Stimulating innovation in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, El Salvador

Up to 250,000 immigrants from El Salvador are facing deportation from the United States after a ruling by President Donald Trump’s administration that they no longer have a right to residency.

The Department of Homeland Security decided earlier this year that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), introduced following the 7.7 magnitude earthquake which killed 1,100 people, displaced 1.3m others and destroyed much of El Salvador’s infrastructure in 2001, should no longer apply because the country has recovered. The TPS ends on 9 September 2019 and El Salvador is bracing itself for the mass arrival of returnees.

In addition, the so-called ‘Dreamers’, made up of around 700,000 people of Latin American descent who came to America illegally as children and never had their residency rights legitimised, are facing deportation  unless Congress acts to allow them to stay.

One Young World Ambassador and Salvadorean Jose Rodrigo Moran will be at the centre of El Salvador’s efforts to accommodate these returnees and help ensure they can positively contribute to an economy that is looking to grow through technology and innovation. El Salvador, which endured a long civil war and large scale emigration between 1980 and 1992, has severe socio-economic problems and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Picture: José Ramiro Laínez Sorto / terre des hommes Switzerland

Jose Rodrigo is a program associate with Creative Associates International, a Washington DC based global development organisation and his dual passions are technology and citizen security. He was a founder member of the Jovenes Contra La Violencia movement (which spread across Central America) and was appointed as the first Executive Director of the Municipal Youth Institute in the capital city of San Salvador.

At Creative Associates, he works with the Development Lab to identify ways of leveraging technology to improve citizen security and reduce violence. For the youth of El Salvador, the technology projects he is working with offer an alternative to an environment rendered unstable by chronic poverty and gang-related crime.

Picture: Rodrigo at One Young World

“We are going to face a lot of challenges once these brothers and sisters come back to El Salvador,” says Rodrigo. “Some of them have never even been here.”

Having studied in Washington DC, he understands the two cultures but says it will be a “completely different reality” for returnees who grew up in the US and have no experience of El Salvador.

He remains optimistic. “We have to be really creative in finding ways to embrace our brothers and sisters coming back, and if we are strategic about it and address the main issues holding us back as an economy - mainly corruption and impunity - I think we will have plenty of resources,” he says.

“This is not a resource-scarce country. Most of our energy comes from renewable sources. We have touristic appeal and plenty of natural and human resources. So we would be able to embrace a wave of Salvadoreans coming back from the US but we have to heavily invest in innovation, technology and education which will slowly but gradually take us forward.”

Picture: Creative Associates International

Rodrigo’s own work is part of that vision. The Creablocs project he works on encourages community-based innovation by offering blocs or modules dedicated to a range of creative and tech skills including digital fabrication, music production and video editing, supported by manuals and lesson plans. “The idea is to create a micro-corridor for creative communities to enable them to come up with grassroots solutions to their own problems,” he says. “Most of these problems have to do with security, mobility, trust and cohesion.”

He says that El Salvador’s history has created a “sense of despair across generations” which he is fighting to overcome. “People are very frustrated and tired, and that’s the biggest challenge, changing that mindset to one of hope.”

But even hardened gang members are looking on at Creablocs and other emerging tech-based innovation projects and seeing their value. “Gang members see the type of project we implement, like outreach centres or community philharmonics, and they wish they had those opportunities while they were growing up. They are sending their kids to these centres - because nobody wants to be a gang member, they are always fleeing from something.”

Rodrigo describes himself as a “tech whisperer”, someone who can set local innovations in motion and help them to achieve real growth. “My role is to be a bridge between the grassroots initiatives that really understand a community’s needs and the people that can facilitate scale, the international development agencies and implementers like Creative Associates.”

By this means, he hopes El Salvador can achieve “generational change” and be known for something much more positive than poverty and violence. “In this ecosystem of innovators and technologists I have seen hope in such a hostile environment,” he says. “I’d love to see El Salvador becoming a technology and innovation hub for the region. We are in a very strategic location, at the heart of Central America, and we have to rely on this innovative spirit and think on a regional level. Technology is the tool which provides us with that opportunity of thinking a little bit more outside the boundaries of El Salvador.”

When Rodrigo himself returned from the US, after the expiry of his two-year visa, he found the social problems of his country hard to face. “Coming back has been kind of a shock in the sense that everything is bad news and the political sphere is terrible to look at - but thankfully I am working in this sector where I am seeing hope.”

Unlike many of the Dreamers and others facing deportation, he is clear that he belongs in El Salvador. “I would have come back anyway because I am so much happier here,” he says. “Even though I was nervous about leaving that very comfortable lifestyle in the US, here I am directly seeing the impact of my work. I am engaging with communities and innovators and we are actually doing positive change and I’m an eyewitness of it. I couldn't sit behind a desk all my life. My passion lies on the ground, in connecting people.”

Published on 12/03/2018