Stop the Blanket Militarization of Humanitarian Aid

The U.S. military has performed successful aid missions in war zones. But that doesn't mean it will work everywhere.

U.S. foreign aid has never been perfect, but the seeping of military and antiterrorism initiatives into development work threatens to take humanitarian efforts to a new low.

In an attempt to win the hearts and minds of local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military reasoned that it must demonstrate the concrete benefits of collaborating with Americans in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. They used soldiers and other military personnel to build schools and bridges in these countries -- with mixed success. This engendered a tendency to apply the approach anywhere in the world where there was a whiff of al Qaeda activity. To this end, the percentage of U.S. foreign aid channeled through the military increased from 6 to 20 percent worldwide between 2002 and 2007.

But though using the military as a development agency can make sense in a war zone, mixing their two very different missions is enormously problematic in most other contexts.

In the West African country of Mali, where I have been researching agricultural development issues for more than 20 years, there has been low-grade al Qaeda activity occurring in the northern frontier over the past few years. The marginal desert region between Mali and its neighbors is appealing real estate for would-be terrorists because it is difficult to control and monitor. It provides space for camps and opportunities for terrorist cells to tax cross-border trade and occasionally kidnap foreign nationals for ransom. The U.S. government provides assistance to Mali's military to manage and contain the few, mostly foreign, al Qaeda bands in this small area of the country.

But now the U.S. military is getting involved in development work across Mali and in several other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa -- as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan -- despite the de minimis al Qaeda threat. Now, military personnel repair schools, wells, health centers, roads, and bridges. Army doctors provide basic treatment and vaccinations. In fiscal year 2008, the Defense Department gave the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Mali $9.5 million to run a counterterrorism program, with close coordination between the two. The program provides curriculum advice to Koranic schools and job training for young men (who are seen as highly susceptible to Islamist rhetoric). USAID has also built 14 community radio stations that broadcast programming on peace and tolerance.

But this reframing of aid to Mali within the fight against terrorism could prove counterproductive. The Pentagon has taken its conceptualization of the fight against al Qaeda in war zones and applied it broadly in a peaceful country. In the past, U.S. involvement in West African countries like Mali has focused intently on humanitarian assistance, not a geopolitical agenda.

And there is little reason to think military-supplied aid assistance will work better. Malians may resent it reflexively: The United States has a checkered history and a terrible reputation for its involvement in other African states, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) during the Cold War. It can also mean making development take a back seat to other goals -- recipients sense that their welfare is not the real priority and fear political interference. Development aid for its own sake is the best way to maintain strong allies in the region and foster healthy, pluralistic societies.

The U.S. government has long provided such valuable help. Organizations such as the Peace Corps and USAID have worked in Mali for more than 40 years, since it gained independence from France. Volunteers live in villages, speak local languages, and have facilitated community development work for decades, cultivating friendships and lasting positive change. The gains are significant in healthcare, agriculture, forestry, sanitation, small-enterprise development, and education.

Malians have a mostly positive attitude toward the United States as a result -- and President Barack Obama is very popular as well. In contrast, most Malians with whom I have spoken in recent months are deeply suspicious of al Qaeda, which they consider an outside organization dominated by foreigners with little interest in the Malian people.

There have of course been many problems with U.S. foreign assistance (including the provision of aid to dictators), but many of these failures occurred because lasting development was not the first priority. But skilled aid workers have the soft skills, historical and cultural knowledge, and technical expertise needed for effective development. The U.S. military, on the other hand, is good at fighting and building temporary infrastructure -- not human development.

As such, recent attempts by the U.S. military to become involved in development in Mali and its neighbors make little sense. The United States is already viewed positively by the local population. Other agencies are better positioned to facilitate and have a track record of positive change. When the military becomes involved in development work, the local population comes to see these efforts as part of a larger military campaign. And that's a dangerous precedent to set.

Flickr user Peter Casier and the World Food Programme


Beijing's Tehran Temptation

There's no reason to panic about a China-Iran energy deal.

