Private Sector Engagement: Central America and the “Business” of Hope


Coffee processing operations at a cooperative in San Miguel, El Salvador

This blog was written by Carolyn Barker-Villena, Corus International’s Senior Regional Director of Latin America. She reflects on the importance of private sector engagement after a recent trip to El Salvador. 

Despite the compounding crises that push people to leave their homes in search of safety and a better future, I came away from my recent El Salvador trip with a hope to build on

We heard repeatedly that if young people have basics — personal security, water, schooling, health services and opportunities for employment— then they are less likely to migrate.   

My visit reinforced the importance of Corus organization Lutheran World Relief’s partnerships with the private sector to meet both business and social goals by engaging in shared value initiatives. Together, we can recognize some tremendous opportunities for innovation.  

The international development context of the past few years has further underscored the need for an approach that brings diverse actors together — from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and local agribusinesses to national companies and international firms.    

Recent announcements from Vice President Kamala Harris’ Call to Action for Northern Central America emphasize that U.S.-based companies may now be willing to invest time and money in the region through new forms of partnership.  

The state of the world is also ushering in a new era in which many companies are emphasizing corporate responsibility. They seek sustainable operations that embed environmental, social and corporate governance in core operations. Many firms are indeed looking to define shared values with local communities and non-profit actors, such as Lutheran World Relief, while supporting their bottom line. Thus, there will be a continued emphasis on the intersection of business interests and social impact so that jobs and higher incomes result from technology, capital and innovative partnership.   

Continuous commitment is required for those that support disadvantaged communities at the crossroads of sustainable business and local government. Despite the challenges, my belief is that we can develop networked partnerships in Central America if we are radically inclusive.   

We must prioritize community voices through multi-sectoral collaborations across local governments, businesses, NGOs and global donors. Connecting local economies to international markets in a sustainable way is important, but it is also crucial to strengthen and advocate for local ownership.   

This means large corporations need to commit to more than a one-off engagement, and international donors and agencies need to convince decision-makers to commit to positive returns over time and not expect instant leveraging of temporary opportunities. USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s recent admonition to move beyond one-off programs to sustained outcomes for at-risk communities in places such as El Salvador is powerful. In the face of such tremendous need, her remarks also remind us that all must work “at the speed of business,” not bureaucracy.   

The Biden Administration's Root Causes Strategy and the Collaborative Migration Management Strategy bookend the challenges and comprehensive approaches required in Central America, and the USAID Centroamérica Local initiative is another important step forward. Yet, we all need to do business differently.   

Let’s engage with the private sector and strengthen local capacities to help make partnerships demonstrably more reciprocal and mutual.  

Finally, this trip confirmed something for me that has been evident for some time: addressing the root causes of migration from Central America is a long-haul effort for which sustained support, transparent review, and mid-course corrections will prove necessary.   

The challenges that international actors are addressing in the region — many of our own making — have been long-simmering, and we need the courage, patience, and a new “business” of hope to succeed.   


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