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Beyond Remittances: Reframing Diaspora-Driven Development in El Salvador

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Beyond Remittances: Reframing Diaspora-Driven Development in El Salvador

Members of Chinameca's hometown association making a traditional Salvadoran dish of pupusas at a fund-raising event in Northern Virginia to collect money for an orphanage in El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Daniela N. Villacrés)

Extensive Salvadoran diasporas in the United States, Canada, Italy, and other countries today can be largely traced back to the mass exodus that resulted from El Salvador’s civil war (1979-92) and the economic troubles left in its aftermath. After the signing of peace agreements in 1992, Salvadoran migrants began actively re-engaging in their hometowns via diaspora networks and have assumed a greater voice in the life of their homeland.

One particularly innovative form of engagement is conducted through migrant hometown associations (HTAs). The war fragmented civil society and crushed opportunities for diasporas’ political or civic engagement in this densely-populated country in Central America, which has a population of 6 million. HTAs offer a venue for widespread participation in El Salvador’s democratization, well situated to rebuild ties with government. These diaspora organizations also offer a lens for assessing the effectiveness of governance in the country today.

HTAs have become an especially popular form of civic engagement among Salvadoran migrants because the still incipient democracy and its political parties have failed to open ample spaces for migrants to re-engage meaningfully in electoral politics. It was not until January 2013 that El Salvador extended the right to vote to its citizens living abroad—or roughly one fifth of the total population, including nearly 1.3 million Salvadorans who currently reside in the United States. Moreover, dense social networks, which formed during the migration process, have given rise to a particularly tight-knit and active diaspora. As a result, the prevalence of Salvadoran HTAs has soared over the past two decades and today hundreds can be found scattered throughout the United States and El Salvador.

When Money and Projects Aren't Enough

In recent years, diasporas have gained increased attention in international development circles, lauded for injecting new actors, fresh perspectives, and supplemental resources into development agendas. Many migrant-sending countries have established specialized government ministries dedicated to their diasporas’ needs and interests; El Salvador has a vice ministry focused on Salvadorans living abroad and keeps in close contact with these communities. The U.S. government, too, has taken notice and has recently implemented concerted programs aimed at engaging diverse diasporas in the United States in initiatives that invest in migrants’ countries of origin. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton launched the Global Diaspora Forum and International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), dedicated to mobilizing U.S. diasporas to promote philanthropy and volunteerism around the world.

In large part, diasporas have stepped into the spotlight because of their remittances and the vital impact which these financial contributions bear on development in migrants’ hometowns. Remittances provide vital cash inflows for migrants’ relatives and households, as well as for communities that benefit from collective donations towards projects such as infrastructure, education, and cultural ventures. Remittances account for 16 percent of El Salvador's gross domestic product (GDP), making it an important source of revenue for the country.

The financial benefits of remittances on local development are undeniable. However, the significance of diasporas for development extends far beyond their monetary contributions and project deliverables. Through their interactions with the municipal government and the community, diasporas have the capacity to transform how governance is understood and practiced.

Nevertheless, this change may not always be positive. Diasporas have varying effects on local governance; some may foster good governance practices in the hometown, while others impart negative effects. Using interview and archival data from HTAs and their respective municipal governments and hometown communities in El Salvador, this article examines the roles, patterns, and mechanisms underlying diasporas’ intervention as governance actors and ultimately reframes the debate about the implications of diasporas for development.

What Are Hometown Associations?

HTAs have several important defining features. They are autonomous and voluntary associations of migrants, which mobilize around collective civic agendas. HTAs form for the purpose of contributing to the development needs of their members’ hometowns. They have wide-ranging philanthropic agendas and contribute to a variety of development projects. Most projects are infrastructural in nature. For example, HTAs in the Salvadoran municipality of Pasaquina have paved roads and installed potable water systems. HTAs also support educational development through scholarships, as well as cultural and other types of development initiatives. In the municipality of Chapeltique, for example, the HTA donated computers and supplies to rural schools, while the HTA in the municipality of Intipucà constructed a cultural center and sponsored activities during the hometown’s annual fiestas patronales (festivities).

HTAs display great variation in their level of organizational sophistication. Some adopt formal organizational structures and protocols, while others are more lax. Nevertheless, all are transnational in scope and operation and must coordinate activities between migrants’ destination countries and hometowns. In the destination country, the HTA’s executive committee is composed of members from the same hometown who reside in the same destination community. The executive committee and the core supporters typically grow out of social networks that arise during the migration process. For example, members might have been childhood friends in the hometown who reunite in the host country because they work and live together or have mutual acquaintances. The executive committee is responsible for raising funds, but also plays an active role in project identification, selection, and management.

