Obama's Border Summit Theater

When charity doesn't begin at home.

Coming amid a fight in Congress over money to deal with a surge in illegal immigration, President Barack Obama's meeting tomorrow with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador smacks of political theater. And like many a player on stage, Obama's visitors expect to be paid for their part -- in this case, with additional U.S. aid money.

In truth, the $300 million Obama has set aside for helping Central America (out of $3.7 billion in additional funding for border security) is pitifully small. It's less than what the U.S. pays for its military bands. At the same time, the primary blame for this crisis lies with the governments of Central America, and they are the ones that must fix it.

The numbing statistics on homicides and lurid tales of gang violence are symptoms of larger failings: corrupt, incompetent police and judges; a political process that fewer and fewer voters trust; stark inequality; poverty that traps half the population; a woeful educational system; and a lack of opportunity that has left nearly one-quarter of those from ages 15 to 24 either out of school or out of work.

As the economist Albert Hirschman once observed, people respond to their disappointment in institutions in one of two ways: They give up and leave, or they stay and complain. When nobody is listening, they tend to do the former.

To persuade their citizens to stay at home, Central America's leaders need first to own their problems. Start with a foundational weakness: Like their populations, the governments are poor. They don't have enough money to fight crime, build schools and supply other basic services. Guatemala, for example, takes in less revenue than any country in Latin America (11 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, compared with a regional average of about 20 percent). Its tax take has actually declined since 2000.

Efforts at fiscal reform have foundered not least because wealthy entrenched interests -- the kind that can afford to hire their own security guards, for instance -- have stood in their way. Meanwhile, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador wouldn't need to spend a lot of money to improve some aspects of their dismal economic climate just by moving more quickly to remove the hurdles to new business formation.

Their leadership deficit has also afflicted these countries' efforts to reform the police and judiciary. Honduras undermined its promising new police internal affairs bureau by starving it of resources and political support. Guatemala is refusing to renew the mandate of a highly regarded United Nations commission that has exposed crimes by the police and judiciary. Such ill-considered decisions feed the widespread regional distrust in law enforcement in ways that more foreign aid can't do much to address.

That doesn't mean Obama should turn down America's neighbors when they ask for support. If it helps them get their acts together more quickly, then the U.S. will benefit, too. It does argue, though, for pushing them to do more to make their countries better places to live and stay, and conditioning additional U.S. assistance on their demonstrated willingness to fulfill that commitment.

--Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net