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Foreign Aid Goes Military!

Vladimir Lenin wrote a pamphlet in 1916 called Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which…the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”

Imagine Lenin’s puzzlement if he were alive to see the territories of the globe divided up not among capitalists but among foreign aid bureaucrats. I am exaggerating a little; but a surprising new trend among development economists, foreign aid organizations, and Western policymakers is the willingness to combine foreign military intervention with traditional aid work. This takes even further a tendency that began in the 1980s toward increasing intrusiveness of foreign aid programs in poor societies’ economic policies and political institutions. In short, foreign aid has been getting ever more imperial over the past quarter-century. While foreign aid may be squeezed by the current financial crisis, the aid-military complex seems likely to thrive in view of the many threats to security in different parts of the world. Indeed, on October 13, 2008, right after the worst week in US stock market history, World Bank President Robert Zoellick found time in a major speech to talk about how the World Bank was “bringing security and development together.”

The US government has just established a regional military command in Africa, AFRICOM, which it justifies not as a military initiative but as part of a growing effort to promote African development. The head of the AFRICOM Transition Team, Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, said that “strategic success” for AFRICOM would be defined as “an African continent that knows liberty, peace, stability, and increasing prosperity,” not to mention “democratic governance.” The share of US foreign aid distributed by the Pentagon increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2005.1

According to a new US Army manual released to the press on February 8, 2008, “shaping the civil situation” is as important to the Army’s mission in foreign lands as “winning battles.”2 Under the rubric of “counterterrorism,” the Department of Defense is constructing schools in coastal Kenya, and digging wells and manning health clinics throughout the Horn of Africa—at the same time as the American military has been backing Ethiopia’s invasion of its bitter enemy Somalia.

Following the Bush administration’s failures in using civilian experts in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, the US State Department, the traditional home of foreign aid policy, has been advocating bringing even more civilian experts into future military operations abroad. In a speech at Georgetown on February 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the creation of a Civilian Reserve Corps, including economists, public administrators, public health officials, agronomists, and city planners who could

deploy with the 82nd Airborne within 48 hours of a country falling into conflict. These first responders would be able to summon the skills of hundreds of civilian experts across our federal government, as well as thousands of private volunteers.3

In 2005, a new State Department office called the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization published a list of its aims on its Web site. Soldiers and social scientists would work together to move a society from war to “legitimate and stable security institutions.” They would work to “legitimate political institutions and participatory processes” and go on to a “long-term development program.” They would achieve a “functioning legal system accepted as legitimate and based on international norms.”

The Web site also listed 1,179 concrete steps the agency would take to carry out these goals. These include, for example, the need to “maintain positive relations with indigenous population,” to “identify and dismantle organized crime networks,” to “assess needs for prosthetic limbs in population,” and to “improve drainage during road construction to reduce excessive runoff.”^4

The British government has been thinking along similar lines. In a 2006 report, the British aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), announced:

The growing awareness of the linkages between conflict prevention and poverty reduction…and the importance attached to helping rebuild countries emerging from conflict all serve to emphasize the need for DFID to work effectively with the military.5

Then there is the United Nations, which currently has more than 100,000 peacekeeping soldiers deployed in nineteen conflicts. According to a UN report last year, the Blue Helmets are meant not only to foster peace but “are also mandated to support the restoration and enhancement of essential services…and help to tackle the root causes of conflict.”6 The entire UN system, including aid workers and peacekeepers, should work together on preventing deadly conflict and combating poverty.7

International aid organizations have also begun linking military intervention to fighting poverty. The World Bank was among the first when it suggested in a prominent 2003 report, Breaking the Conflict Trap, that aid combined with military action “could avert untold suffering, spur poverty reduction, and help to protect people around the world from…drug-trafficking, disease, and terrorism.” The report suggested that such combined action could halve the probability of a civil war breaking out in a poor country from precisely 44 percent to 22 percent.8

This new approach to foreign aid has been encouraged, in part, by the concern of Western governments since September 11 that terrorist groups are emanating from war-torn, impoverished societies. But the influence of social scientists, building upon decades of thinking about poverty and development, should not be underestimated. The principal author of the 2003 World Bank report was Paul Collier, at that time head of the bank’s Development Research Group, a noted Africanist, and one of the world’s leading experts on civil war and the reconstruction of failed states. He has since returned to his longstanding professorship in economics at Oxford University, where he has written his new book, The Bottom Billion, which brings together for general audiences his academic research on the world’s poorest countries. (He defines the “Bottom Billion” as the people living in “the minority of developing countries”—over fifty nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia—that are not developing but moving backward, and that occupy the lowest position in the global economy.)

