Confronting the Challenge at the Intersection of Poverty, Disability and Rurality: “Communidades Inclusivas”

Photo shows an image of a mural with the words Around the world, there are between 93 to 150 million children with disabilities (UNICEF, 2013).  An estimated 80% of people with disabilities live in low and middle-income countries (Barron & Ncube, 2010) where they are among the most marginalized people in the world – more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be in school (Filmer, 2008; Mitra, et al, 2013).  Many are “invisible,” even to their neighbors, because they do not leave home, receive social services, attend school, or participate in community life.

These realities exist in stark contrast to the rights for individuals with disabilities that have been established in a series of international agreements over more than six decades, including the U.N.Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD; United Nations, 2006).  The CRPD has been affirmed (either through ratification or accession) by 177 countries (United Nations, 2016) and has prompted many national governments to adopt policies which promote inclusive education. The importance of education for those with disabilities is also acknowledged in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in which the fourth goal is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (United Nations, 2015).

Despite these positive developments, persistent challenges continue to undermine the impact of well-intended initiatives (Beckman, et al, 2016).    As part of an on-going research project in small, economically impoverished, communities in rural El Salvador, we have conducted house-to-house interviews with caregivers of children and youth with disabilities, and have conducted focus groups with local community leaders.  Many of the families we spoke to earned as little as $ 500 year from subsistence farming and temporary, seasonal work in agriculture.   Our work suggests that in low and middle-income countries, social and educational inclusion is often stymied when the needs of persons with disabilities intersect with the challenges posed by poverty and rurality, leading to further exclusion.

This intersection with poverty and rurality poses a broad array of challenges and further marginalizes those with disabilities.  For example, none of the families we interviewed were part of, or even knew about, disability rights organizations in the country.  Most families were unaware that they or their child had rights. Many families did not know what, if any, services were available for their children. Few of their sons or daughters attended school – some had never attended, others had stopped after initial attempts to attend.   Many did not leave home and had little social contact, even with others in their villages.  When parents shared stories of their son or daughter’s birth and ultimate diagnosis, we frequently heard descriptions of medical errors and a lack of medical care that likely contributed to the disability.  For example, one mother described her experience at age 16 while giving birth to her son in a public hospital.  In labor, she repeatedly told hospital staff that the baby was coming but she did not get medical attention until she cried out that her baby was no longer moving.  Subsequently, her son was diagnosed with brain damage from oxygen deprivation and now, at age four, has severe quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

While some families were referred to public services in San Salvador, treatment was often intermittent or ended completely because families could not afford the cost of traveling into the city on crowded public buses that required multiple transfers.  One mother – whose daughter at age twenty has never been to school – took her for therapy in San Salvador until her daughter grew too big to carry and she could not afford the cost of making these trips. The expense was not only for bus fare but also for the loss of a day’s work – costs that jeopardized the well-being of the whole family.

For parents whose son or daughter had disabilities that affected their mobility, issues of accessibility extended far beyond the accessibility of school.  In such cases, simply getting their child out of the house was difficult, requiring that a caregiver carry their son or daughter across fields, on narrow trails and on rocky, rutted roads. If they had to go to a nearby town, they then had to lift their child aboard a crowded, inaccessible bus or stand in the back of a flatbed truck.  Such challenges were frequently so prohibitive that they stopped pursuing needed educational, health and social services – particularly as their son or daughter grew larger and heavier.

In the event that students with disabilities made it to a local public school, teachers lacked sufficient training and resources to address their educational needs effectively. For example, when one mother tried to enroll her bright, curious six year old in the nearby public school, she was told that although he had the right to attend school, no one at the school could teach him because he was deaf and no one knew sign language. The closest school that served students who were deaf was in a town about two hours away by bus.  Although he could learn sign language there, he was too young to go alone, the family could not afford the bus fare, and if his mother went with him, she would have to wait all day to return home with him, leaving no one to care for his brother.

Our conclusion is that, in addition to systemic policies that consider such challenges, community-based programs are necessary to include children and youth marginalized by the combined influence of poverty, disability and rurality.  In this spirit, International Partners is now piloting a program, “Comunidades Inclusivas,” in five economically impoverished, rural villages with populations between 200 -450 members (35 – 100 families).