Many HTAs also have a counterpart committee that works closely with the executive committee to oversee activities in the hometown. Among its many roles, the counterpart committee is typically responsible for assessing new projects, as well as implementing and managing existing ones in the hometown.

Grassroots strategies are used to garner financial and community support for projects. An HTA typically raises funds by organizing parties, raffles, or cookouts. For example, members of the HTA from Chinameca gathered in Northern Virginia to sell pupusas and other traditional Salvadoran dishes in order to collect money for an orphanage in El Salvador. They and other HTAs rely on dense migrant networks to support, attend, and contribute financially to the event. Profits vary greatly from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the HTA’s organizational capacity and the community’s support for the group. Once all the funds have been collected, the money is remitted back to the hometown to begin work on the project at hand.

Hometown Associations as Governance Actors

While the HTAs themselves typically identify the projects they intend to fund, the government also may propose collaboration on a project or solicit an HTA for funds. In turn, the HTA can require the government to enact increased measures of accountability and transparency in exchange for its support. Or, an HTA may call on hometown residents to participate in project selection and even to contribute labor or raw materials during the implementation phase, which empowers residents to voice their concerns and inspires civic engagement. Salvadoran HTAs have been successful in forging diverse partnerships, collaborating not only with their respective municipal governments and hometown communities, but also with the Salvadoran national government, international organizations, NGOs, and the private sector.

Some Salvadoran HTAs have even collaborated with the national government. Between 2003-07, the central government courted HTAs through a transnational development program called Unidos por la Solidaridad, which encouraged HTAs to compete for project funding. For those HTAs that submitted winning proposals, the national government matched its financial contributions towards the project. In general, the Salvadoran government has been active in strengthening its relationship with its migrant community and has assigned personnel in its consulates to cater to HTAs and other diaspora issues. The Salvadoran government has mapped where HTAs are located and Salvadoran government officials are in direct contact with many of them, inviting them to events in El Salvador and the United States.

HTAs are uniquely positioned to engage as governance actors from above and below, both of which are necessary to comprehensively transform El Salvador’s governance landscape. Salvadoran HTAs can directly affect top-down governance by pressuring elected authorities to increase vertical measures of accountability and by promoting cooperation and transparency. Some HTAs affect governance through bottom-up approaches, which emphasize the voice and capacity of citizens (especially the poor) in demanding greater accountability and responsiveness from public officials.

These associations are, nevertheless, heterogeneous organizations. Thus, while some have positive implications for local governance, others impart detrimental ones (as will be described below). Some are more effective than others, and the types of relationships that HTAs cultivate with their municipal governments and communities all vary. In practice, some HTAs empower their migrant leadership more than they empower hometown residents.

An HTA closely linked with both its municipal government and hometown community is better positioned to positively affect local governance than one which forms only limited partnerships. How these nuanced relationships are negotiated and their impacts on local governance are teased out in the following scenarios.

Understanding how HTAs engage as local governance actors is critical for designing and implementing effective policies, which leverage HTAs and other diaspora associations into sustainable and effective development initiatives—beyond money and projects.


Figure 1: Four Scenarios Describing Hometown Associations' Roles in Local Governance
Source: Author's own typology.


Hometown Associations' Roles in Local Governance: Four Scenarios

Scenario 1: Participatory Governance

In this scenario, the HTA brings together the municipal government and hometown community, intervening as an "equal partner" in local governance. The HTA's close ties to the municipal government and community position it to effectively introduce new governance institutions and practices into the hometown. New roles and responsibilities are negotiated for all parties, challenging traditional political and economic hierarchies and leveling the ground between civil-society actors and the state.

HTAs of this type are vehicles for local residents to engage civically and participate in the development of their community, such as during open town meetings where migrants, local residents, and government officials can gather, raise questions and concerns, and deliberate as equals. Together migrants and local residents assume ownership over the development process in the hometown by identifying, designing, financing, and implementing projects that directly meet their needs. When possible, local residents may even contribute financially or donate materials or labor. Ultimately, HTA-community partnerships empower local residents and are especially important for empowering El Salvador’s poorest and most marginalized who have limited avenues for exercising their civic rights.

Further, this type of HTA forms mutually collaborative partnerships with its municipal government. Informally, relationships with the municipal government are colored by personal friendships and shared political affiliation. However, usually these partnerships assume a formal nature as they are structured by institutional guidelines. In a typical partnership, the HTA consults with the community to propose a project for which it contributes some funds, but then relies on the municipal government to supplement financing and to provide technical assessment during the implementation phase of the project.