The Bottom Billion is an eloquent and compassionate description of the plight of people in these countries and a plea for robust international intervention. Professor Collier’s thesis is that the poorest countries are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, civil war, military coups, looting of natural resources, and failed states. They need outside rescue by the rich nations. “The evidence is against…internal solutions,” he writes, and “breaking the conflict trap and the coup trap are not tasks that these societies can readily accomplish by themselves.” He closes each section with a list of recommendations for rescue actions by the Group of 8 rich nations.

Collier’s recommendations are very specific and based on detailed cost/benefit calculations. For example, he writes:

Aid is not very effective in inducing a turnaround in a failing state; you have to wait for a political opportunity. When it arises, pour in the technical assistance as quickly as possible to help implement reform. Then, after a few years, start pouring in the money for the government to spend.

Regarding the use of force, he writes:

Security in postconflict societies will normally require an external military presence for a long time. Both sending and recipient governments should expect this presence to last for around a decade, and must commit to it. Much less than a decade and domestic politicians are liable to play a waiting game rather than building the peace…. Much more than a decade and citizens are likely to get restive for foreign troops to leave the country.

For Collier, “a credible military guarantee of external intervention” can achieve not only peace but also political stability. He is not discouraged by some of the recent difficulties faced by foreign armies, such as in Iraq. He points out that “the British intervention in Sierra Leone…has been a huge success.” The lesson, for Collier, is that “we should intervene, but not necessarily everywhere. Sierra Leone rather than Iraq is the likely future of intervention opportunities in the bottom-billion countries.” The foreign army should replace the local one:

International security forces should likewise be committed for the long haul. In return, postconflict societies should reduce their own military spending…it is dysfunctional.

The Bottom Billion, of course, is not only about foreign military intervention. It also discusses the trade policies of rich countries toward the poorest countries, international standards to block trade in “conflict diamonds”— diamonds that derive from mines controlled by rebel groups or factions, and that are used to fund military conflicts —and traditional foreign aid. Collier is not as optimistic about aid as Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote a book about what he foresaw as the achievement of aid: The End of Poverty. Collier describes his own position as advocating a reasonable middle way between aid optimists and pessimists. However, Sachs in turn is often hostile toward foreign military intervention, so perhaps Collier is not so much in the middle as optimistic in a different direction. Military intervention is the most controversial tool that Collier wants to deploy according to his precise criteria for helping the poorest countries.

Where does this precision come from? To a social scientist, the world is a big laboratory. We have data on which societies have wars, how poor they are, which ones have military coups, which ones have military interventions, which ones get aid and of what kind, which ones export diamonds. We can calculate statistical associations among all of these factors. We can also do many case studies of war, peace, and nation-building. Collier is unusually confident for a social scientist that this data can be used as a guide to action:

We have, in fact, the building blocks for a system. The risk of conflict differs according to economic characteristics, and the economic characteristics are affected by conflict. It is possible to set up this interaction as a model that predicts in a stylized fashion how the incidence of conflict is likely to evolve. I joined forces with Harvard Hegre, a young Norwegian political scientist, and we built one.

Alas, as a social scientist using methods similar to Collier’s in my research, I am painfully aware of the limitations of our science. When recommending an action on the basis of a statistical correlation, first of all, one must heed the well-known principle that correlation does not equal causation. There is a high correlation between wearing an expensive suit with cufflinks and being well-to-do, but putting on cufflinks does not make you rich. To establish a basic rationale for action, Collier would have to show that his correlations between actions and outcomes are causal, that actions cause outcomes.

The MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, recently the winner of the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal for best economist under forty, made exactly this criticism of the World Bank’s research on civil war:

  1. 1

    Center for Global Development, “The Pentagon as a Development Agency?” Q&A with Stewart Patrick, February 11, 2008, at www.cgdev.org/content/opinion/detail/15359.

  2. 2

    International Herald Tribune, February 8, 2008.

  3. 3

    Remarks on Transformational Diplomacy,” at www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/02/100703.htm. See also John E. Herbst, “Briefing on Civilian Stabilization Initiative,” February 14, 2008, at www.state.gov/s/crs/rls/rm/100913.htm.

  4. 5

    Department for International Development, “Quick Impact Projects: A Handbook for the Military,” June 2006, at www.dfid.gov.uk/pubs/files/qip/booklet.pdf.

  5. 6

    UN Peacekeeping Overview 2007: Excerpts from the Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization,” www.un.org/Depts/dpko/SGreport.pdf.

  6. 7

    UN Secretary-General’s report, “In Larger Freedom,” September 2005.

  7. 8

    World Bank, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy, June 2003, p. 168.

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