Transforming the Northern Triangle Means Also Shifting How Donors Do Business

The Northern Triangle has endured its fair share of shocks recently. From the COVID-19 pandemic to Hurricanes Eta and Iota, the region of Central America faces challenges that its governments cannot solve alone. To address the most difficult problems, governments, private sector companies, and donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), all need a seat at the table.

The way forward to heal corruption, unemployment, and instability in the region is through alliances — a topic of major discussion at this year’s 2021 Central America Donors Forum in November. In Honduras, that way forward has involved the government and private sector collaborating more than ever to lower the nation’s barriers to economic growth. Along with this paradigm shift came the realization that evidence-based decisions, based on collaborative research and analysis, are the only way to successfully solve development challenges.

Calling for Locally Driven Evidence

Addressing challenges like irregular migration out of Honduras cannot be done without robust evidence and analysis. Evidence is what drives analysis and discussion away from speculation and outdated generalizations. Our partners need evidence to determine the root cause of problems, find information gaps, and identify what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, evidence is what justifies our development interventions. Evidence gathering must begin with a clearly defined research question, a structured methodology, and a strong local partnership.

Historically, data has been collected to meet the needs of donors and international NGOs. This, however, has the consequence of pushing for research we think demands attention. Ultimately, we decide where investments are made, not the communities themselves. When we rely on macro-level, national research to inform those investments, we cannot know for certain if our development strategies will be effective among targeted populations with their own distinctive social and cultural norms.

A transfer of power needs to flow to Central American organizations producing their own micro-level research, diagnosing their own problems, and finding their own solutions with donors and international NGOs in a supportive role. This type of localized development not only distances us from neocolonialism and Western organizations calling the shots but also proves to be transformative.

Shifting the Power to Local Firms

At ACDI/VOCA, we have learned through our efforts in Honduras that three things must change to make this happen. The first change relates to who decides the research question. We do this through a co-creation process with private sector partners and local research organizations and universities as they pose questions like, “What is the impact of tourism on the Honduran economy?”

The second change relates to how we conduct that research. Though it may be more expedient to hire an international research firm, in Honduras, our team invests in building the capacity of local research firms. This has become an area of demand for us, whether we are supporting the National Autonomous University of Honduras to develop a research center for economic policy or the National Council of Investment to develop a market intelligence unit for agricultural exporters.

The third change involves challenging the myth that data is entirely objective. We know that research will be imperfect and interpreted by people based on their own values. That’s why multiple perspectives are needed. Data must be presented in a transparent way that does not require a doctorate degree to read and understand. And lastly, the conversation and analysis must continue on a centralized platform.

Putting Research into Action

If the shared goal of governments, companies, and donors is to stimulate economic growth, local groups need evidence if they want to mobilize coalitions to act. This is where we have stumbled upon a real leverage point to influence change: investing in local knowledge.

The COVID-19 pandemic made many donors take a step back and pursue research differently. For example, USAID partnered with ACDI/VOCA, the National Autonomous University of Honduras, and the Council of Private Enterprises to conduct a growth diagnostic and with ACDI/VOCA and the Inter-American Dialogue to survey Hondurans’ readiness to use digital payments. Through this multi-stakeholder approach, USAID increased the resources at its disposal, gained local context, collected data more efficiently, increased the likelihood that the data is used, and supported local, sustainable research.

Collaborating to Rebuild the Region

Research organizations, universities, and other local entities bring a degree of neutrality to otherwise polarizing issues, finding a common ground and solutions. By partnering with donors, these entities, especially universities that traditionally take years to publish research, contribute solutions to society’s practical problems. Mending the disconnect between information and policy action may be what the region needs to rebuild. And research conducted by multiple stakeholders — as well as remotely and cost-effectively due to the pandemic — may be a boon for progress.

 

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