Habele Founder: Interior Dept. Worsening Bad Situation for Migrants

America’s Department of State should replace the Department of the Interior (DOI) as the primary US agency responsible for relations with Micronesia. That’s the argument made by former Peace Corps Volunteer and founder of the “Habele” charity in an opinion column published on May 31st on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

In his editorial, Mellen cites both the struggles of migrants in the US, as well as failure of DOI –and specifically its Office of Insular of Affairs (OIA)– to effectively “advance social, political and economic develop [within] in Micronesia and the Marshalls,” as indicators of the problem.

Mellen describes the costly efforts of DOI since 1951 as a “startling failure,” sympathizing that for FAS citizens, “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.”

Mellen’s argument for replacing Interior with State stems from his conclusion that correcting the US-FSM relationship is a strategic necessity for the US, and is inseparable from the need for better social and economic development within the Islands. He argues this requires expertise in development as well as foreign relations, which Interior’s own track record fails to reflect.  As further evidence, Mellen points to moves by Interior in recent years to “micromanage” or even “withhold” funds from projects in the FSM, obligated by treaties such as the Compact of Free Association (COFA).

The Department of State is the sole US executive agency formally responsible for diplomacy and international relations. It was the first executive department established by the US in 1789. In Micronesia the same role is filled by the FSM Department of Foreign Affairs.

The US Department of the Interior is responsible for the management of most federal land and natural resources, the administration of programs for native First Peoples within US, as well as issues pertaining to territories and so-called “insular” areas of the US.

Micronesia (FSM), Palau, and the Marshall Islands (RMI) are the only three independent, sovereign, nations legally recognized by the United States government whose relationship with the US are not primarily mediated through the US Department of State. According to Mellen, that needs to change.

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.