Does US Foreign Aid Really Do Good (Washington Examiner Magazine 09/27/15)

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About a decade ago, a five-car convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers pulled up in a cloud of dust at a remote village on the edge of a South Asian mountain range. The passengers, all of them Westerners apart from an interpreter, walked over to where a canopy had been set up by an advance team the previous day. About 25 villagers were already there, enticed by free cookies and snacks.

One of the new arrivals gave a quick talk that was translated into a local language and then the others handed leaflets to the villagers. Then the foreigners climbed into their Land Cruisers and raced back to the relative safety and comfort of the capital. The leaflets concerned a micro-finance scheme, and the men and women handing them out were part of a project sponsored by the World Bank.

Not a single person in the village ever read the leaflets for the simple reason that no one in the village could read, a problem that had apparently not occurred to the people running the project. Nevertheless, the forms sent to Washington would, no doubt, confirm that outreach had taken place, that awareness had been raised, and key step had been taken in the process of helping members of an impoverished community help themselves.

This expedition took place in Afghanistan, but it could have been in any of a dozen heavily aided countries. While it would be an exaggeration to say that no local person benefited from this particular project (after all, its foreign and local employees probably contributed a good deal to the capital’s economy), its wastefulness was arguably a betrayal both of the taxpayers who funded it and of its purported beneficiaries.

If that weren’t bad enough, even if this particular project had been better conceived and executed, and awareness really had been raised, it probably wouldn’t have done much good. That is because micro-finance, celebrated as a development panacea, simply doesn’t work in certain cultures. It can be successful especially in quasi-matriarchal societies such as Bangladesh where it was invented; but it has abjectly failed in violently macho cultures like those of Rajasthan or Pashtun Afghanistan.

The point of this story isn’t to imply that all aid is a similarly arrogant waste of effort and money, but to serve as a counter-anecdote: a reminder that real aid requires more than just good intentions, and a snapshot of the realities that all too often lie behind the heartwarming imagery and simplistic appeals to compassion used by aid advocates when selling the work of their vast global industry to the public.
 

To be fair, the aid industry has in the last couple of decades come to acknowledge that good intentions are not enough. Hence the conferences and academic papers on “aid effectiveness,” the shift to “evidence-based aid” and the increasingly rigorous efforts to understand what programs work with real people in specific cultures. Critics, skeptics and disillusioned practitioners such as William Easterly, an economics professor at New York University, are now given a grudging hearing rather than ignored or dismissed as apostles of heartlessness.

That is not quite the same as conceding that seven decades and trillions of dollars in development aid have had remarkably disappointing results, in stark contrast to the Marshall Plan that was its original inspiration. And you will rarely encounter any acknowledgement that those countries that have emerged from long-endured poverty and underdevelopment, for instance South Korea after the 1960s, or some of today’s booming African economies, have done so for reasons unconnected with aid.

Another awkward fact is that many of the attempts to bring accountability, transparency and value for money to the enterprise of development aid have actually made it less rather than more effective. U.S. aid efforts are especially compromised by the oversight requirements that would be comical if they didn’t do such a disservice to both the taxpayer and the theoretical beneficiaries of aid.

USAID in particular is notorious for an obsession with “metrics” strongly reminiscent of the McNamara approach to “winning” the Vietnam war; an approach that inevitably prompts managers to favor projects that produce crunchable data, no matter how useless those projects might otherwise be.

Moreover, as the anecdote above should suggest, a great deal of aid data isn’t worth the time it took to input into a spreadsheet. The more impoverished, chaotic and badly governed an aid-receiving country is, the less you can or should rely on official data or even aid agency estimates of its birth rates, population, mortality, literacy, family size, income. Most statistics from basket-case countries, those in which it is too difficult or dangerous for researchers and officials to visit villages far from the capital, are a combination of guesswork and garbage.

No one knows, for example, how many people live in countries like Afghanistan that have not had a census in decades, let alone how much they live on or how long they live. Often, statistics from even the largest and best-funded aid organizations are based on marketing needs rather than rigorous research. For instance, last year a U.N. agency claimed that malnutrition has gotten worse in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban, even though it’s almost impossible to know with any degree of accuracy how good or bad malnutrition was anywhere in the country in 2001 or how bad it is in large swaths of the country today.

In general, those who market development or humanitarian assistance to the public are still unwilling to admit that delivering effective aid is difficult in the best of circumstances, and even harder in the ill-governed, chaotic, impoverished societies where it seems most needed. They are even less likely to confront the reality that foreign aid all too often does actual harm.

