Monday, November 25, 2013

DoD: America's Premier Aid Agency

The devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan the week of November 7 provided an opportunity for the U.S. military to showcase its soft-power capabilities.  Pacific Command’s quick response to the disaster brought much-needed relief in the wake of the fourth-strongest typhoon in recorded history.  The initiative, which brought together the Defense Department, State, and USAID was a win-win for the military.  The arrival of the USS George Washington along with 50 additional ships and aircraft undoubtedly saved lives, and was a clear reminder of American supremacy in the Pacific- in sharp contrast to China’s woeful (and somewhat petty) initial commitment of $100,000 in aid.


We’ve seen this kind of US military disaster-response success before, in situations where a quick response was the first priority.  The 2010 Haiti earthquake garnered a response that included the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  Also in 2010, the U.S. provided airlift support and delivered assistance via the military during massive flooding in Pakistan. In 2009 the Air Force partnered with the Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Management to provide relief after an earthquake struck the city of Padang, deploying an Humanitarian Assistance Rapid Response Team field hospital.  Finally, the U.S. military sent 24,000 servicemen, 189 aircraft and $90 million to Japan in response to the Fukushima earthquake in 2011.  All of these are examples of how the military has been used successfully for aid purposes.

It is in situations of long-term development and poverty reduction that the military’s role becomes more controversial, and these situations are more common than you might think.  The U.S. Department of Defense accounts for 22% of American Official Development Assistance (ODA). 

To be clear, ODA is defined as aid that is:

1.      provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and
2.      each transaction of which: a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character and conveys a grant element of at least 25 per cent (calculated at a rate of discount of 10 per cent).

ODA does NOT include military aid, anti-terror programs, or peacekeeping, so that 22% refers to straightforward economic development aid. 

William Easterly is an outspoken opponent of a military role in development, and cites failed efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  He argues that economic development aid provided by the military in both states have made little impact, and generally have not made the U.S. or the military any more popular.  He, along with many others, warns of the dangers of conflating development with security.

In general, the objections we hear from Easterly and other development economists result from a clash of organizational cultures.  NGOs and civilian aid agencies approach their assistance in and entirely different way, and don’t always approve of the military's SOPs (see: NATO in Bosnia and Afghanistan).  It’s not difficult to see how Save the Children’s strategies would differ from the Marines’. 

In truth, there are some elements of international aid practice the military just isn’t great at.  The first is legitimacy among the impoverished populations ODA hopes to reach.  NGOs and aid agencies are better at and more committed to the long-term capacity building and stakeholder engagement needed to build trust.  When a Lieutenant turns up at your door in full body armor with a bag of rice in one hand and a weapon in the other, trust tends not to be your first instinct.   The second is conditionality.  Afghanistan is a great example of military-administered aid encouraging corruption and failing to make enough of an impact to call it a win.

Of course Typhoon Haiyan, the Haitian Earthquake, and Fukushima all prove that there are times when the U.S. Military is the most appropriate and effective tool for the job.  Deploying American armed forces in this capacity has little downside, and if they take on enough humanitarian relief missions, that legitimacy as an aid agency might just materialize. 


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