The Pulte Institute for Global Development — part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame — has launched the Central America Research Alliance (CARA): a network focused on delivering evidence-based advocacy by amplifying the work of Central American scholars and practitioners.
Co-directed by the Pulte Institute’s Tom Hare and María Estela Rivero Fuentes, and in partnership with researchers at more than a dozen Central American institutions, CARA conducts applied research to inform development policy and practice in migration, citizen security, democracy and governance, and human rights in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua.
“Our goal with CARA is to learn from the research and realities of those that experience the region every day in order to put these development issues into context,” said Rivero, a senior research associate with more than 20 years of experience conducting research and evaluating social programs in Central America. “At CARA, we ask: How does a focus on integral human development and dignity help people flourish? How can Notre Dame — with its global expertise, world-class research resources and access to American stakeholders — create synergies that create meaningful change in these countries? By making these issues more accessible we hope we can not only inform, but also spur action.”
In April, the U.S. Department of State awarded CARA a $2 million grant to evaluate the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica. Part of the U.S. government’s $411 million investment in citizen security and gang reduction in the region over the past decade, GREAT is implemented by preventive police officers in schools to educate them on the risks associated with delinquency and to develop channels of communication with youth. Together with Florida International University and the University of Central America, CARA will work closely with country schools, parents, youth and police to evaluate the effectiveness of the GREAT program and make recommendations for future implementation of the program in the region.
Hare, a senior researcher who has lived, studied and worked in the region over the past 20 years and wrote the book “Zonas Peligrosas: The Challenge of Creating Safe Neighborhoods in Central America,” is leading the GREAT project team alongside Rivero and Laura Miller-Graff, a Pulte Institute faculty fellow and associate professor of psychology and peace studies.
“For decades, Central American countries have grappled with issues of crime and youth violence. Efforts to reduce gang membership range from individual interruption interventions and family therapy, to community strengthening, police reform and other policy initiatives,” said Hare. “This is the first time the GREAT program will be evaluated outside of the U.S., and the results of the study are likely to have major implications for how the U.S. supports gang and violence prevention in the region going forward.”
This award and support to academic endeavors is particularly important as the Biden administration works to determine the best way to invest $4 billion in assistance to the region, and as increased violence and elevated concerns around free speech devastate El Salvador.
El Salvador is not the only country in the region facing increasing restrictions to democratic freedom. In Nicaragua, academia is being threatened as the government closes several universities in an effort to quell voices critical of President Daniel Ortega. In a recent op-ed for Inside Higher Education, Hare and Rivero wrote: “Far from being just another step toward eliminating free debate, the dismantling of universities is a near-fatal blow to democracy. … We must not be silent witnesses of these historical moves away from free societies.”
In addition to violence prevention and democracy, CARA will focus on initiatives that explore the root causes of migration. Hare and Rivero have led several studies and events that explore migration from the region, including a ThinkND series focusing on the realities beyond the border.
“Numerous factors influence migration: violence at home and in the community, political unrest and access to quality employment, to name a few. Restricting civil liberties will not make these countries any safer, and the number of those who do not see hope in the future of their country will undoubtedly increase,” said Hare.
CARA’s recent success is built on a foundation of strong partnerships. The network’s 16 partners include respected universities, research and advocacy groups and influential government representatives.
Clara Villatoro Huezo, a Master of Global Affairs student at the Keough School and former journalist from El Salvador, has been working with the Pulte Institute for several years to build partnerships in Central America. Today, she works closely with CARA’s partners to grow a culture of evidence that addresses the systemic, cross-sectoral issues contributing to development challenges in the region.
“The topics CARA is studying are very real issues our partners are experiencing on a regular basis,” said Villatoro. “We have a unique opportunity to elevate the voices of their communities so they are heard internationally. By doing this we hope we can begin to change minds and hearts in a way that creates tangible impact.”
The CARA team will begin work on the GREAT program in early summer, and plans to host an in-person meeting with regional partners in Central America this fall. To learn more about the work of CARA, visit pulte.nd.edu/CARA.