This awkward fact is true of both development aid and humanitarian or emergency aid. The former accounts for more than 85 percent of American foreign aid even though it’s less visible to and much less understood by the public. And, if you take seriously the criticism coming from a growing number of African dissidents, activists and intellectuals, it has contributed massively to the corruption, misgovernment and tyranny that has kept their nations mired in misery.

Even before people such as Zambia’s Dambisa Moyo, Uganda’s Andrew Mwenda and Ghana’s George Ayittey became a public relations nightmare for the aid industry, some economists had noted a correlation between being aided on a huge scale and subsequently experiencing economic, political and social catastrophe.

It was after the great increase in aid to sub-Saharan Africa that begin in 1970, that per capita income dropped and many African countries endured negative growth. Other circumstantial evidence for aid as a corrosive force includes the fact that the countries that have received the most non-military foreign aid in the last six decades have a disproportionate tendency to collapse into anarchy: Besides Afghanistan and Iraq, the countries that have received the most aid per capita include Somalia, pre-earthquake Haiti, Liberia, Nepal, Zaire and the Palestinian territories.

It’s almost as hard to measure the alleged harm inflicted by aid as it is to find reliable and truly relevant metrics for aid success. On the other hand, the evident failure of many heavily aided societies speaks volumes.

How aid feeds corruption

As Mwenda said, having such a huge source of unearned revenue allows the government to avoid accountability to the citizenry. This is true of his own Uganda, where foreign aid accounts for 50 percent of the government’s budget. There, President Yuweri Museveni, once hailed as a model of modern, democratic African leadership, has responded to the generosity of the rich world not by pursuing the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, but instead by purchasing top-of-the-line Russian Su-30 warplanes for his Air Force and a Gulfstream private jet for himself.

Nor is it just in Uganda that foreign aid actually seems to discourage what donors would regard as good behavior. A recent study from the Lancet magazine showed that aid funding earmarked to supplement healthcare budgets in Africa invariably prompted recipient governments to decrease their own contributions.

It also enables such governments to avoid or postpone necessary reforms, such as the establishment of a working tax system. In Pakistan, for example, a country with a significant middle class as well as a wealthy ruling elite, less than 1 percent of the population pays income taxes. Because states with little or no income from taxation cannot afford to pay decent salaries, this makes large-scale official corruption and extortion all but inevitable.

Aid feeds corruption in other ways as well. This is partly because large-scale, state-to-state aid has the same economic and political effects as the discovery of a natural resource like oil. But it is also because so many aid agencies will do almost anything to ensure that their good works can continue.

This is especially true in humanitarian intervention. Disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can be tremendous windfalls for ruthless officials in places such as Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. Their people know that if they want to help the poor and vulnerable, they will have to pay bribes to government officials. And the government officials know that the agencies they are extorting will never close their offices and pull out rather than pay upfront.

Large inflows of development aid also seem to encourage political instability. This makes sense to the extent that once the state becomes the sole source of wealth and leverage, getting control of it for one’s own party or tribe becomes all the more important, certainly worth cheating, fighting and killing to secure.

Aid can also encourage a dependency that is not just morally problematic, but also dangerous. Food aid is particularly destructive. When foreign aid agencies hand out grain, it bankrupts local farmers or at least discourages them from sowing next year’s crops, all but guaranteeing future shortages.

Afghan people carry their ration of American wheat from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) food distribution center in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 9, 2002. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

At the same time, governments that ought to be preparing for the next famine don’t bother because they assume that the foreigners will deal with the problem. The United States is by far the worst offender in this regard. Its food aid programs are now and have always been little more than a corporate welfare program for American agribusiness. It boosts the bottom line of companies such as Cargill while wreaking deadly havoc abroad.

On the other hand, the United States has pioneered aid to encourage the civil society organizations that are essential checks on “poor governance,” that is, irresponsible and corrupt government officials. Unfortunately, such efforts are often undermined by other forms of aid such as budget support. After all, it’s deeply discouraging for third world anti-corruption campaigners, civil society organizations and political dissidents when they see foreign aid agencies talk about the importance of good governance, democracy and human rights while handing over yet more money to tyrants and kleptocrats.

One of the less dramatic but no less damaging side effects of humanitarian aid is the distortion of local economy when aid agencies arrive to set up refugee camps or hand out emergency rations. Not only do prices go up for everything from water to fuel, but professionals abandon their jobs to work as interpreters and drivers. The standard aid agency/media salary of $100 per day can be more than a doctor makes in a month.

