Aid risks being twisted into a tool of war

The linking of poverty reduction and political stability ensures that aid in Afghanistan is diverted to “state building” activities such as police training that serve western strategic interests.Photo: AP

The linking of poverty reduction and political stability ensures that aid in Afghanistan is diverted to “state building” activities such as police training that serve western strategic interests.Photo: AP  

On January 27 there is a crucial international meeting on Yemen squeezed in ahead of the London conference the following day on Afghanistan, and at both, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DfID) will play a major role. Key to the discussions on these fragile states will be the task of “state building”, or how external actors can build “capacity”, as the lingo goes, and help governments to win legitimacy, keep peace, raise tax es and provide the rule of law. Much of this is increasingly seen as DfID’s fiefdom; in Afghanistan it is the lead U.K. department on economic development and governance. It works closely with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and, with a budget more than three times that of the Foreign Office — and, ring-fenced from cuts, it will soon more than quadruple its former parent department — DfID is a frontline player in foreign policy. Since the primary objective of the latter is counter-terrorism, this now plays an increasing role in what British aid is all about.

That is not quite the public image of a cuddly DfID, an unqualified Labour success story of exemplary altruistic internationalism: all cherubic African children safely immunised and getting an education. That still goes on, but bundled in with this good news story is something very subtle but entirely different, and it is about how aid is being used to secure western strategic interests. Seven major non-governmental aid agencies working in Afghanistan will say in a report published on Wednesday that they are “deeply concerned about the harmful effects of this increasingly militarised aid strategy” in the country.

In the U.K., there are vigorous efforts to ensure that DfID’s pronounced aims — cost-effective poverty reduction — are not compromised, but the mission drift is already evident, and likely to become even more pronounced under a Conservative government. The pressure from the U.S. is clear; Hillary Clinton in a speech earlier this month was unapologetic: “Development ... today is a strategic, economic and moral imperative — as central to advancing American interests and solving global problems as diplomacy and defence.” It is “time to elevate development as a central pillar of all that we do in foreign policy”.

The reasoning behind such a statement is at first glance plausible: poverty causes conflict and development brings peace. It is the theme Tony Blair took up in the aftermath of 9/11 when he talked of “draining the swamps”, resolving the economic problems which might prove a fertile ground for terrorism. But as Professor Chris Cramer of the School of Oriental and African Studies points out, development itself can cause conflict, creating winners and losers; besides, there is no clear causal link between poverty and extremism. Many of the 9/11 bombers, and the Christmas Day bomber, came from wealthy families.

What worries critics is that the militarisation of aid is a dangerously slippery slope whereby development aid is distorted or even entirely subordinated to achieve military objectives.

Huge increases in DfID budgets for Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and 2003 indicate how the priority of poverty reduction (enshrined in a 2006 act) gets eroded. Countries with comparable or higher poverty levels get less funding. There are inevitable tensions: is DfID in Afghanistan to reduce poverty or help end a war? DfID argues forcefully that the two are mutually reinforcing and best achieved by building capacity in government, training police and extending the rule of Kabul. But the argument is riddled with questions. The Russians poured aid into Afghanistan, did plenty of “capacity building” and still lost the war; the Afghan economy has grown considerably but it has done nothing to build confidence in the Kabul state. Propping up a corrupt regime in Afghanistan or Yemen will do little to alleviate poverty. But no, insists a DfID official, “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”. Fair enough, except that this justification sounds worryingly familiar from the cold war.

Look closer at the DfID budget and hundreds of millions go into “governance” budgets such as training police, compared to a tiny sum spent on water resources. That is not quite what Make Poverty History campaigners in 2005 were trying to achieve. Unwittingly, the increasing aid budgets have proved a useful resource for counter-terrorism. When international attention landed on Yemen’s links with al-Qaeda at Christmas, who at the London roundtables had a budget line which could pay for “state building”? DfID. It puts a whole new light on the Conservatives’ oft-repeated pledge not to cut DfID funding.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal — who is leading the surge in Afghanistan — argues that modern warfare is not fought around people but among them: the key objective is the people. That makes development in certain contexts — particularly in the eyes of insurgents, but even Ms. Clinton seems to accept this — a tactic of war.

It makes for some extremely uncomfortable relationships. Social scientists are in demand by defence departments in a bid to improve intelligence; the U.S. is expanding its human terrain teams, recruiting anthropologists, sociologists and other development experts and sending professional bodies such as the American Anthropological Association into a moral tailspin. One moment you are an obscure Ph.D. student researching gender relations in a remote Muslim country, the next your knowledge is as valuable to the military as the latest weapon wizardry.

You could argue there is nothing new here, that this is simply a slow return to form. Aid in the cold war was notoriously used to prop up unpalatable regimes the world over. But part of Labour’s DfID story is that it has put all that behind it and now aid serves much more honourable intentions. DfID insists that our moral responsibility to help the poor and our interests neatly coincide to intervene in fragile states.

But given that the accepted DfID analysis is that the single biggest determinant of long-term poverty reduction is political stability, then all manner of interventions to secure that stability can be justified as reducing poverty. The aims of British aid policy prove to be very flexible. For instance, how about a trick question like this: is aid to be focused on reducing infant mortality or securing a regime which can contain terrorism? What makes this territory such a quagmire is that the latter can be argued as a way to achieve the former.

Organisations such as Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres are increasingly outspoken. MSF says that the blurring of military “stabilisation” strategies and humanitarian assistance has made the last decade the most dangerous for its workers in its history. The space for neutral humanitarian engagement is dangerously shrinking. Aid workers are seen as complicit with western intervention and become targets; indeed Colin Powell made that explicit in a now infamous phrase when he commended humanitarian NGOs as “force multipliers for the U.S. government”. But that is not all; the projects themselves — the schools and clinics — become battlegrounds. Surely this is the most cruel of outcomes, when children and the sick become targets. Vickie Hawkins of MSF describes how health clinics in Helmand have been attacked by both sides; those who accept donor funding are attacked by insurgents, those who refuse are regarded as suspect and attacked by the international security assistance force. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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Printable version | Sep 30, 2020 10:29:36 PM |

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