The Donor That Came in From the Cold?

One of the loveliest elements of having so many friends working on international issues is puzzling over the odd bits of the world in which we’re cathected, and tracing the ways in which we became so (an assignment, a particular story, a particular problem, a plane ticket purchased on a whim…). Those, for me, have been the conflagratory slices – Gaza + AfPak + Yemen (1 2 3 4) – for no good reason other than that I find the combination of dire humanitarian need and conflict-based constraints intellectually challenging.

Paul Collier, in opening The Bottom Billion, puts this aptly and succinctly:

“Traditionally, development has been assigned to aid agencies, which are low in almost every government’s pecking order. The U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.”*

When you encounter enough anecdotes, (post)conflict pockets of aid distribution appear to be veritable bok globules for more trouble: good intentions, gone unavoidably awry. Some of the more famous examples, with my hazard guesses at source problems:

  1. The obviously dumb, in the form of poor design and crossed wires: humanitarian daily ration packets air-dropped in Afghanistan were the same yellow, and roughly the same size, as cluster bombs. (This was, fortunately, quickly corrected.)
  2. The deliberate hijack, for the sake of expediency and without anticipation of (or regard for) long-term consequences: Prior to the May 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden, the C.I.A. attempted to confirm his presence in the now-infamous Abbottabad compound by staging a partial immunization campaign, in hopes of gathering a relative’s DNA via needle injection. The legacy of this operation has been decried as enormously damaging to global vaccination efforts, providing fuel for many individuals already skeptical of Western-manufactured vaccines and igniting a string of killings from Lagos to Kabul. Health workers in these regions are now often portrayed as complicit in Western plots to either identify extremists or to cause infertility (case in point: just this past Friday, Pakistan kicked out Save the Children). At least 73 female members of vaccination teams have been killed in Pakistan since 2012. These deaths have directly crippled rural health capacity, deprived communities of strong female role models, led to a tenfold increase in infections, and contributed to the failure of legitimate polio eradication campaigns in Pakistan. I would also argue, though some vague causative cascade, that this entire exercise was also counterproductive from a security perspective: polio remains most common in the rural areas furthest from government control, inducing economic stunting and perpetuating a cycle of entrenched poverty.
  3. The sticker shock, +/- fundamental epidemiology (“anything you can do I can do better”): On September 8, 2014, the U.S. DoD announced that it would spend $750 million to establish a field hospital for health workers in Liberia and a larger treatment unit for the general population, in support of the fight against Ebola. While the military intended to transfer hospital management to the Liberian government after construction, the $22 million was intended to provide for only 125 beds. Compare this to MSF’s $39 million budget, with which the organization has been able to treat over 8,300 patients, and the military appears – don’t laugh, now – unconcerned about economic efficiency. I should add, now, that I very truly believe U.S. military funding, attention, and coordination may well have contributed greatly toward stemming Ebola in Liberia. However, some aspects of this response might have benefited from external coordination and consultation with partners operating in the field. In typical epidemics, the very last cases are in rural, hard-to-reach areas; nonetheless, both the U.S.-built hospital and the general treatment center were placed near the capital of Monrovia. By the time hospital construction in Liberia had been completed, the infection rate had already begun to decline. Commence puzzlement from traditional actors.
  4. The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (oversiloing? thoughtlessness? general consternation?): On June 2, 2004, five MSF employees were killed in Afghanistan, prompting the organization to withdraw from the country after nearly a quarter-century of operations that persisted even throughout Taliban rule. Despite MSF’s status as an independently funded aid organization, MSF officials attributed the deliberate targeting of their employees to a blurring of the lines between U.S. military aid and unaffiliated aid personnel. Several actions of the U.S. Department of Defense in the early years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan really did little to provide clarity: in a particularly controversial incident, military planes dropped leaflets threatening to withhold aid unless citizens came forth with information about the Taliban. The year prior, MSF had contributed $1.65 million to vaccination programs, nutrition centers, primary health clinics, maternal and child health programs, and more – so this was a big deal, counterproductive from every angle.

I’m rambling through these just to illustrate the serious instances of miscommunication and misalignment of priorities between two large, fumbling, disjointed, well-intentioned groups who share the same goals: promoting stability, reducing violence, improving human lives.

I really do believe that the consequences of refraining from active and engaged collaboration are directly counterproductive to these shared goals (see: Yarmouk & The Failures of Neutral Humanitariansm). This is a controversial thing, and it’s a big point of division between me and what many an NGO/Paul Farmer devotee will issue as Good Global Health Practice. They point straight to the misadventures enumerated above as examples of sloppy, immoral military and intelligence involvement. Or to China, whose development agencies are rather shameless about their intentions (we’ll build you a national railway, just don’t recognize Taiwan…). I get it, and I empathize, but I think there’s a bigger picture.

Assuming that humanitarian assistance and disaster relief will remain consistent interests of military and intelligence organizations – and that the world’s militaries (well, let’s be straight: ours) will continue to be called upon in times of extreme humanitarian needs – perceived conflicts between defense actors and aid actors need to be dealt with and mitigated. It’s embarrassing when two wings of the same government eschew broader goals to snip at one another. Dialogue, not diatribe. Etc.

Most importantly, military involvement in humanitarian aid operations is often very well justified:

  1. Their outsized resources ($$$) might be outright requested by the party at hand. See post-earthquake Nepal, Ebola containment, etc. Aid organizations are, sometimes, as quick to scoff at military largesse as they are to summon it during emergencies.
  2. Aid delivery in conflict and disaster zones is logistically complicated, often requiring specialized equipment and security. See: road construction in Afghanistan, food and water deliveries to besieged minority populations in Iraq (requiring IED detection and air power, respectively).
  3. In a fuzzier sense: popular approval remains a valuable military asset in theatre. Not to co-opt the State Department’s “soft power” terminology, but this is particularly evident in when attempting to win the favor of fighters without extremist views who may have been prompted to terrorist involvement by economic, development, or security concerns (rather than ideology).

Traditional humanitarian actors are uncomfortable with all of this, I think, because it’s difficult to codify or institutionalize – and so, so easy to get wrong. But the same parties who malign as slimy any whiff of alignment between the seemingly siloed parties of aid & arms are often just as quick to critique uncoordinated aid (en vogue, this year: “Gates does whatever they want and it’s not fair. ”) Intentional, thoughtful coherence is hard. I obviously don’t have an answer, and I’m sure any one I might hazard would drip with ivory tower naiveté – thanks, grad school. But I do know that mishandled or politicized aid often feeds bitterness in the hearts and minds of intended beneficiaries rather than winning them over. And that co-opting do-gooder terms and intentions disingenuously in the name of spycraft or tactical advantage is as old as the Trojan horse – and that it will require deliberate effort to vanquish.

* (Speaking of: USAID & DoD are launching a new policy on civil-military aid coordination. We’ll see if the pendulum swings.)

The Donor That Came in From the Cold?

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