Seattle Foundation Donors Forum
Ambassador Jean Manes
Monday, October 22, 2018, 1:00 P.M., Crowne Plaza Hotel
Remarks by Ambassador Jean Manes at the Seattle Foundation Donors Conference
October 22, 2018
I have had the privilege to be the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador for almost three years. And — like many of you — most of my 26 year career has been spent focusing on this region. Most of you have dedicated your lives to this region. And, for those of us who have dedicated our lives, we have one thing in common that we share: that we care about and believe in this region.
Just like in our families, in this room we have many different views on politics, on immigration, on security, different ways to approach the same issues. But, we share the overarching passion and belief that, no matter where you come from, individuals should have access to education, healthcare, and opportunities to support their families in a safe and secure environment.
When we start from that premise we set the stage to find common ground. There’s no way to ignore the overwhelming negativity that seems to permeate our environment. Perhaps as a country and as a region — as the parents in the room would say — maybe we need to take a “time out”. Time to reflect; time to recharge, time to retool, and then time to get back out there and get back in the battle.
Over the next three days you’ll have the opportunity to inspire others and be inspired. As the theme of this conference is about migration, let me share a few thoughts. Again, let’s step back from the rhetoric. The fundamental issue of migration has not changed. People feel a substantial need to migrate due to lack of security and economic opportunities in their home country. The government of the United States remains committed to addressing the root causes of irregular migration.
When I first arrived almost three years ago under the Obama Administration, the number one priority for the three Missions in the northern triangle – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – was to reduce irregular migration to the United States. That priority continues with the Trump Administration.
At that time, the Central American Strategy had just been approved with additional funding by the U.S. Congress. While that strategy had been in draft for a number of years, it finally became a reality due to the unaccompanied migrant crisis of 2014 and 2015.
There was an enormous effort in Washington to build bipartisan congressional support for the plan, many comparing it to a Plan Colombia for this region. That bipartisan support was built on the shared belief that reducing irregular migration to the United States cannot just focus on security and does not begin at the border of the U.S. and Mexico. It begins in the countries of origin by supporting local efforts to improve security, increase economic opportunities, and strengthen institutions.
That bipartisan support still holds and this is a long-term effort. There are no overnight successes. But, the fact that there are no overnight successes does not mean we cannot have indicators. We absolutely should have measures and data to indicate where things are trending in the right direction and where they are not.
That bipartisan support has ensured that we have been able to stay on course and play the long game. While maintaining bipartisan support in the U.S. is essential, the ongoing commitment and leadership of the governments of the region is even more important. To maintain bipartisan support we need to be honest. Not just highlight successes, but be honest about the challenges and areas where things have not gone as we expected. It is intellectual honesty that builds credibility. Nobody is expecting a straight line in this business and, frankly, we are all too experienced and perhaps a tiny bit cynical when it comes to hearing the traditional “success stories”.
Each of these issues that each of you work on is complex – from security to economic growth – the range of factors that play into progress are many and involves immediate, mid-term and long-term elements.
Most of you are probably familiar with the parable of the starfish. Who is familiar with the parable of the starfish? Well, the parable goes that there is a young girl and her mom walking on the beach and they come across thousands of stranded starfish. I’m going to substitute starfish for sand dollars, because if you have the privilege to visit Salvadoran beaches you can actually come across hundreds of sand dollars on the beach. So, seeing those thousands of stranded sand dollars, the little girl starts racing around the beach to pick them up and carry them back to the water, to safety. Her mom looks on and doesn’t help. The girl asks her: “why aren’t you helping?” And the mom responds: “look, there’s so many, the need is so great, you can’t possibly pick up them all up, so you aren’t making a difference, it isn’t going to matter.” The girl puts another sand dollar back in the water and states, “it matters to this one.”
The normal interpretation of the story is that everyone can help someone. Everyone can make a difference. I heard a speaker discuss this well known parable this summer. He suggested that actually the person who didn’t focus on the stranded sand dollars was the more important, because they asked the larger questions? What needs to change to prevent the sand dollars from being stranded? Is this a natural phenomena? What’s causing this? What are the root causes of this? While the girl running around saving the sand dollars, she missed the importance and actually was distracted from focusing on fundamental, sustainable change.
