In response to:

Foreign Aid Goes Military! from the December 4, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I much appreciated William Easterly’s review of Paul Collier’sThe Bottom Billion and his perspective on the whole issue of “humanitarian war” [NYR, December 4, 2008]. I was somewhat involved with the Kosovar struggle that Easterly cites and can confirm, not without nostalgia, his observation that “the West ignored a nonviolent Kosovar resistance movement for eight years, and then rewarded the violent KLA with military backing.”

I have been subsequently involved with a movement, and one organization, Nonviolent Peaceforce, that is building capacity for a worldwide service of nonviolent intervention, known as unarmed civilian peacekeeping, or UCP—the only way out of the dilemma between doing nothing and doing harm when a region slides into violence, and out of the contradiction that should stare us in the face when we speak of “humanitarian war.”

…The UN Peacekeeping Operation presently deploys over 90,000 peacekeepers, the vast majority of whom are contracted military units from member states, to sixteen locations at an annual cost exceeding $9 billion. As of this writing, Nonviolent Peaceforce, which is active in Sri Lanka, the Mindanao region of the Philippines, and is exploring a project in southern Sudan, along with a dozen or so other nonviolent intervention organizations is establishing a proven track record. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue recently documented how this approach can be effective. Yet these NGOs remain ridiculously underfunded and ignored. They must be supported. Indeed it may be the only way to rescue much of the planet from its endemic cycles of violence.

Michael Nagler
Berkeley, California

William Easterly replies:

It’s very refreshing and inspiring to hear of an effort to use nonviolence to resolve conflicts, so different from the academic armchair warriors who say the answer to violence is always more violence. At the same time, some of the ambitious phrases in Mr. Nagler’s letter (“rescue much of the planet”) make me worry that his movement shares with the UN/AFRICOM/Collier proposals an exaggerated faith in the ability of outsiders to understand and resolve other people’s complex conflicts. Such a faith can turn too easily into arrogant patronizing attitudes toward the locals, who after all know much more about the conflicts in which they are enmeshed than foreigners. If Mr. Nagler and his colleagues will forgive some unsolicited advice, I would recommend that they add to their movement a large dose of humility, and a dedication to listening to local people’s perspectives and above all to letting locals take the lead in crafting solutions.

The marriage between aid programs and military operations seems to be continuing under the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her confirmation hearing in January: “We must use what has been called ‘smart power’: the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Condoleezza Rice’s Civilian Response Corps is continuing under Clinton and is now being actually assembled at the State Department, according to an April 11 article inNewsweek.

In a speech outlining his Afghan policy on March 27, President Obama stated that the goal was defeating al-Qaeda rather than nation-building. On the other hand, he called for a large additional influx of civilian experts to work with the military as part of the effort to defeat al-Qaeda, so it appears that the Afghan aid-military complex is still in business. Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice before taking office had called for the bombing and blockading of Sudan to address the Darfur tragedy. However, the Obama administration’s position on Darfur has yet to emerge clearly.

I would also like to note that the three aid workers mentioned in my article who were assassinated in Afghanistan on August 13, 2008, were from the International Rescue Committee, not the Red Cross. An April 2009 report confirms the upward trend in attacks on aid workers killed in 2008, the highest toll on record.

This Issue

July 2, 2009