improving equality of opportunities in Latin America is sure to bring economic benefits to the United States as well as peace of mind in knowing that our neighbors are politically stable. To this end, governments should not simply spend more, but spend better, by directing more spending to those who need it and increasing the quality of public services they already fund.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons