Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

I’m a creature drawn to harsh climes (desert, scrubland, impossible mountains). In Jordan, this was neatly satisfied through lots of weekend canyoneering: down the mountains to the Dead Sea, mostly, at nearly the very tip of the Great Rift Valley. A ragtag, homegrown, and exceptionally enthusiastic cohort of literal trailblazers has emerged recently – they’re working, for instance, on a path that spans the entire length of the country.

Woke up to this somewhere along Wadi Hasa.

The Jordanian government seeks out and strongly supports these projects, integrating them into rural economies. And aside from private revenue-based organizations, nearly all them are funded through – you guessed it – aid money. Tourist sites in Jordan are accompanied by billboards covered in alphabet soup. Every ruin, castle, canyon trail, nature reserve, and religious site is bounded by signs touting funding from the American, French, British, Spanish, and Japanese people.

Despite a lack of formal acknowledgement, I firmly believe that this is strategic – and that if it’s not, it should be. Heavy investment in tourist sites all across nominally middle-income, Middle Eastern countries seems squarely aimed at increasing economic dependence on tourism with the ulterior motive of providing significant incentives for state security at the individual level. This makes sense: for countries in the region not blessed with petroleum reserves, economic diversification is critical. So, perhaps not coincidentally, heavy international funding of these low-cost, high-reward projects is common in the resource-poor countries of Morocco, Jordan, and, formerly, Egypt.

A similar pattern is evident in environmental projects, specifically for water – no puzzle in a region covered by vast stretches of desert. While wealthier countries in the region rely heavily on virtual water through imports, lower-income countries are presently bolstered in the throes of the fight against water shortages (made worse by population growth and displacement) through innovative development projects. Fog harvesting in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, desalination in Jordan, and dam construction in Egypt have all received funding through bilateral and multilateral loans. Donor incentive for funding water projects may, similarly, lie in concerns about possible associations between water availability and conflict. (I’m not totally sold on this, but it’s useful in any case and it drives money.)

Whatever the intentions, these sorts of programs environmental and preservation programs are areas where donor and recipient interests are well-aligned and provide a win-win-win model for donors, recipient states, and citizens. Tourism and nature sites frequently lie outside of urban centers, where the state control may falter. Stability-dependent economic development provides bilateral donors with a low-cost alternate means of discouraging terrorism. For state recipients, successful rural projects temper rural discontent and provide examples of contributions to global environmental efforts. For citizen recipients, they provide a noncontroversial and sustainable means of secure livelihood. I’m open to arguments – maybe this is sneaky? – but can’t really think of a downside. It’s an example of very smart soft power and everyone wins.

As goes one of my favorite snippets from Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion, “the U.S. Department of Defense is not going to take advice from that country’s Agency for International Development.” There’s really no getting around it: aid to the Middle East operates under the shadow of conflict and security concerns. Donors are guided heavily by the interests of the U.S. and allies toward development strategies designed to mitigate conflict. But while defense departments may not listen to development agencies, it is possible that well-managed development aid will preempt the need for listening by creatively tempering potential conflict.

I’m adding some photos after the jump, because my wanderlust is creeping up (and because I just managed to resurrect a phone I thought was lost to one of these rivers…).

Continue reading “Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies”

Tourism, Terrorism, and Tropical Deserts: Win-Win-Win Development Strategies

NGOistan in the Levant

I’ve never been entirely sold on most of the common aid critiques, but here is one I can get behind, full-stop: NGO provision of public services (infrastructure development, education, health care…) allows heads of state to maintain power without addressing those needs. All along the democratic spectrum, this disincentives them from developing the capacity to do so as their economies grow, and may prevent governments from even viewing these elements as a responsibility under their purview.

On a panoramic scale, that sounds like very vague, theoretical role-of-the-state talk – so what? But the consequences are tangible: refugees really don’t think much of aid agencies. What might otherwise be a quasi-libertarian humanitarian pipe dream melts down because the feedback cycle is stilted. No votes, no purchasing power.

I’ve seen this play out most obviously among Palestinian refugees, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. I’m sure there are better examples – South Sudan comes to mind as a more traditionally-managed NGOistan – but the high-wire aspect of Palestinian politics makes this a particularly interesting case study. My hunch is that the UN/NGO provision model encourages governing parties to focus more than they otherwise would on issues of militarization, shifting public discourse away from immediate needs and toward high-level issues in a way that facilitates the development of international quagmires. Continue reading “NGOistan in the Levant”

NGOistan in the Levant


The curious case of cholera in Haiti has popped up around me three times in the last week, and since I disagree with just about everyone I talk to about it I figured it might be a ripe topic for a blog post.

Long story short: a strain of cholera, a disease previously absent in Haiti, was brought to the country by Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers sent over after the 2010 earthquake. This has infected over half a million people and done some really enormous damage. Cholera isn’t difficult to treat – the dehydration is what kills you – but Haiti’s poor infrastructure in almost every regard has left nearly 9,000 people dead. Human rights activists brought a lawsuit against the United Nations, the actual text of which you may read here. The crux of the argument, as far as this non-lawyer can tell, is focused on seeking condemnation for “the negligent, reckless, and tortious conduct” of the United Nations. In a move that has received widespread condemnation, the case was dismissed just last month, and an appeal is currently pending.

The U.N. has handled the aftermath of the epidemic very poorly. But I remain puzzled by the accusation of criminal negligence. The common refrain that the U.N. should be “held responsible” is also vague – what does that mean in practice? Not to get too Olivia-Pope-advising-a-scorned-woman about it, but exactly what kind of outcome do these plaintiffs want? Let’s explore these one at a time:


In areas where cholera is endemic, most cases are asymptomatic; when symptoms are present, they are general, and actual testing is required to distinguish cholera from other diarrhea diseases. The U.N. peacekeeper force is roughly 100,000 strong. The most effective way to avoid negligence might be to test peacekeepers prior to deployment. There’s a new-ish rapid test for cholera that costs $4. Testing every U.N. peacekeeper would cost at least $400,000 and would necessitate a 24-hour delay – potentially quite harmful in a post-disaster setting, where every hour counts. It’s a scenario I could envision prompting complaints of equal fervor if testing had been taken.

This particular test is 91% sensitive and 92% specific, which, depending on how many peacekeepers might be infected, isn’t that bad – it means that 9% of all positive tests are false positives and that 8% of all negatives are false negatives. But the WHO recommends that all positive tests be confirmed via culture, which costs more money.

Furthermore, where is the line? To be non-negligent, must we also test for rotavirus? For polio? That’s another $25 per peacekeeper, eating well into the program’s annual budget. How often do you test – before every deployment?

Another alternative to testing might be mass treatment of U.N. peacekeepers. Mass treatment in the absence of disease confirmation would be cheaper in the short term, but potentially much more costly and deadly in the long term if it tilts the genetic balance in favor of drug resistance.

Holding the U.N. Responsible

Peacekeepers make $1,210 per month. By most western standards, this is paltry; for potential applicants from low- and middle-income countries, it may be the opposite. So it’s no wonder that many peacekeepers may come from areas where infectious diseases are endemic. This isn’t going to change unless wages and recruitment strategies change substantially.

This salary rings true to me (a U.N. department where I conducted research ran out of money almost annually in October, leaving nurses and other clinic staff unpaid). If the U.N. doesn’t have money to conduct mass testing or to raise peacekeeper wages, it’s odd to me that plaintiffs might request some of their limited funds go to this lawsuit. Would the money originally spent on disaster relief operations, or on health and refugee support since, qualify as a portion of potential compensation? If the U.N. proceeds with pre-deployment testing for a portfolio of diseases and some still sneak through (as seems inevitable to me), should they be held further responsible? A claim of responsibility seems more than appropriate given the evidence, but beyond that, all of this seems very murky and possibly counterproductive.

In conclusion: 

While I very much appreciate the role that advocates such as the plaintiffs play in shifting public conception of what is possible and equitable, I really do not see how continued pursuit of this lawsuit benefits anyone (I’m more of a realpolitik gal, as you may have gathered). Let’s take the money that could be spent on continued prosecution and possible mass testing and put it towards preventing future outbreaks by investing in health and sanitation systems in disaster-prone areas.


Hearts & Minds: IS, “NGOs” and State Responsibility in Iraq

IS is repairing roads in Iraq.

Other sources have reported forced marriages to IS militants. Forced marriages – a debatable enough term in a place where choice of suitor is often not really left up to female teenagers at all – contrary though it may seem, may also be seen as a form of economic relief. Families in Iraq’s rural areas are large, and feeding a fifteen-year-old girl during times of conflict becomes something of a burden when that responsibility could just as easily be transferred to a husband (a powerful one who has just experienced a windfall, no less!). Continue reading “Hearts & Minds: IS, “NGOs” and State Responsibility in Iraq”

Hearts & Minds: IS, “NGOs” and State Responsibility in Iraq

Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare

Drones, as popular narrative would have it, are a cure-all for the logistically complicated humanitarian conundrums that have eclipsed us.

Violent atrocity beyond the realm of journalist access? Bear witness via aerial surveillance. Vaccine delivery in mountainous village with no cold chain? Propel freeze-packed parcels over the peaks. Difficulty obtaining specific parts for medical device repair in a remote region of the world? Drop off a 3D printer and let the Internet of Things spring forth from the empty vale.

To preface, I am optimistic about the potential drone use holds for all of the above purposes. But I am skeptical of whether entrepreneurs and hobbyists presently operating in this space are capable of achieving these goals, and whether interested funders are creating a space governed by rules and incentives that will guide the actors towards success – and, indeed, how success might be defined. That said, I’d like to present some challenges that as far I know have not yet been confronted in hopes of prompting a more nuanced conversation about the realities of humanitarian drone use. Continue reading “Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare”

Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare

Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development

Here is The Thing from this week that will stick with me:

At Princess Haya Al Hussein’s talk on world hunger at the Baker Institute, she brought up the Millennium Development Goals and general lack of dedication most signatories have shown with regards to their fulfillment by 2015. Of course, there is a general lack of awareness about such things. Though the MDGs represent a significant commitment on behalf of UN member-states, the plan began as long-term and the details belong to a relatively obscure field – neither condition makes for a compelling news feature (I mean, this is a field I want to pursue as a career – I can name four things I know are on the list, rattle off some sub-goals, guess well at the others, and know there are eight). Her most telling anecdote, however, involved talking with two children in a less-than-developed are of Nairobi who discussed the directive in detail, and who were intimately aware of the promises the United Nations had made to the very broad group of people – those experiencing poverty in a global, crippling sense – that they belonged to. They discussed these points as if they were things that were actually going to happen, as though we were not failing massively, because they outlined a commitment those in power had made to pulling them out of an awful situation.

I’d like to relate this sort of commitment to expectations of government in the United States. This is a nation where people are consistently vocal about their lack of expectations for the president and congress, and where we in general have an unyielding lack of faith in the ability of elected officials to accomplish productive tasks – and yet we feel cheated, disappointed, betrayed when an elected official who otherwise upholds his duty does so much as tweet out a picture of his dick. I don’t intend to undermine the seriousness of that act – quite the opposite. My point is that that wasn’t even in the job description; we became enraged at an unwritten expectation of good conduct. And yet we do not flinch at the very serious prospect of abandoning a clearly outlined agreement to millions. We don’t expect the UN to accomplish anything, because they’ve failed at so much? Is that a good excuse? I don’t expect attractive male congressmen to act like anything other than horny sixteen year olds, but I still cringe when they do.

Can’t afford it? Great. Don’t sign it. Don’t make the promise in the first place, and save on failing floods of people later, on causing potentially very serious social unrest due to hunger or disease or disappointment – don’t provide detailed steps on alleviating hunger, concrete approaches to slicing child mortality in half (sterile razors!), on providing legitimate ways to counter the spread of HIV. But if a country vows and falters without anything resembling a worthy national effort, it should be prepared for the hostility that will follow.

A major step here would be to educate Americans on the issues of global development and foreign aid – to counter the ridiculously inflated statistics people throw out when told to guess what percentage of our GNP goes to other countries (10%? 20? More like less than 1 [CGD]). This would, ideally, reduce calls to cut developmental aid and allow the masses to refocus on other questionable portions of the national budget. A national election would be an excellent platform for this if the economy were back in full swing – I’m betting on 2016 for a decent post-failure examination.

Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development