31. May 2019

El Salvador’s rule-of-law election deserves our support – here’s how

Santo Tomas municipal building, El Salvador

On February 3, 2019, 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador Nayib Bukele – the charismatic, anti-establishment, fringe-party candidate – won 53 percent of the vote in El Salvador’s presidential election. He takes office in June. The challenge confronting Bukele is stark, especially when it comes to the rule of law. But there are concrete things the international community can do to help the new president and his citizens.

Unlike all the other electoral contests since the 1992 civil war, Salvadoran voters rejected both the conservative ARENA and left-of-center FMLN parties. Citizens’ distrust of the traditional parties stems largely from their disgust at pervasive corruption: three of the country’s past four presidents have been indicted on charges including illicit enrichment, embezzlement, and money laundering.

El Salvador ranks 105 of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. All too often, police officers shake down motorists on highways, gangs extort shopkeepers and taxi drivers, and politicians brazenly raid state coffers, leading to sclerotic government institutions that fail to provide basic services and public security, which in turn contributes to the migrant crisis spanning the United States, Mexico, and Central America.

Keenly attuned to Salvadorans’ corruption fatigue, Bukele promised his supporters that, if elected, he would keep public officials from stealing public funds. That promise was short on details, but the international community can play a key role in filling in those plans and strengthening the institutions around Bukele’s administration.

Here are four recommendations for shaping international support in El Salvador’s fight against corruption:

Strengthen the presence of the state, one community at a time

Corruption proliferates when no one is looking. But state resources are finite and—certainly in El Salvador’s case—scant, so government cannot be everywhere at once. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has embraced an empirically driven approach called Place-Based Strategy (PBS), which promotes communication and collaboration among civic partners but does so in a way that targets specific communities and locales. The idea is to focus attention in a carefully selected location so that successes can be demonstrated, replicated, and scaled.

PBS addresses the physical, social, structural, and economic conditions of a community that affect the well-being of the children, families, and individuals who live there. In the United States, it has yielded great results in settings such as the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, the Kalamazoo Promise initiative in Michigan, and the Community Action Project in Oklahoma, raising indicators in public health, education, and family cohesion.

In Central America, USAID has supported PBS in Honduras, for example, through its Unidos por la Justicia project, where PBS is helping to strengthen police-community relationships 60 municipalities in Honduras. By focusing resources in those locations, the project is seeing improvements in citizens’ perception of security, according to surveys of more than 600 citizens.

Similarly, USAID’s Asegurando la Educación project works in Honduras’ vulnerable urban areas—in collaboration with district councils—to improve schools’ abilities to reduce school-based violence in at-risk communities. For example, this model promotes “Educators for Peace” professional development programming for 3,000 teachers from 115 schools working in contexts of crisis.

PBS is no panacea. And, as in Honduras, like most development approaches it requires intimate collaboration with local governments and stakeholders, all aligned around measurable goals.  But we know enough to say that PBS is a promising approach for El Salvadoran stakeholders seeking to cut corruption and violent crime.

Help implement effective laws – reform those that get in the way

El Salvador has strong laws on the book but does not effectively implement them. For example, the Illicit Enrichment Law calls for candidates to disclose their assets before and after they leave office, yet public officials have found legislative loopholes through which to steal public funds. Closing these loopholes—including those that allow conflicts of interest to flourish—is essential. In addition, El Salvador has ratified several international law instruments, signed on to commitments such as the UN Convention Against Corruption, and promulgated a 2011 Access to Information Law that paves the way for El Salvador’s Open Government Commitment. The international community can provide assistance to actually enforce these instruments, so their impact is felt by the citizens they are designed to protect and empower.

Support auditors

Salvadoran investigators need better tools to help them “follow the money.” For example, the Supreme Court’s Probity Unit and other institutions charged with tracking, investigating, and prosecuting corruption and recovering assets need technical support. In some 14 years of work with USAID to improve El Salvador’s tax administration, enhance budgeting, and mobilize domestic resources, DAI has seen firsthand how when administrative processes—particularly those involved in public procurement—are trackable, transparent, and systematized, and managerial discretion is minimized, corruption is mitigated and development indicators such as child mortality rates can improve.

In the context of increasing tax revenues, El Salvador increased its social spending by more than US$100 million per year between 2007 and 2018.

Stand with civil society

Healthy civil society is essential to the anti-corruption agenda. Encouragingly, El Salvador stands as one of six pilot countries to participate in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace and access to justice, which promises to increase access to justice globally by 2030. Journalists, private businesses, human rights defenders, and victim service providers have built their institutional capacity through activities such as leveraging social media, engaging in youth-power movements, and improving coordination at the grass tops and grass roots levels. However, journalists still lack vital investigative capacity, advocates don’t leverage all the available data, and victims of violence fear reprisals. There is still plenty of room to bolster the efforts of government and nongovernmental groups working to support fairness and the rule of law.

As Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace shows, Salvadorans are hard-working, entrepreneurial, and resilient people. But without oversight and accountability, the institutions that condition their daily lives decline and apathy soars—opening the doors to graft. The nation’s recent elections are a plea to shut those doors. Empowered Salvadorans who can exercise their rights and expect services rather than corruption from their government are more likely to stay in El Salvador and join in building the safe, prosperous, and inclusive country they deserve.

This guest blog was contributed by Chantal C. Agarwal, Senior Governance Specialist at international development company DAI. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Basel Institute on Governance. Responsibility for errors of fact likewise remains with the author.

Photo: Santo Tomas municipal building, by Chantal Agarwal.