A Honduran migrant in Puebla, Ciudad Serdan, Mexico. A Honduran migrant in Puebla, Ciudad Serdan, Mexico. Photo credit: ICRC/Brenda Islas
Non-conventional violence in Central America and Mexico: the case for an integrated humanitarian and development approach
by Sabrina Stein and Colin Walch June 2017

Recent international processes have highlighted the need to break down the silos separating humanitarian action and development assistance. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted in March 2015, established a framework to build resilience through risk-informed development. Later in 2015, UN member states approved the Sustainable Development Goals, a global agenda unique in that it recognises that, to end poverty, policies cannot focus only on economic development, but also need to address a diversity of issues including education, health, human security, governance, rule of law and accountability. Within the UN system, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations and the Advisory Group of Experts Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture highlighted the importance of prevention-focused work. Similarly, the Secretary-General’s report for the World Humanitarian Summit, One Humanity, Shared Responsibility, emphasised prevention-focused humanitarian work. These processes testify to the need to step away from the distinct pillars that have characterised the work of the international community, and move towards a more coordinated approach.

This article examines the humanitarian impact of high levels of non-conventional violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) and Mexico, and explores the nexus between the humanitarian and development agendas as a way to address the far-reaching implications of this violence, from protection to prevention. We focus on specific areas where the synthesis of humanitarian and development agendas would be key, building on the strengths and expertise that each of these sets of actors brings, to help produce more sustainable successes and provide longer-term benefits for local communities.

Common goals

Humanitarian and development actors, while fundamentally working on different time scales, have people’s well-being at the core of their work. In the case of the NTCA and Mexico, many of the root causes of violence lie in structural and institutional shortcomings that require a development focus, including weak and uneven state institutions, high levels of corruption and social exclusion, restricted access to public services and socio-economic insecurity. At the same time, the impacts of such high levels of violence have immediate and time-sensitive humanitarian implications (including for protection, shelter, emergency healthcare, education and psychosocial support). Coordinating short-, medium- and long-term responses allows for immediate emergency assistance while also ensuring that interventions can have medium- and long-term, sustained positive effects.

The World Bank ranks El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as lower-middle-income economies, and Mexico is considered an upper-middle-income country. In contrast to countries affected by civil war and fragility, such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico and the NTCA countries should in theory have the resources and capabilities to provide the necessary services to their people. In practice, however, humanitarian actors in the region have provided protection, shelter and health services in areas where the state is unable or unwilling to do so. Coordination with development actors allows the humanitarian response to transform projects into sustainable, long-term interventions by identifying weaknesses in the provision of services by the state and linking up with development programmes that focus on strengthening institutions to fill those gaps. As an example, humanitarian actors in Honduras established an irrigation pilot programme in 2008 to help tackle food insecurity that was later reproduced and funded by the government in 2015, with the support of development actors in other municipalities.

Focus on prevention and protection

Prevention and protection should be at the centre of the humanitarian and development agenda. The humanitarian system is in essence reactive to sudden crises, even if many of these ‘crises’ are to some extent predictable. In the NTCA and Mexico, violent groups do not emerge in communities overnight, and confrontations between violent groups are frequently the result of identifiable triggers. Sustained violence usually takes place in contested territories between gangs or cliques. Humanitarian actors with experience negotiating with non-state armed groups in conflict contexts can identify key interlocutors and promote truces to reduce violence in high-risk areas. Similarly, development actors can work with the government to promote sustainable, long-term violence reduction programmes. Programmes that promote the socio-economic integration of groups at risk of violence, and which support conflict-resolution initiatives, community mobilisation and public education, have succeeded in reducing violence at the local level. These types of programmes have been particularly effective in reducing homicide rates in local communities in cities such as San Pedro Sula in Honduras and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. These violence-reduction activities did not fall into either the humanitarian or the development camp of the international aid architecture. Instead, they relied on the best of both approaches. Similarly, high-level truces that involve leaders of violent groups, such as the one facilitated by the government in El Salvador in 2012, have much to gain from the know-how of humanitarian actors. Although efforts such as these have reduced homicides in the short term, for them to be sustainable and have longer-term impact they must be accompanied by development policies that target the root causes of violence.

Violence reduction in the long term requires systemic changes that go beyond security and humanitarian sticking plasters by focusing more strongly on rule of law, good governance and economic and human development. To accomplish this, institutions need to be stronger, as well as more transparent and accountable. Sustainable Development Goal 16 is tailor-made to address these issues and should be a common reference point and tool for both the humanitarian and development communities. Violence reduction efforts will therefore require the political will to push for top-down reforms and inclusive solutions that integrate the experiences of local communities that have been victimised by violent groups. Development actors are strategically placed to support these efforts, as they have access to the national and local government officials who design and implement violence reduction programmes. At the same time, strong ties with local communities give development actors channels to promote community-focused violence reduction programmes that incorporate the insights of the people concerned.

Maintain access

Access to vulnerable and at-risk populations in the NTCA and Mexico is often restricted by illegal armed and criminal groups in control of certain territories or communities, requiring humanitarian actors to negotiate with these groups. This requires a deep understanding of the situation on the ground, the nature of the group and its relationship with the local community. While humanitarian actors have the expertise and know-how to negotiate this kind of access, development counterparts are likely to have a clearer understanding of the reality on the ground, the key factors driving the violence and the necessary relationships with state actors and local community partners to facilitate these negotiations.

Access should not be limited to a one-time intervention that takes care of a specific problem, but should instead simultaneously promote capacity-building at the local level. With this in mind, coordination between humanitarian and development actors allows for more time and resources for a post-emergency response plan that focuses on the root causes and not just the symptoms of the emergency. For example, interventions that provide emergency health services should be combined with training to enable local community actors to provide some of these services in the absence of a humanitarian presence. Similarly, the provision of healthcare services for victims of gender-based violence can also offer an opportunity to train local organisations on identifying risks and providing protection. Such initiatives could in the long term encourage government officials to enact laws and regulations addressing the issue. Such was the case in Honduras, where a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) programme working with victims of sexual violence led to the creation of a sexual violence protocol by the government.

Build resilience

Closer collaboration between humanitarian and development actors can pave the way for interventions that promote risk reduction and make communities less vulnerable to shocks. By focusing on strengthening informal and formal institutions at the local level, humanitarian and development actors can enhance the coping capacity of communities, making them less reliant on external assistance, and help strengthen state institutions to provide for their needs. With the necessary support, the strong networks of local civil society organisations in these countries could become the primary providers of services when state institutions are unable or unwilling to provide them themselves. Humanitarian and development actors can also support locally driven resilience efforts and engage with them in a more direct way, for example through cash transfers. In the field of disaster risk reduction, community-led initiatives in partnership with humanitarian and government actors have been shown to save lives and money.

While the root causes of the alarming levels of violence in the NTCA and Mexico will require decades of institutional strengthening, the consequences of this violence are immediate and urgent. Humanitarian aid is needed now, but to be able to address the root causes of endemic violence closer collaboration between humanitarian and development agendas is essential. The international community should encourage short-, medium- and long-term strategies to enable humanitarian and development actors to address in concert the immediate implications of violence and its causes. Resilient approaches go beyond the humanitarian/development divide and improve the ability of local communities, government and international actors to prevent, respond to and recover from crises.

Sabrina Stein is Program Coordinator at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council in New York. Colin Walch is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University.

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