I haven’t been able to get that presentation out of my head. What we do in El Salvador every day is some variation of picking up sand dollar and searching out the root causes for why they are there in the first place. And it’s my view that actually both are important. Strictly focusing on structural changes to the root causes while ignoring immediate needs, is not an option. That’s why it is so critical that we all work together across the spectrum – we need those specializing in immediate assistance to keep working so we don’t lose the ability to dedicate time to focus on the structural and vice versa.
What’s happening on the ground in El Salvador. The USG continues to support the plan of the three governments, which is the Alliance for Prosperity through the broader Central American Strategy.
Do I think the government of El Salvador is committed to the Plan? I do. But, there is a varying degree of commitment to different pillars of the plan.
So, let’s start with the positive, where we have the closest cooperation. That’s on the security front. The fact is there is over a 45% drop in homicides over the past two years. Extortion and other crimes have also dropped. According to the research, the number one reason Salvadorans illegally migrate to the United States is due to concerns related to security, that’s closely followed by the lack of economic opportunities. In Honduras and Guatemala, that order is the opposite. The number one reason is lack of economic opportunities followed by security. That’s an important distinction because if the goal is to move the needle on illegal migration, then efforts have to be directly tailored to the conditions in each country.
That’s what makes the national security council in El Salvador and Plan El Salvador Seguro so important. The national security council is led by the current government, but made up of all elements of society including the private sector, NGOs, and international community. Yes, it can be unwieldy, but it does provide the framework for engagement across sectors.
For those not familiar with Plan El Salvador Seguro – Safe El Salvador – it focuses on the 50 most complicated municipalities in the country. It began with phase 1 that included the first 10 and then expanded to 26, then to 50. The plan is quite extensive and was widely consulted across different sectors. Like any plan, it’s not perfect. But it does is give a good framework that can be continually improved. In the plan, about 70% is focused on prevention. Why is that important? That gets to a core concept that improved security does not equal mano dura.
I can tell you even at the highest levels of the current Salvadoran government there is an overwhelming recognition that prevention is the key and there is no way to simply arrest enough people to improve security. Prevention is everything from moving from part-time to full-time school days in the public schools; creating bonds in the community through restoring public spaces and parks; training police officers to interact and develop relationships in the community through their work in public schools and interaction with young people through programs like the Police Athletic League.
Human relationships based on trust.
The sand dollar immediate need is getting kids off the streets, fort part time to full time schools and other after school activities. The long term is focusing on the structure – building a better public education system and strengthening families.
Both are essential.
Three years ago we mapped out all US Government resources. Everything from the Millenium Challenge Corporation, locally known as FOMILENIO, to USAID, to International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, INL and we began to move all that money to align with Plan El salvador Seguro. Then, we went door to door with other NGOs, with others in the international community asking them to do the same.
Why? Because there is nothing more powerful than showing that a model can work; that change in possible.
How many expensive studies and plans have we all seen, that just ended up in a filing cabinet? And now, you don’t even have a hard copy in a filing cabinet, you just have an email that went to somebody. That somebody remembered there was a study 5 years ago, 10 years ago. We have invested thousands of hours and dollars studying these issues, but where is the follow-up? Where is that same dedication and rigorous accountability to implementation?
We shifted our USG assets to support the plan. Let’s go all in. Let’s layer the programming – education, after school programs, security. All in these 50 locations. And, let’s make sure we have the data so we can analyze what’s happening. Let’s figure out if the needle is in fact moving. USAID is funding the back-end data collection for Plan El Salvador Seguro. And, it’s way beyond the homicide rate. While that’s the metric that tends to like to use, gets the most attention, security is much more complex. You are actually trying to determine do people “feel more safe”. Do they feel more safe, because that’s the actual decision you are trying to change to impact the decision to migrate. And that is way beyond the homicide rate.
Feeling more safe be, can I leave my house? Can my child get to school without being threatened? Am I being extorted in my small business? Can I enjoy the central park in my hometown with my kids? Am I afraid using public transportation?
Having the data is one thing. Then you have to analyze the data. A few months ago, the government of El Salvador reviewed the current data with the national security council, including the international community. In that review, municipality by municipality, we began to look at where progress is being made and where it’s not. Clear improvement has been seen in a number of locations, including in Zacatecoluca. For those of you who have worked in El Salvador for years, if not decades, you will know this area was known as one of the most dangerous in the country. It was one of the first 10 areas of focus for Plan El Salvador Seguro.