Iran's recent invitation to Chinese oil companies and banks to invest $43 billion in Iran's oil industry was understandably dismaying to U.S. policymakers. After all, Tehran is attempting to trade access to its abundant oil and natural gas reserves for diplomatic support on its uranium enrichment program, and China's growing appetite for energy makes it vulnerable to such temptations.

Iran, however, might find that taking diplomatic advantage of China's energy needs is easier said than done. Not only are China's national oil companies unable or unwilling to deliver the projects Iran is hoping for, but energy is just one of several competing interests that drive Beijing's stance toward Tehran. As a result, Washington still has an opportunity to influence China's Iran policy.

It might seem strange that a major oil producer needs this level of energy investment. But though Iran has the world's second-largest proven oil reserves, it imports as much as 40 percent of its gasoline because it lacks domestic refining capacity. Iran's current effort is aimed at getting the Chinese to bankroll the construction of refineries. If Iran can produce all the gasoline it needs at home, then the United States won't be able to follow through on its threat to cut off its supply. An agreement with China would allow Tehran to prove that U.S. efforts to isolate Iran aren't working.

Iran has good reasons to hope that its efforts to woo China's oil companies will be successful. First, Iran's underdeveloped oil and natural gas reserves are a grand prize for Chinese firms, whose late arrival to international exploration and production has made it difficult for them to acquire attractive investment opportunities abroad.

Second, Beijing has a proven track record of providing cash and infrastructure assistance to countries that supply it with oil. In the first half of 2009 alone, Chinese banks extended more than $45 billion in loans to countries including Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Venezuela, all major energy producers battered by the fall in oil prices.

Third, Chinese companies are willing to discuss new projects in Iran at a time when major international oil companies are holding back under pressure from their home governments. Last month, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) inked a deal to replace Total in the development of the enormous South Pars natural gas field after Iran grew frustrated with the French company's foot-dragging.

But there's a catch. Chinese firms -- and their Iranian counterparts -- do not have the technology needed to liquefy Iran's natural gas and can't gain access to it due to U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Although Chinese companies are working to develop their own such technology, it will probably take them several years to match that of the major international oil companies. Additionally, Chinese companies lack experience in managing large, complex projects like gas liquefaction ventures.”

It's also not clear that Chinese companies are in any rush to actually pump large sums of money into Iran. Unfortunately for Tehran, these firms have a history of signing agreements for projects in which they have no intention of making substantial investments until after sanctions are lifted and geopolitical risks reduced. CNPC, for instance, signed a contract with Saddam Hussein's government for the Ahdab field in 1997, held off on investing due to U.N. sanctions, and then inked a new agreement with the postwar Iraqi regime in 2008. In short, though China's oil companies might be eager to get their foot in Iran's door, they appear just as reluctant as other foreign companies to breach sanctions.

More importantly, Beijing recognizes that a nuclear-armed Iran would almost certainly be detrimental to its energy security. Iran's development of a nuclear weapons capability -- and the regional nuclear arms race this might trigger -- would foster instability in the Persian Gulf, jeopardizing the free flow of oil into the market. It could also strain China's relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been China's top crude oil supplier for most of this decade and opposes Iran's going nuclear. And despite appearances, China does not want to jeopardize its relationship with the United States. Not only does Beijing value its relations with Washington more than its ties to Tehran, but it relies on the U.S. Navy to protect the sea lanes between the Persian Gulf and China.

Chinese companies are unlikely to completely abandon their interest in Iran's vast hydrocarbon reserves, but if the Chinese government is assured that its country's oil firms will be "first in line" to gain access to Iran's largest oil and natural gas fields, it might be willing to step up its efforts to press Tehran on Iran's nuclear program.

Washington should remind Beijing that a nuclear-free Persian Gulf is likely to do more to bolster the security of China's oil supplies than pumping billions of dollars into a country whose nuclear ambitions might threaten those very investments. And after the recent post-election upheaval, U.S. officials can make the case that China's commercial interests would be better served by waiting to see how the Iranian political situation plays out.

With any luck, Tehran's latest temptation will be one Beijing can resist.