The success of all interventions and relief efforts in conflict and post-conflict situations is dependent on politics and political action. For the United States, political action translates into military action. During my career, I’ve been involved in five conflict situations with the U.S. military, and each one made a different claim and set different restrictions for intervening with “aid.”
In the 1990s, after several frustrating years of failures, many in government believed that humanitarian assistance without political solutions achieved nothing. In good Wilsonian fashion, they saw political action—and the military interventions that followed—as a means to project, influence, and spread U.S. values. As such, the military became the security and protection tool of political humanitarianism, especially among those who considered that the convergence of humanitarian actors with the military ensured that the duty to provide assistance and the right to receive it was guaranteed.
What happened afterwards is a different story. Influenced by the post-9/11 global war on terrorism, increasingly insecure conflict environments, and the unilateral approach to conflict management, the military began to provide direct assistance to the population themselves. Liberties were taken: NGOs were recruited as “force multipliers,” “a second front,” or “part of our combat team.” The traditional leaders of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the Red Cross and the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, were ignored. A “partnership” of the U.S. military-political command, the World Bank, corporate contractors, and like-minded NGOs dominated the scene.
In the last four months I’ve been confronted by two retired generals. One strongly insisted that the military must “stay within their lane” or risk destroying the military and supporting the perception of a U.S. politico-military “empire.” The other strongly insisted that the only entity in the world that could do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is the U.S. military
So who should be leading these efforts for the United States? USAID, which was decimated in the 1980s, has never come back. The more than 12,000 USAID professionals during the 1960s-70s now number only 2,000. Reestablishing USAID’s place in development and relief will take much money, time, and expertise.
In the meantime, the only show in town, DoD, grows even larger and stronger. Gates’ statement that more civilians are needed in Afghanistan and Pakistan was actually a request for more “civilians” to be coordinated by the military.
It is not unusual to find those who think that the politico-military “relief and reconstruction complex” is impossible to change, especially when they are favored by Congress over USAID and State to solve these problems. But if “outcome indicators” rather that the current DoD-dominated “achievement indicators” were used to measure success, they would tell a totally different story.
In the last few years, the argument that such efforts are essential to “winning the hearts and minds” of a population has come out of nowhere. This claim is not grounded in accepted measures that monitor and evaluate such success. Yet the defense budgets that are heavily supported by Congress are based on achievement indicators alone.
President Obama does not come to the table with a strong and substantive knowledge or experience with the nuances of foreign assistance and the critical importance of the traditional humanitarian community. He is currently hearing only voices from the military and industry on this issue. We owe it to both the humanitarian community and the military to ensure that evaluation of their effectiveness is transparent, accountable, and evidence-based.
Current USAID leadership, short of a named Administrator, must speak up. The opportunity to reestablish USAID’s role in development and humanitarian assistance may never come this way again.
Dr. Frederick M. Burkle, Jr., is a professor and senior fellow with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University; a senior public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center; and a retired Navy Reserve Captain and combat decorated for service with the U.S. Marines.