Then there are the “taxes” that the agencies routinely pay local warlords or garrison commanders to secure permission to operate or in return for “security” in dangerous regions. These payments sometimes take the form of food, radios or even vehicles. As a result, the armed payee is not only wealthier, and better able to continue the fight against his rivals, he also gains vital prestige; local people see that foreigners pay court to him.

Sometimes agencies go further and allow militias or equally vicious army units or oppressive political parties to control who gets food and water. This notoriously happened in the Hutu refugee camps in Goma and happens today in parts of Ethiopia.

Some moral compromise is inevitable in the grueling, dangerous business of emergency aid. But again and again, as critics Linda Polman, David Rieff and Michael Maren have shown, aid agencies have followed the path of “Apocalypse Now’s” Col. Kurtz in pursuit of their ideals. They have become the enablers and accomplices of murderous militias and brutal regimes, prolonged wars, and even collaborated in forced relocations. The refugee camps they operate have become sanctuaries for terrorists and rear bases for guerrilla armies.

The most infamous example of this was the aid complex that grew up on Goma in what is now Eastern Congo but was then Zaire in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. There, as chronicled by Linda Polman in her devastating book War Games, the world’s aid agencies and NGOs competed fiercely to help the Hutu power genocidaires who had fled Rwanda with their families.

As so often happens, they ran the refugee camps, taxing the population, taking vehicles and equipment when they needed it, and controlling the supply of food to civilians so as to favor their members. Even worse, they used the Goma refugee camps as bases for murderous raids into Rwanda. The massacres they carried out stopped only after the army of the new Rwandan government crossed the border and overran the camps.

As Rieff pointed out, an analogous situation would have been if at the end of World War II, an SS brigade fled from the death camps it was administering and took refuge, along with its families, in Switzerland, and then, fed by aid workers, raided into Germany in an effort to kill yet more Jews.

There are many other examples of conflict being fomented and prolonged by those housing and aiding refugees, accidentally or deliberately. Refugee warriors, as some have called them, operating from the sanctuary of camps established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others, have created mayhem everywhere from the Thai-Cambodia border to Central America and the Middle East.

Sometimes aid agencies have allowed this to happen as a result of ignorance. Sometimes it’s a matter of Red-Cross-style humanitarian ideology taken to the edge: a conviction that even the guilty need to be fed or a belief that providing security in refugee camps would be an abandonment of neutrality. And sometimes it’s because those providing aid are supporting one side in a conflict. The U.S. and Western countries did so from Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war.

For decades, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan allowed or encouraged Palestinian refugee camps to become bases for guerrilla and terrorist activity. This should make it clear that the aid world’s traditional ways of dealing with refugee flows are inadequate. Even purely civilian camps such as Zaatari, the sea of tented misery in Jordan that houses a million Syrians, quickly became hotbeds of radicalism and sinkholes of crime and violence, not least because they are unpoliced and because they are filled with working age men with nothing to do.

The American way of aid

A wounded Laotian soldier (wounded in action at Long Cheng mid February) walks to his cot at the USAID managed and financed hospital at Ban Xon in February 1971, during the Nixon administration. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

American foreign assistance is carried out by a number of different agencies. USAID, founded in 1961, continues to be the largest and most important. Its priorities have shifted over the years.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, USAID emphasized the development of infrastructure and embarked on large-scale projects modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. President Nixon took American aid in a different direction, working with Hubert Humphrey to pass the so-called “New Directions” legislation that prompted a new emphasis on health, education and rural development. It wasn’t until the Reagan administration that USAID began to emphasize democracy and governance.

The next revolution in American foreign aid took place during the administration of George W. Bush, who almost tripled USAID’s budget. The Bush administration also began two huge aid initiatives outside USAID: PEPFAR America’s HIV/AIDS program, which has been a great success, and the Millennium Challenge Corp. But the most radical Bush administration shift in aid policy may have been its increase in aid to Africa. Among other initiatives, Bush more than quadrupled funding for education on the continent. It was subsequently cut by the Obama administration.

Although aid is traditionally divided into two main types, development aid and humanitarian aid, one can categorize American aid in terms of the places it’s sent, bearing in mind some amount of foreign assistance goes to 100 countries.

There is aid given to genuinely poor countries in an honest effort to help needy people there. Then there is aid to relatively wealthy states whose elites are too irresponsible to take care of their own people. A good example is the aid the United States sends to India, a country that can afford to send rockets to Mars and which has its own growing aid program, but whose ruling elite is content to tolerate rates of malnutrition, illiteracy and curable disease that are worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa.