The “Comunidades Inclusivas”project includes four integrated components:

Campaña de Sensibilización. Each village has created a local public awareness campaign for their community.  The goals are to emphasize the capacities of those with disabilities, promote social acceptance, and make residents aware that persons with disabilities have rights.   Villagers have developed their own videos, conducted a logo/t-shirt contest, and created local visual displays (e.g. painted murals, bulletin boards) focused on communicating inclusive themes to their neighbors.

“Círculos de Amigos.”  Each village has formed circles of friends and neighbors to support individuals with disabilities and their families.  Members talk with the family to identify specific needs, and provide practical assistance and social contact.  For example, “círculos” have joined together to build ramps at the community center/library,  learned sign language to communicate with children in the community who are deaf,  accompanied students with special needs to school, facilitated participation in community activities, and made home visits to those who cannot leave their houses.  As neighbors become more aware of family priorities and needs, they increasingly make proposals for resources and activities to support the health and development of the individual with a disability.  They also create an accepting environment that increases the ability of those with disabilities to participate in the educational and social life of the community.
Visitas Especiales.  We have arranged for specialist visits from professionals in areas such as physical therapy, visual impairment, hearing impairment, speech therapy, adaptive physical education, and special education.  These specialists travel to communities for individual consultations, make home visits, and conduct individual assessments.  Going to communities spares families the difficulties of getting their son or daughter to services.  It also permits members of the Círculos de Amigos to participate so that they can support families to implement recommendations.  In addition, when the cost of going to school or obtaining access to health and therapeutic services is prohibitive, International Partners has solicited donors to provide “scholarships” which allow neighbors with disabilities to access needed services.
Materias y Actividades de Capacitación. Finally, we have developed training materials and activities focused on key evidence-based practices including: Universal Design for Learning, Positive Behavior Support, and Strategies for Alternative Communication.  International Partners is currently piloting these modules in partner communities to be available on-line in 2019.  In addition local disability rights organizations have provided training to families and Círculos de Amigos on such topics as the rights of persons with disabilities as well as how to evacuate persons with disabilities when there are emergencies and natural disasters.

This photo shows a young woman providing instruction to two children. One child holds an image on a screen and shows it to a young boy who uses a wheel chair.

The realities of life in remote, rural communities where people and governments have few resources make it difficult to provide educational opportunities and adequate services for individuals with disabilities.  Future policies should be accompanied by funding initiatives that systematically address local challenges by promoting and supporting community-based initiatives; and provide training for local actors in communities as well as in public schools.  As international initiatives continue to evolve, policies and practices must consider the day-to-day realities confronted by those who live at the intersection of poverty, rurality and disability.

About the authors:

Paula Beckman is a Full Professor in the Department of Counseling, Human Development and Special Education at the University of Maryland.  She has been conducting research and teaching courses related to early childhood education, inclusive education and family support for more than thirty years.  She also serves on the Board of Directors and as the Education Advisor for International Partners for more than fifteen years where she has worked to develop educational projects for children and youth in economically impoverished communities.  She holds a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  For further information, contact

Don Montagna is the President of the Board of Directors of International Partners where he has worked with local leaders in Central America on issues related to community development and education for 19 years. Prior to this he served as the Senior Leader of the Washington Ethical Society where he directed multiple projects related to social justice.


Barron, L. & Ncube , J. (2010). Poverty and Disability. London, UK: Leonard Cheshire International.

Beckman,P.J., Abera, N., Sabella,T., Podzimek, K. & Joseph, L., (2016) From rights to realities:  Confronting the challenge of educating persons with disabilities in developing countries. Global Education Review, 3 (3), 4-27.

Filmer, D. (2008). Disability, poverty, and schooling in developing countries: Results from 14 household surveys. The World Bank Economic Review, 22, (1), 141-163. doi:10.1093/wber/lhm021

Mitra, S., Posarac, A., & Vick, B. (2013). Disability and poverty in developing countries: A multidimensional study. World Development, 41, 1-18. Retrieved from j.worlddev.2012.05.024

UNICEF (2013).  Children and Young People with Disabilities Fact Sheet. (retrieved, April 20, 2018)

United Nations (2016). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved from: (retrieved, April 20, 2018)

United Nations (2015). Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from:  (Retreived April 20, 2018)

Note:  This research was supported by Fondation Internationale de la Recherche Appliquée sur la Handicap

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El Día Decisivo, The Decisive Day 8/28



On Thursday August 28th at 11am, join tens of thousands of people— documented and undocumented; immigrants and North Americans; students and workers; a group representing the great diversity of the Washington area— that will assemble outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 500 12th St. SW before marching to the White House. With legislation logjammed in Congress and the total number of deportations topping 2 million under Pres. Obama’s watch (more than under any other president), the demand of those assembled will be clear: President Obama, use your executive authority to end the disastrous policy of mass deportation.

