Andrew Natsios: The Consequences of Threatening Foreign Aid Cuts Over Immigration Enforcement

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator, about President Trump’s threat to cut aid because of a migrant caravan that reached Mexico.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thousands of Central American migrants are at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. That’s some 1,500 miles from Mexico’s border with the United States. But President Trump says he’ll end regional U.S. aid, send troops and cancel a pending trade agreement with Mexico if the migrants reach the United States. This isn’t the first time Trump has used aid as a political lever targeting Central America. But how effective are those threats, and will they have unintended consequences? Joining us now is Andrew Natsios. He was a former administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, under President George W. Bush. Welcome to the program.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the U.S. says it’s working with Central American countries and Mexico to help them address issues such as governance and rule of law, democracy and food security. It provides a lot of aid to these troubled countries. What happens if the United States cuts off that aid?

NATSIOS: It’s interesting. They are programs to grow their economies so that people won’t have a motivation to leave their countries. The principal reason people migrate, particularly in Central America, is for better jobs and a better life – for economic reasons. And the trigger that usually sets them off in terms of their journey to the United States, to the border is gang violence. And so if you can reduce gang violence and increase economic growth in these countries, then the motivation to leave their countries toward the United States will diminish. And to cancel those programs means they’re putting the American people at risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look at how U.S. aid has been deployed in the past, you know, often, presidents see it as a two-pronged strategy, right? You – on the one hand, you might use enforcement. You might use other sort of more direct methods of trying to influence other nations. But on the other hand, they also use aid.

NATSIOS: They use aid usually in a more positive way. In other words, if we have an ally of ours – it’s unstable, or it’s under attack by terrorist groups or by a neighboring power that’s hostile to the United States – then we will try to strengthen them. There are instances historically in the last 70 years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, where presidents have threatened to cut off aid. President Trump is not the first one to do that.

Lyndon Johnson canceled food aid to India in the middle of a food emergency in the 1960s because they were neutral in the Cold War. And he was annoyed with them, so he canceled the shipments. But I don’t recall President Bush or Clinton or President Obama – actually threatened to cut off aid if countries didn’t do it because negative incentives don’t tend to work that well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Full disclosure – you sit on the advisory board for an aid contractor in Central America. What do you say to critics who say U.S. aid has been ineffective, that, despite all this money, people are still fleeing to the United States?

NATSIOS: An aid program is not going to stop political forces that are dysfunctional or trying to destabilize countries in Central America. That’s not the purpose of the program. That’s for the Defense Department and the CIA and the White House to deal with – and the State Department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This president has been pretty open, though, about operating in a transactional manner. He recently said at the United Nations in New York, few give anything to us, and that is why we are taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t really believe in aid as a tool of American interest.

NATSIOS: Well, actually, if he didn’t, I think he’d just propose abolishing AID or the State Department’s aid programs. Is he transactional? Yes, he is. And I think these threats don’t look at the actual reality of what’s going on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Andrew Natsios. He is now executive professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Thank you so much.

NATSIOS: Thank you very much.

Originally published in NPR.