A third category is aid given as a foreign policy bribe. This is not the same thing as aid used as a tool of public diplomacy, because its target is a foreign country’s ruling elite. The most obvious examples are Egypt and Pakistan. America gives Egypt money and in return the enriched Egyptian military, with its prestigious American weaponry, promises not to attack Israel. U.S. aid to Egypt has preserved peace, but it has not been successful in its secondary purpose of promoting economic development and political stability.

Aid to Pakistan is arguably less successful. Its purpose was to persuade the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment to reduce its sponsorship of Islamist terrorism in the region and in particular its murderous efforts to destabilize the U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan in favor of its Taliban clients.

A fourth category is aid given as part of what was called the war on terrorism, which has been dominated by reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A fifth, linked category is aid used for the purpose of public diplomacy. This has become increasingly controversial in the aid community.

Controversies about the utility and effectiveness of aid do not necessarily break down along conventional Left vs. Right ideological lines. Interestingly, people who identified with the Left rather than the Right have recently argued that foreign aid does not win friends for America and should not be seen as a useful tool of public diplomacy.

They often refer to Pakistan and a study that showed that American humanitarian aid after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake did not have a lasting positive effect on Pakistani attitudes toward the United States. This is a problematic argument, not least because Pakistan is a special case. It is a heavily aided country in which key state actors foster anti-Americanism and have done so for a long time. An American rescue effort in one corner of the country was never likely to win over the population, especially as the state played down that effort in order to make its own efforts seem less feeble.

Moreover, those who insist that aid does not win friends abroad or influence foreign populations may have philosophical and ideological reasons for taking such a view. Many in the aid industry prefer to see aid as something that should be given without regard to any benefit to the donor country, other than that feeling of having done the right thing that comes from an altruistic act. Others are politically hostile to efforts by Western governments to win hearts and minds as part of the war on terrorism.

My experiences in aided countries in Africa and South Asia tend to contradict this argument. In Somalia, for example, the vital but decayed highway between the capital and the coast is still referred to affectionately as “the Chinese Road” some three decades after it was built.

It’s also no secret that in many parts of Africa, you encounter positive attitudes to contemporary China thanks to more recent infrastructure projects, despite the abuses and corruption that so often accompany Chinese economic activity.

A general view of a refugee camp is seen in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, June 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

In Afghanistan’s Panjsher valley, any local will tell you how grateful the people are for the bridges built by the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team before it closed. This is a localized response to a local benefit. It would be naive, though not unusual on the part of U.S. officials, to expect people in other Afghan localities to be grateful for help given to their fellow countrymen.

At the same time, there seems to be evidence that bad aid makes things worse. That could take the shape of shoddy or failed projects; projects that employ disliked outsiders, and programs that everyone knows have been commandeered or ripped off by corrupt local officials.

It is probably fair to say that effective foreign aid can win friends for America, but mainly on a local basis and only if it reflects genuine local needs and preferences, and if the beneficiary population is not already steeped in anti-American prejudice.

Aid and Afghanistan

Anyone who follows media reports about the American-led reconstruction effort in Afghanistan — the greatest aid effort since the Marshall plan — could be forgiven for thinking it has been a total disaster. But anyone who has spent time there and seen how much has changed since 2001 knows that this is nonsense. The millions of girls in school, the physical and economic transformation of Kabul and other cities, the smooth highways that make commerce possible are only the most obvious manifestations of success. At the same time, the waste, theft, corruption and incompetence is at least as spectacular as these achievements.

It is not clear that Afghanistan is a radically more corrupt society than other countries that have been the target of major aid efforts, that its ruling elite is uniquely irresponsible, cynical and self-interested, or that foreign government agencies and NGOs working there have been especially naive and incompetent.

But it’s important to remember that aid to Afghanistan is not just on a uniquely large scale, offering vast opportunities for theft, misdirection and waste. It’s also much more closely scrutinized than any other aid effort in history.

Afghan police officers drag a sack full of blankets. Soldiers were meeting with village representatives to assess their needs, provide humanitarian aid assistance and to gain intelligence about the region.(AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Nothing like the same level of skeptical attention has ever been paid by media organizations to development or humanitarian aid programs in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. Nor has there been an equivalent of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction turning a jaundiced eye on big, notoriously inefficient U.N. agencies such as UNHCR, or the efforts of giant nonprofits such as Oxfam and Save the Children.

On the other hand, Afghanistan may well be uniquely infertile ground for development aid, thanks to decades of brutalizing war, a historically feeble state whose primary function has been preying on those who lack access to effective armed force and a traditional political culture in which no one expects government officials to be better than licensed bandits.