Our work with International Partners is rooted in optimism, a belief that if we work hard enough, work together, and work for one another that we can make our world more livable. This optimism has survived many personal and community tragedies, in part because each successive batch of delegates has forged bonds with community members that are strong enough to survive distance, cultural barriers, poverty, and time. Often, upon returning to the US, delegates are infused with a determination to change the destructive U.S. policies responsible for much of the suffering in El Salvador. But as comprehensive immigration reform was first militarized in the Senate and then ground to a halt in the House of Representatives, many of us felt that basic optimism, which drove us to solidarity with Salvadorans, called into question. On Thursday August 29th, those of us in the DC area will have a historic opportunity to rededicate our commitment to our friends in Cabañas, Cuscatlán, San Salvador, and the uncountable families touched by migration around the world struggling for a life worth living.

Just as the limits of the traditional legislative reform process have been made clear, there are also constraints on the effectiveness of political contestation in the streets. That’s why the primary organizer of Thursday’s mass action, Casa de Maryland (the organization that pushed successfully for the Maryland Dream Act and an increase in MD’s minimum wage), has put out the call for those willing and able to take their commitment to social justice to another level: civil disobedience. Casa is planning for Thursday to be the largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history of the immigrants rights movement, with upwards of 300 people, including undocumented people, risking arrest. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, contact Casa de Maryland at (301) 357-8853.

The overwhelming majority of those participating on Thursday will not risk arrest, and the stature and political heft of Casa de Maryland almost certainly precludes police harassment. Most of us will be there to lend our voices and bodies, to bear witness, and to bring word of the courage we encounter there back to our communities. The people we’ll stand beside are the family members of those we love in El Salvador, and by coming out on Thursday you’ll stand for them.

Casa de Maryland is calling Thursday El Día Decisivo, The Decisive Day. While complete justice will not be achieved overnight, no justice can be achieved without concerted, organized effort. Ending the policy of mass deportation that rips apart families is the crucial first step needed before the underlying causes of migration can be addressed.  Will you join us in the streets on Thursday?


The author works as a teacher on Casa de Maryland’s Day Laborer ESOL Team. He is a past delegate, delegation líder, and cowpoke for International Partners.

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The Obvious Becomes Newsworthy: Children Emigrate ES

For the last few weeks, the migration of unaccompanied youth from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the U.S. has been front page news.  More than 50,000 minors have already made the perilous journey this year, with the total expected to reach as high as 90,000 by the end of 2014. This is nothing new for those of us who have listened to the stories of community members on International Partners delegations. We know the root causes of immigration: most prominent among them crushing poverty and gang violence. Because we also know that U.S. government policy, past and present, plays an outsize role in maintaining these push factors, the current the response of the Obama Administration– which has focused on border enforcement and accelerating deportations–  is particularly alarming. The planned response is destined to be ineffective because it ignores the root causes.  When life is threatened by poverty and violence people will always prefer the risks of immigration.

The map below sheds insight into the reasons that factor into parents’ decision to send their children to the United States. The largest number of children– more than 2,500 between January 1st and May 14th of 2014– came from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which tellingly has the highest murder rate in the world.  San Salvador was #4 on the list, home for more than 800 children who left for the U.S. during the same time period. San Salvador and surrounding municipalities are also hubs of activity for Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th St gangs.  Moreover, 11% of homicides in El Salvador in 2013 were committed against minors. These gangs developed in refugee communities in Los Angeles, California and spread to El Salvador as members were deported, setting the stage for later waves of immigration. Deportations lead to more deportations.


Infographic Released by Department of Homeland Security Documenting the Sources of Recent Youth Emigration

But what accounts for the huge leap since 2011 (see chart below)? A few months before unaccompanied migrant children began making the headlines, the Mesoamerican Working Group released a report on the need to rethink the failed “war on drugs” in Central America. The Merida Initiative (2007-2010) dumped more than $1.9 billion of U.S. aid into a disastrous attempt to confront Mexican cartels. Instead of stemming the flow of drugs to the U.S., the iron fist approach lead to increased regional turf wars between cartels (doubling the homicide rate in Mexico) and diverted trafficking routes from Mexico to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. An offshoot of the Merida Initiative known as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was launched in 2008, doubling down on the failed militarized strategy.  Compounding the situation, the 2009 coup with tacit U.S. support ousted the democratically-elected leader of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, further destabilized that nation, creating conditions which resulted in the highest national murder rate in the world. As in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when the U.S. pumped weapons and money into the region to stymie social movements whose leaders have now been elected to the presidency in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the “war on drugs” has compounded the problems it ostensibly seeks to address at a heavy human cost. Violence leads to more violence.


