Editorial: Interior Department bungling making COFA mess worse

Opinon column published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday, May 31, 2016.

Communities on Hawaii and Guam are suffering. The flood of migrants from Freely Associated States (FAS) strains taxpayer-funded education, health, public safety and social services.

Every year, Hawaii taxpayers shoulder $100 million in costs for programs guaranteed under the terms of the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). On Guam, the cost is over $50 million. The amount sent from Washington to offset these expenses? Just 16 cents for every dollar spent.

Nearly half of FAS migrants in Hawaii draw public food assistance. On Guam, the number is 58 percent. In Hawaii, nearly a third also receive supplemental welfare payments. A third of FAS migrants on Guam reside in public housing, and the number in Hawaii is presumed even higher. About 5 percent of migrants on Guam and 12 percent in Hawaii, are homeless. Only small numbers maintain health insurance and participate in preventative care. The result is costly emergency room visits.

This could have been avoided. Since 1951, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has spent hundreds of millions in American tax dollars to advance social, political and economic development in Micronesia and the Marshalls.

The failure is startling. Leaving stagnant, semi-cash, local economies for better lives on Guam or Hawaii is no longer just a rational choice for many FAS migrants; it is virtually axiomatic.

In recent years, Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) has reacted to its own blunders by further micromanaging the hundreds of millions in aid that it is obligated to provide.

In some cases, OIA has simply withheld the money. Predictably, this has fueled the exodus.

Rather than deal with the underlying problems it helped create, OIA is now training migrants to maximize their dependency on taxpayer-funded services in Guam and Hawaii. This disastrous policy includes awarding grants to so-called “One-Stop Centers.”

Caseworkers at these centers are trained to immediately sign up migrants for entitlements, equipping them to aggressively cash in on the vast number of benefits available.

One DOI-funded group goes further, organizing migrants to advocate for changing what they term “unjust laws and practices that affect Micronesians in areas of health care, housing, labor, and education services.”

Taxpayer money for these groups was cannibalized from a Technical Assistance fund intended to promote accountability, financial management and economic development within the FAS itself.

Bizarrely, OIA rejected a counterproposal to educate and train would-be migrants before they left the FAS. This alternative sought to reduce migration rates through peer-to-peer education, and cut down on taxpayer costs incurred by those who did choose to leave. It emphasized integration through cross-cultural training and civic engagement, mirroring training U.S. Peace Corps volunteers receive when headed to live in the FAS.

That proposal also included third-party evaluation and cost-benefit analysis, accountability evidently lacking in the One Stop Centers DOI chose to fund instead.

America has a long-term strategic interest in a friendly, functional and prosperous Micronesia (FSM) and Marshall Islands (RMI). Hawaii and Guam bear a disproportionate and uncompensated burden from this national responsibility. OIA is undermining its — and our nation’s — own goals.

Like a physician who ignores the underlying illness, OIA is prescribing costly, ineffective treatments, worsening both symptoms and the root causes.

FAS and American citizens alike deserve better. America needs to correct its important relationship with the FAS.

That requires expertise in development as well as foreign relations. Replacing bureaucrats from the Office of Insular Affairs with the seasoned and professional diplomats of the U.S. Department of State would be a smart first step.

Neil Mellen was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia (Yap, 2002-05) and leads Habele, an all-volunteer nonprofit based in South Carolina, serving low-income and rural K-12 students within Micronesia.