Much of the controversy that has accompanied the aid effort in Afghanistan has involved criticism of work by the Defense Department and the military.

No one who has seen how weapons systems are procured for the U.S. military would be surprised if some Defense Department-funded aid projects in Afghanistan turned out to be wasteful, ill-considered and poorly administered. But whether they are that much worse than efforts funded by other government departments such as the State Department or USAID is another question. That they have tended to attract particular opprobrium from news media and the special IG could simply reflect institutional dislike of the military or opposition to the Afghan war.

There is evidence that in many places the military did a better job of providing aid than USAID and the rest of the aid establishment. This was partly because the military wasn’t hamstrung by security concerns; unlike USAID, its employees were willing and able to go anywhere in the country. Local commanders with the ability to hand out funds may have lacked development experience, but they were there where help was needed and, unlike many aid professionals, saw no shame in asking locals what assistance they wanted.

USAID’s bureaucratic, box-ticking approach was arguably unsuitable for a country as damaged, impoverished, misgoverned, traumatized and dysfunctional as Afghanistan. Where the military decided to build schools, it did so quickly and efficiently, assuming that American or Afghan aid agencies would then find teachers, buy schoolbooks and make the projects sustainable.

USAID, by contrast, was required to get the relevant permissions from the ministry of education in Kabul and then provincial ministries, both of which were incompetent and corrupt, and was so slow in the execution of its mandates that its tardiness threatened to undermine the war for hearts and minds.

The Obama administration and Aid

Despite what one might have expected from the candidate’s internationalist rhetoric, foreign aid was far from a priority for the first Obama administration. Key positions such as the head of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance went unfilled for an unconscionably long time, and overall aid spending fell. To the extent that the administration paid attention to foreign aid, its primary concern seems to have been to reverse or undo the priorities of the Bush administration.

Accordingly, efforts to promote democracy and civil society in third world countries were defunded. Countries that had been given more aid as an apparent reward for joining the international coalition in Iraq were now penalized for the same reason.

The second Obama administration has seen a relative normalization of aid policy and an increase in overall aid spending. Although democracy promotion is not the priority it was during the Bush years, it is still a sufficiently important part of U.S. foreign aid to cause USAID to be expelled from Bolivia and Ecuador. In both cases, USAID was targeted by authoritarian left-wing governments for supporting the kind of civil society organizations that can make a genuine difference to bad governance in poor countries.

But normalization is not necessarily a good thing. It means that the United States is still committed to the U.N.’s absurd Millennium Development Goals, a vast utopian list of targets whose realization would, as Rieff has put it, amount to “quite literally, the salvation of humanity,” and was always hopelessly unrealistic.

It also means that those guiding America’s aid efforts continue to be naively enthusiastic about cooperation with big business and to put excessive faith in the potential of high technology to solve third world problems. It has become increasingly clear that the Gates foundation and other new philanthropic giants are influencing the overall direction of U.S. development aid in undesirable ways.

In particular, it has meant a heightened, even feverish emphasis on technological solutions for development problems, as if cheap laptops or genetically modified crops might really be the magic bullet that “ends poverty.” As David Rieff has pointed out, such “techno-messianism” has often failed in the past. If you have a high-tech cyberhammer, all problems start to look like nails.

But reducing poverty, promoting economic growth and rescuing failing states are — this is the real lesson of six decades of development aid — extremely difficult and complicated things to achieve. One gain can lead to new problems in the way that lowering infant mortality may have contributed to overpopulation and therefore malnutrition and even starvation in some African societies.

The challenge presented by the influence of Gates and other tech billionaires on American government aid policy is not just a matter of a techno-fetishism even more intense than that of the rest of American society. It’s also a matter of priorities, of which problems get the most attention. It may be that the only thing worse than aid directed by ignorant box-ticking bureaucrats or by self-serving aid industry ideologues, is aid directed by the spouses of Silicon Valley billionaires.

The way forward

Foreign aid has so far not been a key topic for presidential candidates. Those who have said anything on the subject have tended to be relatively uncontroversial.

Hillary Clinton is especially keen on aid that benefits women and girls. Jeb Bush believes that aid is a vital instrument of U.S. foreign policy and approves of the administration’s aid boost to Central America. Marco Rubio is, perhaps surprisingly, a stalwart advocate of foreign aid, though not, of course, to Cuba while it remains in the Castro family’s grasp. His fellow Republicans Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee also see aid as key to America’s moral authority, though the latter is particularly enthusiastic about faith-based aid efforts.