Pew Research Center Chart Documents the Sharp Rise in Unaccompanied Children Apprehended at the Border

Addressing the core reasons for immigration to the U.S. from Central America is the only way to create livable communities for our friends in El Salvador and elsewhere. This is what makes the work of International Partners so important. In addition to IP’s work on the ground, we must also look at how policies implemented by the U.S. government create cycles of violence and work to change them. While large scale change in U.S. policy toward Central America remains a long-term goal, small victories are regularly won by networks of activists pressuring their government to do the right thing. (Click here to see a recent example and here to see the results, which are still playing out.) International development work and foreign policy activism go hand and hand. Activism without a roll-up-our-sleeves approach strikes a hollow cord, but the success of the IP model is conditioned by macro factors, making a two-pronged strategy necessary to break the destructive cycle.

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The Other Side of the Immigration Story

The following is from Don Montagna, President, International Partners:

Here is the kind of painful plight that tortures me. We have known Mari-Elena for more than a decade. She is always a cook for our delegations, an active community volunteer, and an elected member of her town council (ADESCO). Since her husband, Daniel, the driver for our delegation, has had a renal illness, he has been out of work, and the family of 6 is financially desperate.

As their only hope, the family decided that their 20 year old son, Edwin, should go to the USA so he can send money home, as is done by about half the families in this small community of Hacienda Vieja. Fourteen have gone to the USA just since this January.

To hire a “coyote,” who guides groups to and through the US border, most families borrow from relatives already in the US and then pay them back once they get a job in the USA. But Mari-Elena has no family in the USA so they used their house as collateral for a bank loan of $2500, which charges 3% per month interest plus penalties for each day the payment is late.

Trying to cross the border, Edwin was caught by US immigration and is now in jail in Houston. If Mari-Elena and Daniel could raise another $7500, Edwin would be free to enter the USA with a hearing for asylum scheduled for about 5 years later. Since they cannot raise the $7500, he will be returned to El Salvador, their family financial woes will continue, but since they cannot pay the loan without Edwin working in the USA, they will now lose their house to the bank. They gambled and lost everything.

So goes the world for the desperately poor

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Corruption Exposed in El Salvador


Chronic Corruption Exposed in El Salvador

All of us who have worked in rural El Salvador are aware of the painfully limited reach of the Salvadoran government. A crumbling school, a 45-minute walk to the nearest bus stop, maybe a new health clinic in a bigger community like Palo Grande—and we should keep in mind that these services were even more limited during the Civil War (1980-92)—are some of the few signs of amenities that we often take for granted in the U.S. While there are many reasons for the current situation, government corruption is clearly high on the list. By learning more about corruption’s tangible impact on the lives of our Salvadoran host families and friends, we can better understand their struggle.
Corruption was a central focus of this year’s presidential election as evidence surfaced suggesting ARENA party former-President Paco Flores (1999-2004) pocketed at least $10 million in funds intended for disaster relief and public safety. After current FMLN Pres. Funes first revealed the investigation, Flores fled the country before eventually returning to testify before the National Assembly that he had distributed the funds in “small sacks of cash” to the appropriate recipients. Pundits had a field day, immediately nicknaming him Saquito “Little Sack” Flores.

