Image Source: Benjamin Roth
September 2016
REGION: Western Hemisphere

The recent out-migration of youth from the Northern Triangle has been driven largely by fear due to escalating neighborhood violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These conditions are closely related to the rule of law, including governance concerns, social and economic stability, and high crime rates. A USAID-funded violence prevention program has attempted to address some of these conditions through locally-run youth outreach centers. Preventing Crime and Promoting Development: The Case of Youth Outreach Centers in El Salvador examines the organizational structure, sustainability, and impact of these Centers in El Salvador. The study is the first effort of its kind in El Salvador. Findings help to identify how community-based preventative interventions influence pathways for youth in violent neighborhoods. This report summarizes findings from the study and concludes with recommendations for future research.

The Youth Outreach Centers in El Salvador provide a replicable violence prevention model that is cost-effective and sustainable. This study provides evidence that the model is also effective. Although the Centers are unable to address the interrelated structural problems associated with poverty, violence and governance that undercut the rule of law, they represent an incremental approach to prevention and youth development. The Centers in El Salvador provide youth in at-risk neighborhoods with a unique opportunity to gather in a safe, neutral place, engage in pro-social activities, develop positive relationships with adult role models, and learn new skills. The Centers provide a space where youth can receive homework help and basic job training—support that can influence long-term outcomes such as educational attainment and labor market participation. In-depth interviews and focus groups with coordinators and youth provided numerous examples of how the Centers’ influence extends beyond prevention. That is, some coordinators are engaged in actively intervening to interrupt violence and promote healthy development. For example, some coordinators have met with local gang leaders to advocate for Center youth so that they might be released from the gang. Other coordinators have developed trainings and workshop for moms and babies in order to intervene early in the development of neighborhood youth.

Although the model is clearly developed, Youth Outreach Centers are not all the same. The model can be easily replicated, and the value-based core is firmly rooted in all of the Centers we studied. However, other aspects of the model are more protean. Depending on the skills and personality of the Center coordinator, and depending on the type of support from community stakeholders, each of the Centers has a slightly different feel. One Center with a male coordinator primarily serves adolescent boys. Because one of the volunteers is a skilled drummer, the Center is known for its drummer brigade. Another Center is led by a female coordinator who has intentionally recruited mothers from the community to volunteer. Youth at this Center learn to make jewelry, and the composition of youth tends to be much younger. Some Centers are heavily supported by local religious leaders, while others have regular volunteers from the ADESCO who incorporate Center youth in various municipality-wide events.

This study has also raised important questions about violence prevention in El Salvador. The Youth Outreach Centers are part of a six-prong approach to violence prevention designed by Creative, Inc., a USAID partner. Future research should expand the lens of analysis to include other components of this approach to better understand how the Centers contribute to and fit within the larger prevention effort. The Centers in this study are primarily located in small towns around the periphery of San Salvador. Additional research should pilot efforts to scale up the Center model and replicate it in different environments, including more traditional urban neighborhoods and rural areas. Finally, there are over 200 Centers across the Northern Triangle. A systematic impact evaluation of these Centers would help us understand the effect that they are having on violence prevention, and how country context might require modifications in order to optimize the model.

This study also raises questions about the relationship between neighborhood violence in immigrant sending countries and the tendency to out-migrate. Together, these two lines of analysis have significant policy implications. Most recently, the immigration policy debate in the U.S. has been largely confined to the controversial question of how to secure our borders. This study suggests that a more robust immigration policy would extend beyond the wall to address the social, economic and political conditions in the Northern Triangle. Improving the rule of law in these countries will not eliminate the movement of unauthorized migrants from this region to the U.S.—we know that the established transnational social networks will continue to facilitate the flow of future migrants—but it will improve the well-being of children and families in the Northern Triangle so that the option of staying is a safe one which includes opportunities for social mobility and healthy development.

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