On the other hand, both Rand Paul and Rick Perry have expressed a libertarian or isolationist suspicion of foreign aid, although the latter has also indicated that he thinks aid should be used more explicitly as a foreign policy lever, calling for aid to Mexico and Central American states to be withheld until those countries do more to stop the flow of immigrants to the United States. It matters less since he has dropped out of the race.

Ted Cruz supported Paul’s 2013 proposal to withhold aid from Egypt after the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, but does not seem to be against the idea of giving aid to key allies. On the other hand, Cruz did say that same year that “we need to stop sending foreign aid to nations that hate us.”

Donation goods from U.S. military, are seen hung by parachutes over the earthquake-hit area in Pakistan on Friday Oct. 14, 2005. (AP Photo/ Musadeq Sadeq, Pool)

It’s a reasonable sentiment that could resonate with the public. Carrying out such a policy switch would entail stopping aid to Pakistan (one of the countries where American aid is not only unappreciated but seems actually to feed anti-American resentment), the Palestinian territories (whose citizens are per capita the most aided people on Earth), Turkey, China and Russia.

Whatever Republican and Democratic candidates say now, it seems unlikely that questions of cutting or boosting or reforming foreign aid will play a major role in the 2016 election. That is unless the migrant and refugee crises in the Middle East and Europe gets so much worse that there are loud and popular calls for Washington to intervene in some way.

If that does happen, then it will be probably be the military that once again leads an American humanitarian effort, assisted, with the usual reservations and resentments by USAID and other agencies. It is worth remembering that during the Asian tsunami and Philippine typhoon disasters, no aid agency rescued as many people, did as much good or could have done as much good as the United States Navy, and that this was a source of pride for most Americans.

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/george-w.-bush-top-target-in-dem-and-gop-debates/article/2574296

Aid is no substitute for defence - as Michael Fallon knows (Spectator Coffee House 30 June 2015)

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles, Military/Defence Comments Off on Aid is no substitute for defence – as Michael Fallon knows (Spectator Coffee House 30 June 2015)

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It’s been obvious for a while that the Prime Minister is exasperated by the way American and other allied officials – including President Obama himself – keep expressing concern about Britain’s rapidly shrinking defence capabilities and the prospect of yet more defence cuts.

David Cameron also dislikes being reminded that he lectured other Nato leaders about meeting the alliance’s minimum of spending 2 per cent GDP on defence, when by any honest calculation the UK is not going to meet that target.

He hasn’t responded directly to the multiple warnings from Washington. This is presumably because overtly contradicting the President, the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence of the United States could raise the profile of an issue that he’d prefer to go away as quickly and as quietly as possible.

Instead, both the PM and his defence secretary have given irritable interviews proclaiming that neither Britain’s global influence nor her military capacities are shrinking in the least. They have also dismissed critical articles by various former heads of the UK armed forces.

In those interviews Cameron and Michael Fallon trotted out dubious or misleading justifications in almost identical terms, garlanded, of course, with ritual praise for the courage of the armed forces.

The UK has the fourth or fifth largest defence budget in the world, they claim. Our flagship is saving lives in the Mediterranean. Our nuclear submarines are providing a deterrent 365 days a year.  Our aircraft are flying sorties over Iraq and some will go to the Baltic to protect those countries against a threatening Russia.

The reality is that we have sent a force of just eight creaking Tornado warplanes to carry out airstrikes against Isis, fewer than the Dutch, and far fewer than the French. The four Typhoons we hope to send to the Baltic will hardly have Putin shaking in his boots. HMS Bulwark, an amphibious landing vessel that became a flagship of our shrunken, feeble 19 warship Navy after the premature retirement of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 2011, is only doing what all ships are expected to do when confronted by sinking boats crammed with passengers. And because we don’t have maritime patrol aircraft to protect our submarines when they go in and out of port, their deterrent effect is very much diminished.

As for the defence budget, which the government has variously claimed to be the world’s fourth or fifth largest in the world (but is actually the 6th largest according to the reliable Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) the sad fact is that Israel, France, India and other countries with smaller defence budgets have considerably more combat power than we do.

So far, so misleading, albeit in a traditional way that is par for the course for governments engaged in cutting any departmental budget, and which should certainly be familiar from the past Tory governments that have treated the forces as a soft target for cuts.

But Cameron and Fallon have recently engaged in a form of disingenuousness about defence that is new and different and oddly ideological. For them British defence policy is peculiarly and inextricably linked with aid policy. As more experts at home and abroad have questioned the wisdom of cutting further Britain’s already crippled and demoralised armed forces, they have talked more and more about aid as if it were a clever modern substitute for military strength.

