Foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is meant to promote prosperity, good governance, and security in the region. In March 2019, the Trump administration withheld that assistance until those countries took steps to reduce the number of migrants coming to the U.S. border—suspending new funds and reallocating prior year funds.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that this adversely affected 65 of the State Department’s 168 projects, and 92 of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) 114 projects. Funding resumed in June 2020, but both agencies reported delays and fewer services to beneficiaries during the 14-month suspension.
In March 2019, the funding was suspended for up to 14 months and the Trump administration reprogrammed approximately $396 million (85 percent) of fiscal year 2018 funding to other countries. In June 2020, the administration ended the suspension of assistance funding. After the end of the suspension, USAID adjusted its assistance portfolio to implement projects that focused on deterring migration and designed new indicators to assess the relationship between its assistance projects and migration from the region. Officials from State and USAID told GAO that their overall assistance approach of promoting prosperity, good governance, and security remained the same after the suspension.
The watchdog found that although some previously funded projects continued operating as planned, the 2019 suspension and reprogramming of assistance funding adversely affected 92 of USAID’s 114 projects and 65 of State’s 168 projects. For example, a training-the-trainer activity was terminated that planned to train 30 local national police officers who would then provide the training to other officers.
In August 2019, USAID canceled an $8 million project that had the goal of reducing the criminal recidivism rate among at-risk youth in Honduras. The cancelation happened after a year of planning activities, incurring over $1.1 million in closeout costs. The implementing partner responsible for the project had secured the cooperation of three consortium partners—institutes from two U.S. universities and a U.S. based non-profit organization—to assist in project implementation. When the Trump administration announced the suspension of assistance funding, the implementing partner had spent almost a year preparing the project and had hired international and local staff to work in Honduras. It had also moved into a larger office in Honduras to accommodate the onboarding of new staff and upgraded much of its software to support project implementation. According to the implementing partner, during the first few months of the 2019 suspension, it negotiated with the three consortium partners to re-scope the project. All the consortium partners agreed to reductions in scope to allow the project to begin implementing reduced or modified activities for the beneficiaries. However, according to the officials, USAID decided in August 2019 to terminate the project before full implementation began rather than risk having to do so once implementation was ongoing. Once USAID terminated the project, it had to budget $1.1 million in expenses to close out operations. The implementing partner described these closeout expenses as a waste of taxpayer dollars, given the time and money put in initially to procure the project.
USAID and State have also reported missing some of their performance targets due to the 2019 suspension and reprogramming of assistance funding. For example, USAID reported missing 19 percent (35 of 182) of its targets in fiscal year 2019, while State reported missing 30 percent (three of 10).