Flores’s erratic behavior continued. He attempted to sneak across the border to Guatemala the morning he was scheduled to testify before the Assembly again, claiming that it was not the Border Police who had made him turn his car around, but rather a last minute decision that his business in Guatemala could wait for another day. The latest reports suggest he is hiding in Panama. Since Flores had been ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano’s campaign adviser, the scandal undoubtedly had an impact on the Feb. 2 and March 7 presidential elections, which Quijano lost by just over 6,000 votes to the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
Throughout the campaign, Elba (who works for IP in ES) kept me up to date by sending me articles, videos, and the cartoon above. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this story had significance beyond the elections, beyond party politics. There is a class of people in El Salvador who have never had to answer for their actions. Through the wielding of political and economic power, El Salvador’s elite have been able to sweep crimes under the rug, or pass amnesty laws to protect themselves when wrongdoing eventually does come to light. Now that the traditional elite no longer hold the reigns of government, we can expect to see more such cases in the news.
A warrant has been issued for Flores’s arrest and his property and bank account frozen. If he is eventually convicted, it will be a major blow against impunity in El Salvador. It may even open the door to repealing the 1993 Amnesty Law, which protects those who committed violent atrocities during the Civil War. While much remains to be seen, the next five years will likely see major changes in how Salvadorans interact with their own history. On June 1st, for example, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, former teacher, guerilla general during the war, congressman, vice-president, and education minister, will be inaugurated as president, an historic first.
How these national events filter down to the communities that welcome International Partners delegations remains to be seen. It’s unlikely that your host mom will draw a direct link between an ex-president’s potential corruption conviction and improved local services. At the same time, there are clear indications that El Salvador is a profoundly different place than when IP sent its first delegation in 2000. By staying connected to these structural changes, we develop context within which to place the individual relationships that are so dear to all of us.

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UMD students gather to reflect on their experiences in rural El Salvador

After 5 years of going to El Salvador to live and work, delegates from the University of Maryland gathered on April 23 to reflect on their experiences and talk about how it affected the work they are now doing and their view of the world. See the attached UMD Diamondback article about their experiences…

UMD Diamondback News Article

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Why People Can’t Get There From Here – When Poor

Waiting to meet someone at a gas station, I noticed that everyone buying gas bought between a half to one and a half gallons.

An internet connection costs $15 a month, but you can buy 3 months for $24. Unfortunately many cannot afford the $24 at one time.

Growing your own cow feed for the year is dramatically cheaper than buying higher priced lower quality feed each month, but to grow it you would need about $250 at planting time, which is more than most can accumulate.

Yields for corn and beans are several times higher using fertilizer, but once a family has an emergency, like a sick child, the fertilizer savings get spent, the lower crop yield then is not enough to feed the family and still have enough left over to sell and therefore there is no money to pay for fertilizer. Then, perhaps forever, a family is stuck at lower yields.

For lack of funds, people don’t go to doctors or buy medicines when they are sick, which results in unnecessary deaths from illnesses that might be cured, for example, with $15 worth of anti-biotics.

This post was written by Don Montagna.

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How Health Is Affected By Poverty

This article was written by Sarah Fudin, who works in community relations for the George Washington University School of Public Health on their Master of Public Health online program. She is passionate about working in an industry committed to making positive changes in the world. In her free time, Sarah enjoys running, reading and 16 Handles frozen yogurt.

Shanty Town in San Salvador, Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We are less than a month away from our next delegation, which will introduce about forty youth volunteers to various communities in rural El Salvador. As delegates anxiously begin to collect donations and prepare their suitcases, they can prepare by reading up about the issues that impact the communities they will reside in. As we addressed in our first blog post, “How Poverty Kills,” one of the major issues that impact rural Salvadorans is the lack of quality healthcare.

Approximately 1.2 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day. Poverty and ill health are bound together when people are forced to live in slums without decent shelter, good sanitation or clean water, all of which make people sick.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations said, “The biggest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty.” One need only consider the horrific images of Haiti in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 to see his point: Before the earthquake, Haiti was already considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with 70 percent of Haitians subsisting on $2 a day and 86 percent of the citizens of Port-au-Prince living in slums, half of them with no access to latrines and only one-third with access to tap water. After the earthquake, 1.5 million people were forced to live in makeshift camps, and more than 100,000 were considered at critical risk from the storms and flooding of the approaching rainy season. The crowded, unsanitary conditions led to a cholera outbreak in October 2010 that sickened more than 200,000, killing nearly 6,000 people.

Case Study: El Salvador

El Salvador is listed as the seventh of the 10 poorest countries in the western hemisphere, with a per capita income average of just over $600 per month. After the end of a civil war in the 1980s, El Salvador made strong progress toward peace and democracy. Structural reforms began to lead to strong economic performance, which subsequently began to reduce poverty levels between 1991 and 2001. Related social advances included reduced infant and maternal mortality, school enrollments increased, and there was better access to reproductive health and water services. However, the effects of the global financial crisis came home to roost in El Salvador, leading to an increase in the poverty rate from 35.5 percent to 42.3 percent in just a year, from 2007 to 2008.

