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The current multibillion-dollar campaign to counter transnational terrorism, defeat insurgencies, and stabilize fragile states blends diplomacy, defense, and development. A principal tool in this vast effort is humanitarian and development assistance -- what has come to be known as militarized aid. Flows of aid to fragile states have grown significantly over the past decade and are increasingly concentrated on a few frontline countries. The rhetoric of foreign assistance policymakers is infused with terminology derived from national security and counterterrorism doctrine. Defense ministries now control vast aid budgets.
Militarized aid is delivered by soldiers or private contractors at the behest of a political-military leadership. In Afghanistan, for example, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) weld military, aid agency, and contractor components to multiply force where, in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, ”the U.S. military’s ability to kick down the door [must be] matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.” Yet it is unclear whether militarized aid is effective. In research carried out for the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, Andrew Wilder dubbed militarized aid ”a ‘weapons system’ based on wishful thinking.” And it appears increasingly evident that such aid actually damages the greater stabilization effort in three ways: it erodes humanitarian principles, spreads risk, and is often of poor quality.
Humanitarian principles are derived from the laws of war. These principles include, among others, humanity (aid must save lives and alleviate suffering), impartiality (aid is based solely on need), and independence (aid is not suborned to political or military objectives). These are not abstract, do-good notions. They are born of conflict, and there are hardheaded reasons why they define a civilian space for aid.
Adhering to these tenets assures those in war-torn communities that the primary interest of aid workers is helping civilians survive with dignity. As a result, they grant humanitarian organizations access and protect aid workers’ safety. They may even mediate with armed opposition groups on the aid organizations’ behalf. This is how relief agencies continue to operate in violent places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
Most nonprofit international and national relief agencies do not use armed guards or armored vehicles. For many of them, the majority of staffers come from the communities the agencies work with: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Their security and ability to access populations in need rests on the acceptance of the people they seek to serve -- acceptance built on years of mutual engagement. And that trust, once breached, is very difficult to regain.
Communities co-opted into militarized aid efforts can be placed in an impossible position. If they accept such aid, they may be targeted as collaborators by insurgents and like-minded groups; if they refuse, they miss out on vital assistance and might be seen as being sympathetic to the insurgents. In both cases, such labeling can be fatal.
In addition, militarized aid risks the lives of aid workers. The most recent assessment of aid and security by the Overseas Development Institute ranks Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia among the six most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. Over the last three years, violence against aid workers (which includes extortion, abduction, assault, and fatal attacks) increased by 89 percent.
Heightened and diffused risk can tighten a vicious circle. As aid workers are targeted, aid agencies may withdraw. The military’s dominance in deciding aid priorities and delivering aid is accentuated. It could be argued that if independent aid agencies withdraw, that is their decision. And no one questions the military’s good faith, its logistics skills, or soldiers’ expertise. But militarized aid is ineffective as an ongoing strategy for four reasons: the pressure to spend huge funding quickly, the inability to match human resources with project management demands, the dominance of short-term political goals over longer-term development needs, and the focus of aid on certain groups for tactical gain.
Note the vast scale of militarized aid: billions of dollars concentrated into a handful of frontline states. Given the high stakes, policymakers backing these investments want to see swift results. Even given the best intentions, massive budgets and pressure to spend almost always translate into ineffective use of funds.
Additionally, one of the consequences of the 2005 Paris declaration on aid effectiveness -- which now frames development assistance policy for most big donor states -- is that aid increasingly goes directly to recipient governments. In stabilization theaters, this means pouring billions of dollars into what has been called the aid-effectiveness blind spot: governments that are seen by their own citizens as corrupt and predatory.
Moreover, short-term assistance distributed by soldiers or government officials to politically important elders tends not to match communities’ real needs because it short-circuits dialogue with the wider community. This kind of dialogue is essential if aid is to benefit not only men from a particular clique but also women and children. Militarized aid plays into all kinds of rentier behavior. It encourages zero-sum calculations that can increase instability and corruption.
A recent study by a consortium of aid agencies in Afghanistan showed that militarized aid often leads to projects that are of poor quality, and new research by the U.S. relief agency Mercy Corps found that community members in both Afghanistan and Iraq rated projects delivered by international aid organizations highest. (PRT-led projects came last in the ranking.) Afghans and Iraqis involved in the study cited their perception that such aid projects increased their own capacity as one of the main reasons they valued them.
So if militarized aid is ineffective, then what can work? One of the most successful aid projects in Afghanistan is the National Solidarity Program. NSP works with Afghan communities across the country to help them achieve their own development priorities. It also seeks to change the way people make decisions, promotes a sense of equity in resource allocation, and rebuilds the link between citizens and decision-making at the village, district, and provincial levels. Its success may offer lessons for how to deliver international aid in stabilization theaters.
First, aid works when it puts ordinary people in the driver’s seat, responds to real needs, and functions mostly at ground level. “Government in a box” does not work. NSP and its sister programs in health and education respect and involve the people they serve. Although they are government-sponsored, the community is in charge.
Second, the military should do what it does best, by focusing on public safety and building the capacities of local security and law enforcement agencies. Freed from the urgent need to spend aid dollars, armed forces can better provide security, which would reopen the civic space for civilians.
Third, the relief community must grapple more honestly with the transformative nature of its work. Aid agencies have been instrumental in shaping the world alongside interventionist governments and militaries. They cannot stand apart, taking funding from governments but decrying the national security imperatives that back it. Instead, they must make clear choices about continued engagement or principled aloofness and ask themselves how best to serve people struggling with conflict, poverty, and instability.
The aid community needs to be clearer about risks and bolder in its interventions. It must renew its commitment to humanitarian principles to protect the people at the sharp end. Impartiality, independence, and humanity still mean something. They are what will enable aid workers to best assist Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and others in stabilizing and rebuilding their countries.