Thursday, November 27, 2008

Aid dependence and calling the kettle black

Chris Blattman's Blog: How would you reduce aid dependence?

Over the last several years I've sat through countless meetings in which NGOs and others from the development community have told me how wasteful it is for the U.S. military to be engaged in development projects. There's a great deal of truth in this. Lack of sustainability is one of the more common critiques.

Chris Blattman points out that the NGO community is itself still struggling with establishing effective ways of making projects locally sustainable. How do you escape the cycle of aid dependency? The NGO presence in Lofa County, Liberia is a case study for the scale of challenges involved.

Another common critique of US military involvement in development is cost relative to having an NGO execute the same project. While it's true the gross cost is tremendously expensive, the marginal cost of having personnel with technical skills (medics and Seabees) and the massive logistic capacity native to an amphibious ship like the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) delivering humanitarian or development assistance is less than it appears on its face. Otherwise these assets would be involved with conducting "presence patrols" or training for an amphibious landing against a peer competitor. The immediate benefit of either of these latter missions is difficult to evaluate.

The military has learned a lot over the last several years about how and how not to engage a community in the developing world. These lessons haven't been entirely taken on board, but there is movement.

Despite this post I'm not a proponent of the US military playing a significant roll in development assistance, though I think their roll in disaster relief operations should be uncontroversial. My problem is that the arguments often leveled at the military seem to assume that the DoD is not a learning organization. These traditional critiques leave the military folks on the receiving end with the impression that you simply haven't paid attention to the improvements that they've made, or the improvements that can be made.

There's a more fundamental strategic argument to be made here regarding the division of labor, and where collaboration is appropriate and where it is not, that I'll get into in my next posting. DoD is still plenty capable of generating examples of how not to do business, and drawing all the wrong lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan for their broader engagement with the world.


Monday, November 24, 2008

DfID, getting out the good word

Was at an aid effectiveness conference in the UK last week. One of the interesting differences between the US and UK system pointed out to me by an official from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) was that the UK doesn't have the same kind of prohibition on agencies targeting domestic audiences to promote themselves (Smith-Mundt). One of the more interesting instances is DfID's cooperation with the Rough Guide guide-book series to produce the Rough Guide to a Better World. Worth a look, and really worth passing on in support of the propaganda campaign.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blattman, double blind reverse blood diamonds and military/aid imperialism

Blattman's involved with a very interesting randomized experiment in Liberia on DDR methods. Also check out his posting on Easterly's attack on Collier's Bottom Billion.

Also check out the panel Blattman spoke on yesterday. Great experiments on deliberative democracy/campaigning in the developing world (Benin) and the use of mass media for post-conflict reconciliation (impact on norms in Rwanda).

Easterly's framing both aid and military interventions as imperialistic I think helps clarify why even if the US were to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, clarifying that NGOs are not there in support of the US, many NGOs would still find them self at risk of becoming Taliban targets (e.g. gender equality projects, government capacity building). Yes I know many were there for decades before the US invaded- but at that time the Taliban was not competing with a central government, they were the government.

But I also think Blattman makes the realist's point:

"As someone off to just such a intervention this afternoon--Liberia, here I come--I'm worried that Bill's advice will be taken too literally and simplistically by those who would advocate a divorce of the humanitarian and the military. For Liberians to rebuild a nation without security and order is an impossibility, and they are only slowly able to provide that monopoly on violence themselves."
Cant against imperialism is a useful cautionary, but looking at the concrete challenges fragile states and the people living in them face demands more than that.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Can you hear me now?

Jenny Aker has an interesting paper about the affect of cell phones on local development. Worth thinking about how the same networks that facilitate market transparency and long-term development also facilitate insurgent networks also facilitate counterinsurgency networks. What does this mean when you're in a place like Afghanistan where communication networks are more capital intensive than Chad because of terrain?


Jared Diamond on why societies collapse

Jared Diamond gave this TED talk back in 2003, but it was only just publicly posted in October this year. He gives a brief overview of his thesis from Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed.

Though the discussion is facilitated by a wide variety of examples, clearly Diamond is concerned about the sustainability of our current global society. Sustainability is also an important issue for those of us engaged in development activities, or have concerns about the regional and global impacts of fragile states' collapse.

I summarize the talk below, but it's worth listening to the entire thing.

Principally Diamond speaks about the Norse in Greenland, the Easter Islanders, and most interestingly the state of Montana (at risk). He touches on many other collapsed societies though.