Urbanization in El Salvador is intertwining the factors of poverty, violence and the health of its citizens. As in many developing countries, rural and poor people in El Salvador decide to relocate to the city for better opportunities. Problems develop when cities get overcrowded, the poor create squatting communities outside urban areas, and municipalities do not have the infrastructure to provide services to these new citizens. Living conditions become terrible: Homes in the slums are essentially huts made out of aluminum, plastic and cardboard; the only water source in these communities is often contaminated, and flooding in the rainy season is always a threat. Urban poverty in El Salvador currently stands at 56 percent.

Even so, the urban population in the hubs of San Salvador, San Miguel and Santa Ana continues to grow. It goes without saying that these slums are inherently unhealthy places to live. Traffic accidents and pollution account for alarmingly high numbers of deaths and illnesses. Unfortunately, as urban poverty grows, living conditions continue to deteriorate. Poverty, violence and health all interact in a toxic stew, where one of these factors cannot be remedied without addressing the other two as well.

Case Study: The United States

Compared to countries like Haiti and El Salvador, America is incredibly rich. However, 16 percent of Americans, or 50 million people, are poor, and 20 percent of American children now live in poverty. The rates of poverty, even among employed people, have spiked since the financial crisis. (The federal poverty level is $23,050 for a family of four.)

Recent studies have shown that poverty in this country is as bad for one’s health as in poorer countries, though the health problems are different. Depression, asthma and obesity are more common in American adults living in poverty. Nearly 31 percent of people living below the poverty line in 2011 said they had been diagnosed with depression at some point — almost twice the rate for those not living in poverty. Smoking is far more prevalent in adults in poverty (33 percent) than those not in poverty (19.9 percent), and the share of adults in poverty with asthma, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure is higher than the rate for those who are not living in poverty.

The per capita income in the United States was $46,760 in 2008 when the recession set in. By 2011, it had risen to $48,112; reflecting the vast wealth of the richest sector of the population. In all countries, wealthy people are more equipped to survive hard times, while the health and well-being of people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder are disproportionately affected by volatile climate conditions, harsh terrain, armed conflicts, natural disasters and economic crises. Thus, when speaking of health and poverty, we must address one to address the other.

International Partners is dedicated to empowering people on the front lines of poverty. All of our programs enable us to collaborate with communities who are seeking development opportunities and allow us to work with volunteers from the United States who learn from rural impoverished communities and thus help raise awareness and advocate for international assistance. Consider donating to International Partners today!

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US Trade Policies Harm Salvadoran Poor

By Rebecca Lindegren

In 1994, the United States, along with representatives from Canada and Mexico, agreed on something called NAFTA, also known as the North American Free Trade Agreement. This agreement was designed to remove the barriers that kept the three countries from being able to freely trade their products. NAFTA did this by removing the heavy taxes and tariffs that followed when those products crossed borders. However, many other countries were affected by NAFTA, through more indirect means. One of those countries affected was El Salvador.

El Salvador is the smallest country in size in Central America, but it is also has the most people per square mile. Following the success of NAFTA, and the way it helped to significantly increase Mexican imports in the U.S., a new treaty called CAFTA was created in 2004. This treaty was much like the original NAFTA agreement; however it focused on Central American countries. These countries included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and later, the Dominican Republic.

CAFTA was designed to eliminate tariffs on exports from the U.S. to Central America. The goal of these reduced prices was to create an environment where price was more competitive. This is particularly true for the people of El Salvador. Currently, El Salvador has the most open trade and investment environment in Central America. The annual trade of El Salvador accounts for approximately $12 billion per year. The majority of this trade is imports into the country and as a result, El Salvador has become a large service based industry.

Impact on Local Industries

However, with this influx of investment and increased trade came certain downfalls. In order to gain the interest of foreign investors, many companies in El Salvador are attempting to offer the lowest price. This results in reduced wages for workers and poorer working conditions. CAFTA offers no protection for workers. Local companies in El Salvador that want to gain U.S. investments pay their workers as little as possible and often have unsafe working conditions.

Central America has long been known for its less than ideal labor laws. Nothing in NAFTA or CAFTA protects the people who will be completing the labor. In fact, CAFTA actually allows participating countries to ignore the standards set by the International Labor Organization. Instead, the only standards set are the ones already in place in the country. This creates an influx of corporations using CAFTA to skirt these laws, and the workers suffer for it.