These types of arrangements are crucial for allowing HTAs to implement expensive, large-scale development projects and for ensuring project sustainability as most HTAs lack the capacity or funds necessary for long-term project maintenance.

Scenario 2: Exclusionary Governance

Exclusionary governance is produced when an HTA is closely linked with the municipal government, but not with the hometown community. In this scenario, the HTA exploits its ties with the government and intervenes in local governance as an "opportunistic elite." The government also stands to benefit from forging strong partnerships with an HTA of this type, as it is eager to ensure the continued inflow of migrants' remittances to supplement municipal budgets.

However, despite this robust top-down partnership, the municipal government does not become more responsive to the needs of local residents, as the HTA does not demand accountability measures in return. Rather, the government's accountability is only to migrants because of the political leverage which their remittances afford them. The HTA fails to be representative of the community and it excludes local residents from the governance process. It conducts all negotiations among its migrant leadership in closed committee sessions, rather than subjecting decision making to public deliberation.

As migrants' social and economic power increases, they use the HTA to empower only its members and to implement private agendas, rather than addressing larger community needs. For example, the HTA might repair only the roadways near the homes of members' relatives or invest in projects that preserve the hometown of their childhood memories. Thus, although the HTA and the municipal government are engaged in the negotiation of new roles and responsibilities in this scenario, these types of manipulative partnerships aggravate social cleavages in the community and engender exploitative relationships in which goods or services are bartered for political support. When governing as an opportunistic elite, the HTA suffers a crisis of credibility due to a growing disconnect with the community.

In this scenario, migrants manipulate their newfound authority for their own political advantage—and in some cases even assume public offices. Thus, migrants come to constitute a new elite in the hometown—albeit one emerging out of a process of mobility through migration, not through the inheritance of social status or political power. This type of HTA reproduces structures of social exclusion, inequality, and patronage, which ultimately have detrimental effects on sustained local development.

Scenario 3: Blocked Governance

Blocked governance is produced by an HTA which has close ties to the hometown community, but is distanced from the municipal government. In this scenario, the HTA intervenes as a "grassroots activist" in local governance. The HTA and local residents mobilize collectively around shared causes, which reflect the interests and needs of both parties. As a result of the HTA's intervention, migrants and local residents alike are equally empowered to participate in the development of their community and to engage in the process of governance.

However, in this scenario the HTA is unable to engage the municipal government or embed itself within it. Consequently, governance is blocked, as it cannot transcend the community level and fails to effectively link up to the government and its institutional infrastructure.

Strained ties between the HTA and the government may be the result of mistrust, political differences, corruption, or personal vendettas. Or, they may be intentional, serving strategic purposes for both parties. For example, an HTA may shun collaboration with government in order to avoid politicians' possible undercutting motives. Or, an HTA might choose to preserve its autonomy, insisting on working alone because it believes it knows best how to design and implement its projects. On the other hand, the strained ties may be a calculated move on the part of the municipal government, which prefers to retreat and evade its public responsibilities, leaving the HTA to fund and implement local development agendas.

Scenario 4: Vacuous Governance

Finally, HTAs that are not affiliated with either the municipal state or the hometown community produce vacuous governance. By engaging with neither entity, the HTA has no effect on governance practices and institutions in the hometown and engages as an "isolated philanthropist". It is either unable or unwilling to work with the municipal government and the hometown community for the myriad reasons outlined above. HTAs contribute only small-scale, one-off projects, such as gift donations for children during holidays, which have fleeting effects and amount to little more than charity.

The HTA fails to foster participatory, civic, or inclusive practices with the community or to increase transparency and accountability with the government. In the absence of a strong governance actor in the hometown, be it an HTA, the municipal government, or other entity, there is a void where governance needs continue to be unfulfilled, imparting only hollowing and unsustainable implications for local development.

Diaspora-Driven Development: Local and Regional Implications

Diasporas are increasingly important development actors in El Salvador, across Central America, and around the globe. For example, active diaspora from the Philippines, Ghana, and India, just to name a few, have established HTAs in order to respond to the development needs of their hometowns. However, diaspora-driven development has too often fallen short in terms of its sustainable impacts. Diaspora engagement for development is at a crossroads where the way diaspora initiatives are approached and evaluated is evolving.

Observations from Salvadoran HTAs suggest that diasporas' real impact on sustainable local development lies in their ability to intervene as a governance actors, not as a result of their remittances or projects alone. HTAs in El Salvador actively negotiate nuanced and complex partnerships with their municipal governments and hometown communities, which have diverse implications for governance practices and institutions. It is through these partnerships that HTAs in El Salvador and beyond cannot only promote good governance in the hometown, but also effectively transform local development landscapes.


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