“Let’s take an area of conflict of great concern to us: Afghanistan. One of the very concrete questions is, do you invest your development efforts predominantly in the relatively secure parts of Afghanistan, which gives you more security gains in terms of holding them, or in the relatively insecure parts, where you’re most concerned with winning against the Taliban and the battle seems most in the balance?” With that question, Richard Danzig, the chairman of the board for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), got to the heart of the issues being debated at a recent panel on development assistance and national security.
The discussion, hosted on September 5 by the Aspen Institute in conjunction with the Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty, brought together Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Susan Schwab, professor at the University of Maryland and former U.S. trade representative; Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program; and CNAS’ Danzig. Most of the hour-long discussion was spent debating whether assistance could be successful in insecure situations (like Afghanistan), or if a place has to have some kind of stability before assistance can really take root and successfully spur development.
Short vs. Long term
Administrator Shah, not surprisingly, made the argument that development assistance is valuable in either instance. That said, he also strongly cautioned against overpromising what aid in a place like Afghanistan can accomplish, saying that “one big mistake we’ve made is to oversell what any civilian agency can do in an environment where there’s an active military campaign.” He pointed out that “it not only raises the cost of doing the work…but it also puts people at real risk.”
Danzig took a more aggressive tone, saying that “in the great majority of cases I think it is misleading and distortive to argue for development on the grounds that it will predominantly enhance security.” He argued that more often than not, security should be a prerequisite for development: “You need to distinguish cart and horse here…in most instances…the security needs to precede the development.”
Shah and Danzig, who dominated the panel, were more in sync about what development assistance can accomplish in longer-term scenarios, when security and stability are assured. Shah in particular spoke forcefully about development assistance over time, stressing that “in the long view, in the medium term, the development priorities are national security priorities.”
However, Shah did warn that aid could fall short of our goals if it not carried out in a reliable way. “Stability and predictability of finance is the single thing that’s most highly correlated with good outcomes,” he said. When our aid to a country comes and goes unreliably, flowing one year and stopping abruptly the next, it’s much harder to have the kind of positive impact we want it to have, he explained.