Textiles are one of the biggest exports from El Salvador. The farmers who create these textiles are slowly being forced off their land, so that large corporate farms can take over. CAFTA doesn’t help those small, family based organizations. Instead, it supports the large corporations that want to take over those farmlands. The workers are then forced into working for these large corporations instead of running their own farms.

Impact on El Salvador’s economy

El Salvador’s agriculture industry is not food based. When people in El Salvador are buying staples like corn and grain, they are buying them from the U.S., because the price is lower. While this might seem like a good thing, it actually damages the economy. The farmers who do grow food are then forced to compete with the rock bottom prices of U.S. imports. Without the ability to mass produce to compete with the U.S. imports, farmers are often forced off their lands and have to find new ways to earn a living.

Treaties like NAFTA and CAFTA have opened borders between countries and helped encouraged trade, but at what cost? For countries like El Salvador, free trade has limited the ability to maintain family farms and smaller businesses. Instead, these individuals are forced to compete with huge U.S. corporations. They quickly lose. These treaties also encourage poor labor practices, putting the native people’s health and safety at risk. Instead of getting locally owned items, the people of El Salvador are quickly becoming dependant on U.S. imports and sending their money out of the country.


Rebecca Lindegren is the Community Relations Manager for American University’s Master’s in International Relations graduate program. Additionally, she manages an international relations blog and an underground hip hop blog, and enjoys writing, cycling and sustainable development.

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When Undocumented Children Get Detained

In the past few years, the number of undocumented children illegally crossing the border into the United States has increased considerably, according to a recent article in the New York Times. One in 13 of those caught crossing the border into the United States last year were under 18 years old and 17 percent were under 13 years old. Another New York Times article tells us that the number of unaccompanied minors facing deportation proceedings reached 11,000 in 2012 — twice as much as in the previous year.

The reasons why these children are fleeing their own countries to come to the United States are varied. The Jesuit Social Research Institute reports that many are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence and forced recruitment, abusive child labor practices, human trafficking, rape, forced prostitution or armed conflict in their home countries. Many are also trying to reunite with family members who are already living in the United States.

Once an undocumented child has been caught and detained by Border Patrol, the law states that he/she should be sent to the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, but the New York Times reports that, last year, children were held at Border Patrol facilities for up to two weeks in cells that they shared with many other children, sometimes not even having enough space to lay down or sleep. Children complained of a lack of food and water, and the cells often had no windows, showers or recreation space. Once released to Health and Human Services, children are reunited with their families or held in detention centers for children until their trial.

The New York Times explains that, for these children, there are no public defenders. While every U.S. citizen is afforded an attorney, undocumented migrants are not. The situation is even dier considering that, in these cases, the detainees are children without the capacity to neither comprehend nor maneuver their way through the complex U.S. legal system. Few are able to obtain a pro bono lawyer and even fewer can hire private lawyers. Thus, about 50 percent go to court alone, with some as young as two years old. Most of these children are terrified and have very little understanding of what is happening to them. Many have already survived and/or witnessed unspeakable violence and hardships, both in their home countries and in their journey to the United States. In addition to that, they are in a foreign country, alone and typically unable to speak the language. They are required to represent themselves when they don’t have the language skills, the support, the maturity or the understanding to be able to manage the U.S. judicial system effectively. Another New York Times article explains that 40 percent of these children would qualify for exemption from deportation, but without legal representation, they have little to no chance of qualifying. Exemptions exist for children who have been the victims of severe abuse, neglect or human trafficking.

Although improvements are being made to the immigration laws and practices, services for undocumented children have been seriously strained over the past year with the steady increase of unaccompanied minors being detained at the border. Advocates are calling for further changes in order to help these children obtain the representation they deserve and need. An organization called Kids in Need of Defense works to help connect pro bono lawyers and other volunteers to children in need of representation, but their scope is still limited. They need more lawyers to volunteer and more firms that are willing to count their workers’ pro bono hours. But even lawyers being willing to work pro bono is only a temporary solution. All undocumented children need to have access to public defenders who specialize in immigration law. This needs to be a part of comprehensive immigration reform.

This article was written by Delegation Leader Gabriela D. Acosta, the community manager for the USC School of Social Work masters in counseling program.She is passionate about social justice, community organizing and leadership development. Connect with her on Twitter @Gabyacosta101

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