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.

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