A More Democratic, Inclusive, and Sustainable Central America

Following extensive exploration, in 2019 the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) selected Central America as the focus of a new pivotal place program. This decision recognizes the distinct relevance of our thematic priorities—sustainable development, peacebuilding, and democratic practice—in Central America, as well as the impacts of historical and ongoing U.S. engagement in the region. Funded by the generous bequest of David Rockefeller, this program honors the Rockefeller brothers’ longstanding interest in Latin America.

In the intervening years, we have met with a wide range of actors and approved a set of exploratory grants to uncover how the Fund’s modest resources can have the greatest impact for the people of Central America. Our new program guidelines identify the countries of northern Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—as the program’s focus. This region is home to a growing number of people, organizations, and movements demanding change, particularly in the areas of distribution of and access to power and wealth, race and gender relations, the sustainable use of natural resources, and the development of inclusive and participatory democracies.

These change agents face a number of challenges. Most countries in Central America suffered armed conflict into the mid-1990s. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have also been directly and often negatively impacted by U.S. foreign policy over the past 75 years as the U.S. government supported human rights-violating military regimes across the region. The peace processes in Guatemala (1996) and El Salvador (1992), supported by the United States as well as the international community, brought about ceasefires and the incorporation of insurgent groups into democratic political life but left structural causes of the conflict unaddressed.

Today, there are worrying signs in all three countries of growing authoritarian populism: intolerance for criticism, censorship of the media, suppression of civil liberties and human rights, attacks on civil society, and militarization of governance and civilian spaces. Systemic corruption displaces national development priorities with private interests, deepens inequality, and drives widescale impunity. With justice systems compromised, criminal violence is a constant, and gender-based violence is endemic in all three countries.

Central America’s extensive environmental wealth and natural resources also are compromised by these dynamics. Together with global climate change, natural resource mismanagement—including the expansion of livestock farming, monoculture that wears down the soil, and extractive industries—contributes to a growing crisis in access to water and food. Rural, indigenous, and other marginalized communities are particularly hard hit. The resulting insecurity and uncertainty push many people from the three countries to try to migrate to the United States in search of security, employment, and access to social services.

The previous U.S. administration withdrew support for initiatives to counter corruption and impunity, reinforcing the drivers of irregular migration, which was met with draconian detention and repatriation measures. The new administration has signaled a regional approach combining compassion with efforts to mitigate the root causes of migration. By addressing internal conditions, international and local stakeholders can work together to find durable solutions to the migration crisis within in the region.

Our new program guidelines reflect a region with both serious challenges but also powerful positive forces making brave efforts for democracy, sustainability, and human rights. The Fund’s Central America program will help the RBF identify and contribute to these efforts to encourage active participation in the civic space, incorporate the voices of women and indigenous people in decision making, expand access to justice and human security, advocate for nature-based solutions to human needs, craft new narratives, and bolster respectful and relevant international cooperation within the region and with its neighbors.