This was merely a rhetorical gambit until last month when Fallon suggested that the UK’s aid spending could be reclassified as defence spending so that the UK could then, theoretically, meet its Nato obligation to spend a minimum of 2 per cent GDP on defence.

To characterise this as ‘sleight of hand’ as some outraged backbenchers did is perhaps too kind. Fallon was advocating an act of dishonesty, the purpose of which was itself sleazy: to enable the government to escape a commitment to its allies and to provide PR cover for more crippling cuts to the armed forces. You could call Fallon’s suggested ruse ‘Potemkin defence spending’, after the fake villages erected in Crimea to give the Russian Empress a false impression of prosperity, except that unlike Potemkin, Fallon sees no reason to keep his planned deception a secret.

Unfortunately this dishonourable suggestion did not provoke as much opprobrium as it should have because it was misread by many commentatorsto imply precisely the opposite of the defence secretary’s plan: namely that the aid budget would be used to compensate the armed forces for their use of very expensive people and equipment in humanitarian missions.

That would actually be a very sensible and fair proposal.

Naturally the idea provokes paroxysms of rage among an aid lobby dominated by DfiD contractors and left-leaning large NGOs like Oxfam. But it would solve three problems at once: DfID’s inability to spend its vast budget effectively, the political damage caused by the Prime Minister’s fanatical refusal to cut that budget, and the armed forces desperate shortage of money.

Moreover, many big-ticket military purchases, like helicopter carriers and hospital ships are very much ‘dual-use’ in that in practice they are more frequently used in humanitarian missions than they are for warfare. If DfID were to contribute to their cost it would be a rational and effective use of the aid budget even though it would upset some of the purists and pacifists in DfID and the ‘aid community’.

Sadly, this is unlikely to happen given the apparent determination of the government to spend even less on the armed forces, regardless of international commitments or the damage to their capabilities, and given its notion that foreign aid is an effective substitute for spending on defence or diplomacy.

According to the PM, our £12 billion aid spend will prevent terrorism and mass migration, presumably by bringing even more stability and prosperity to troubled countries than achieved when the aid budget was only £9 billion four years ago.

Last week the Defence Secretary echoed this notion in a conversation with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It was strange enough that the Defence Secretary should trespass on the bailiwicks of the Foreign Secretary and Secretary for International Development by giving on the benefits of foreign aid. (You might after all assume he is an especially busy minister given challenges like Isis, Russian adventurism in Europe, an imminent Defence and Security Review and collapsing morale in the UK military.) It was odder still that the man whose job it is to fight on behalf of the armed forces seems to believe that aid magic is so powerful it renders conventional armed forces all but unnecessary and obsolete.

A few days later he proudly announced that, although the UK isn’t really spending the 2 per cent GDP on defence obligated by Nato membership, he has found a way to declare to the world that it is exceeding that minimum. The trick was to recategorize some of the spending of several other government departments as defence spending. From now on, all or part of the £1Bn cross-departmental ‘Conflict Pool‘ – which includes contributions from the Foreign Office, DfID and the MOD, would count towards defence spending.

The Conflict Pool is a relatively sensible joint venture. In theory it brings together the expertise of all three departments in a combined effort to try to prevent conflicts flaming up abroad. But it’s essentially a foreign policy and aid talking shop. There’s nothing about it that even remotely relates to the mission and needs of the forces or the UK’s military obligations to its allies. That doesn’t matter though, because the government has clearly been preparing the ground for this fudge since before the election, and is committed to pretending that aid spending can substitute for defence spending.

I say pretend because it’s hard to believe that Fallon genuinely believes that ‘well-focused aid’ can stabilise countries torn by civil war or wrecked by corrupt and incompetent regimes, and even, ‘prevent conflict breaking out’.

To do so he would have to be almost completely ignorant of the real history of five decades of aid and to have confused heart-tugging Oxfam advertisements with reality. No intelligent or informed person thinks that aid might have prevented or yet might fix the chaos of oil rich Libya, the savagery of civil war in Syria and Sudan, the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamist violence in Nigeria and Mali or the devastating endless warlordism of the Congo.

Moreover, even in the aid industry, serious people admit that aid can sometimes keep conflicts going or actually make them worse, as it did at various times in places like Ethiopia and Sudan.

Fallon may not have read Linda Polman’s devastating ‘War Games’ or be familiar with other modern critiques of international aid, but by all accounts he’s not a foolish or stupid man. When he makes absurd claims on behalf of aid spending, and employs them in support of a dishonest scheme to hide defence cuts, he is not doing so out of ignorance. He is merely being a good apparatchik and putting loyalty to the Prime Minister before duty to his office and his country.

