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The Arizona border and that of other states is being overwhelmed in part by a flood of asylum-seekers from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The Biden administration has sought to shift the blame to its predecessor. The Trump administration cut off U.S. aid to these countries, goes the argument, and that stymied progress that would have kept the asylum-seekers at home.
That’s a tough narrative to sell. President Donald Trump cut off aid because of a previous spike in asylum-seekers. So the aid hadn’t been neutralizing the drive to emigrate.
The flood did abate, probably mostly due to Trump’s policy of requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their applications were being processed. President Joe Biden is reversing that policy. There’s no question that the renewed flood has been triggered in significant part by the perception, in the process of becoming a reality, that it will be much easier to get into the United States under Biden than it was under Trump.
Sending aid won't improve life there
The Biden administration, true to the doubtful narrative, is still pinning hopes that U.S. aid can improve conditions in these countries sufficiently to reduce the flood of emigrants to a more manageable stream. It has pledged $4 billion in such aid over four years.
There are few things more certain than that this effort will fail.
What is sad, and frustrating, is that what creates improving material well-being is known: the rule of law and a market economy that is not overregulated or taxed. What is unknown is how to create and establish those conditions where they do not exist.
And those conditions are lacking in these countries, particularly the rule of law.
In all of them, the writ of government is limited. Swaths of the country are controlled by criminal gangs.
And in all them, leaders have shown autocratic tendencies, seeking to render other civic institutions — the legislature, judiciary and media — subservient.
Criminal gangs have control
Rachel Kleinfeld, in her book “A Savage Order,” surveyed the few successful transitions from dysfunctional governance in violent areas to good governance and relative safety. One finding was both provocative and disturbing. A frequent feature was a period in which leaders seeking good governance in effect made deals with criminal organizations or militias that controlled territory.
There are reports that the leaders in these countries are engaging with the criminal gangs that limit their writ. But there is scant evidence that they are aspiring Washingtons making distasteful deals with evil as an intended transition to democratic capitalism in which they share, and ultimately yield, power.
The Biden administration has apparently concluded that the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, is an acceptable interlocutor. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have both talked to him, and Harris will make a trip to Guatemala.
But the administration is aware of the limited writ and nature of the regimes in these countries. The plan isn’t to just give them $1 billion a year and wish them luck.
There is some thinking out loud by administration officials about channeling the money through nongovernmental organizations, or making it conditional on improved governance reforms.
Cash or not, tough choices remain
All that has been tried before. Going through nongovernmental organizations can get discrete projects done, such as establishing a clean water supply. But the rule of law and a productive market economy can’t be erected through NGO grants.
The George W. Bush administration made a major effort to condition foreign aid on good governance reforms, with meager results.
The track record of U.S. foreign aid producing good governance and improved economic conditions is, to put it kindly, abysmal. It has funded some useful humanitarian projects. But its main success has been in renting the loyalty of autocrats in broader geopolitical fights and disputes.
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What the Biden administration proposes to spend is hardly transformative. It amounts to just $30 a year per person in the targeted countries.
If it is not to be entirely wasted, the money should go as much as possible directly to people seeking to improve their material conditions. Say, by guaranteeing microloans.
Regardless of how the money is used or wasted, it won’t spare the Biden administration from the tough policy decisions regarding asylum-seekers and others overwhelming the border.
Not being Trump won’t make the problems go away.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Biden's Central America aid plan won't solve border problems