His framework for analyzing why societies collapse:

1. What is the human impact on the environment and the resources that society depends on (endogenous environmental change)?
2. How does climate change affect the environment and resources that society depends on (~exogenous environmental change)?
3. How does the society's relations' with neighboring friendly and unfriendly societies impact their sustainability?
4. How does the society's political-economic-cultural characteristics impact its ability to recognize and respond to environmental challenges?

What characteristics make a society and problem set make it more or less apt to recognize and respond to the threat of collapse? A variety of collective action problems.

1. Conflict between the short-term interest of elites and the long-term interests of society as a whole.
2. Conflict between traditional sources of strength and the innovations necessary for survival.


1. Rapid collapses may occur immediately after a society reaches its peak of wealth.
2. Our society will have either succeeded or failed in addressing our own challenges within about forty years from now.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Biddle and Friedman on Hezbollah's 2006 Campaign

Steven Biddle of CFR and Jeffrey Friedman of Harvard's Kennedy School put out this great study of Hezbollah's 2006 campaign through the Army's SSI. As noted in the report, a lot of folks have been looking at that campaign for lessons learned about the future of conflict. Non-state actors performing successfully in conflicts in an increasingly conventional (read maneuver and combined arms) manner.

The issue of the future of conflict is relevant to this sight in so far as here we presuppose that many of the threats to U.S. security (terrorism, pandemics, etc.) in the 21st century will emerge out of fragile and failed states, driving the argument for irregular warfare capabilities, and building partner state governance capacity through a variety of foreign assistance programs.

I'm not certain I'm sold by their argument that we should expect this to be a trend. The conventional elements of Hezbollah's tactics and operational art were driven by a logic in many ways unique to the fact their enemy's civilian population was within striking distance of their short and intermediate range rockets. Obviously Hezbollah also has an extraordinary number of characteristics in common with a state, and access to a patron's resources few other groups enjoy. Not at all clear than any other nonstate actors in places the US might contemplate invading would be driven by a similar strategic logic. Here's a good counter to my argument from the Taliban. Exception that proves the rule?

Another interesting research question might be gained by looking at it from the other direction- what state actors might pursue similar tactical and operational techniques in the face of a U.S. intervention?

Thought experiment:
Aside from the much discussed swarming tactics to choke of the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf, if the U.S. were to actually invade would Iran's military pursue fully conventional combined arms set of Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)? Or would they draw lessons from Hezbollah, striking at Israel to create incentives for a ceasefire (implausible w/ US). Perhaps with conventional rockets in order to avoid completely alienating international opinion. Separately they might conduct what Biddle calls the "modern" style of war, as exemplified by Hezbollah's 2006 campaign, intermediate between insurgency and combined arms, as a delaying tactic to maintain political control long enough for international and domestic political pressure to build up to force the US to accept a ceasefire. Again, the US hasn't historically accepted negotiated peace readily, so it's tough to imagine Iran reading the situation in such a way that these "intermediate" TTPs would be very attractive, but it's worth thinking about. I suppose if I were Iran I would have some difficulty imagining an attractive way of dealing with a US invasion.

This is of course in no way advocating an invasion of Iran. On this point I'm a libtard favoring negotiations with Iran "without preconditions" for all the reasons Obama and Kissinger have discussed.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Awesome Tapes from Africa

No, really. Will make you wax nostalgic. Thursdayborn has some great stuff here.


US Army War College conference on interagency reform

Just stumbled across this, haven't had time to process it yet, but looks interesting. From April 2008, video and slides.


Barnett's Hard Sell

I'm not endorsing this (I'm not in the solution business just now) but it's very much worth a listen. Tom Barnett sells his vision of what the future of the U.S. national security system looks like at the 2005 TED conference. His vision has large implication for USAID types. Plenty of rice bowls get broken, which is of course what makes it interesting. He's an engaging speaker to boot.


Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice, testimony before the House Armed Services Committe on Interagency Reform and Building Partnership Capacity

The House Armed Services Committee held this hearing back in April 2008, but if you missed it, it's worth a look. This is the first time the Secretaries of Defense and State testified together before the House. Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies as well.

This is fantastic introduction to some of the elements of contention between DOD, State, and USAID. If you don't know what 1206 or 1207 funds are and are concerned about the militarization of US foreign assistance, this is a good way to find out.

Can't help but love Chairman Skelton. He's one of the fathers of modern Professional Military Education and was one of the driving forces behind the original Goldwater-Nichols legislation that forced the military services to operate more jointly (arguably not a completed fight). Also he was one of the voices in the wild warning the Bush Administration about the strategic risk it was haphazardly taking on with the invasion of Iraq, before it was cool.

You can find Gates and Rice's prepared testimony here, a link to all House Armed Services Committee hearings.