Jonathan Foreman is a Senior Research Fellow at Civitas and author of ‘Aiding & Abetting’

It's Crazy to Cut Defence and then Boost Foreign Aid (Daily Express June 5, 2015)

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles, Military/Defence Comments Off on It’s Crazy to Cut Defence and then Boost Foreign Aid (Daily Express June 5, 2015)
BOTH David Cameron and George Osborne have stated at various times that the defence of the realm is the first duty of any government.

Despite this and despite the PM’s urging fellow Nato leaders to spend the required minimum of two per cent GDP on defence, the Government has announced that the UK’s fast-shrinking and demoralised Armed Forces are to be subject to even more devastating cuts.

This is in the face of pleas from our closest allies including President Obama.

And it is despite the fact the UK is apparently rich enough to spend more on foreign aid than any other Western European country.

Indeed the Government is giving even more money to the “ring-fenced” Department For International Development (DFID), an institution notorious for mismanagement and its inability to handle its increased budget.

The PM apparently believes that increased foreign aid can more than compensate for his cuts to the Armed Forces and the Foreign Office.

He has said several times that foreign aid is the key to addressing the root causes of terrorism, mass migration and instability.

It’s a ludicrous claim.

No one with any knowledge of the major conflicts blighting the globe believes that more development aid could have prevented them or could fix them.

The brutal chaos of oil-rich Libya, the savagery of the civil wars in Syria and Sudan, the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamist violence in Nigeria and Mali and the terrifying war lords of the Congo – these are surely matters for foreign policy not foreign aid, however much the PM may disdain the former and revere the latter.

Given these spreading, worsening conflicts it seems equally obvious that it was a mistake to cut the Foreign Office budget by a third and to make such deep cuts to the Armed Forces that they will soon be unable to mount the kind of humanitarian interventions that saved so many in places such as Sierra Leone and East Timor.

The only people, besides David Cameron and his team, who maintain with a straight face that more aid will magically fix terrorism, illegal immigration and the spread of extremist violence are those who have a direct interest in a bigger aid budget. After all it is extremely difficult to deliver aid that actually makes a difference.

The worse governed, the more impoverished and chaotic a country is, the less likely it is that foreign aid will get to the people it’s supposed to help or do any good at all.

Giving more and more money does not translate into doing more and more good or helping more and more people.

For there is a huge difference, one that development ministers and charity bosses like to pretend doesn’t exist, between allocating money to fix a problem and actually fixing it.

Historically aid has not prevented any wars or mass migrations, quite the opposite. And it is far from clear that increasing the amount we or other countries spend on aid (and we already spend a lot: more than a $1trillion has gone into development aid in Africa since the 1950s) would change that.

Certainly if you look at the countries that have received the most aid per capita – Somalia, Haiti, Nepal and the Palestinian territories, the evidence is hardly encouraging.

Indeed all of them became more chaotic, violent and impoverished after becoming major aid recipients.

It is not surprising because in unstable and poor countries aid is a bit like oil or mineral resources: something to fight over.

HMS Illustrious

A dark truth is that all too often foreign aid has kept conflicts going and made wars worse.

In places such as Ethiopia and Sudan rebel groups that would have been forced to surrender survived thanks to the “taxes” they levied on aid agencies and the food aid they requisitioned for their armies. Again and again aid has enabled governments to avoid coming to the bargaining table.

The result has been massive human suffering such as that which is driving millions of people from violence-plagued parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

Of course humanitarian or emergency aid is undeniably vital in many places.

But it is a much more morally and politically ambiguous thing than most people realise.

Even when refugee camps don’t get taken over by militias and become bases for raiding and terrorism, as they have throughout Africa and the Middle East, the presence of the foreign aid circus can wreck local economies.

Even in countries that aren’t in conflict, foreign aid can undermine stability by encouraging corruption and by subsidising political leaders to go their own irresponsible way.

So it is simply not true, as a DFID spokesperson claimed last week, that: “Investing 0.7 per cent of our national income in overseas development in 2015 and beyond is creating a safer, healthier and more prosperous world.”

Nor is it true that foreign aid can somehow make up for the Government’s lack of attention to foreign policy and its cuts in the Foreign Office and BBC World Service.

And the idea that foreign aid will somehow protect British interests and maintain our security after cuts have crippled the Armed Forces is foolish almost beyond belief.

Britain deserves better.

http://www.express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/582418/Defence-foreign-aid-David-Cameron-George-Osbourne-UK-government