Development before a killer

In an article that just might have been overshadowed by bigger news out of the “AfPak” region Sunday night, the New York Times reported on USAID’s project to build the Gardez-Khost Highway in Afghanistan. This 64-mile stretch of road meant to connect the two mountainous southeastern provinces of Paktia and Khost is shoddily constructed and incomplete after 3 years.

Not least among the problems was that construction began before the region was cleared of insurgents. “You are talking about pushing development before there’s security,” said a former American government official who was involved in the project.

“And you have military or politically driven timelines and locations which make no sense, or which force us into alliances with the very malign actors that are powerfully part of the broader battles we are fighting,” the official said. “No one steps back and looks at the whole picture.”

What is the cost of “pushing development” before security?

One answer: Although originally budgeted at $69 million, USAID has spent  $121 million on the project so far, and now says it expects to spend $176 million.

Another answer: Any remaining American credibility as a development actor in Afghanistan.

A better answer:

… Despite all the money spent on security…there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.

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An Ignorant Perspective on Libya

Tax time prompts many of us to ponder what our tax dollars pay for. This year I thought, just a bit, about the most recent significant (if still relatively small) addition to the U.S. budget. I came to the conclusion that--for various reasons--I know next to nothing about what is happening or is likely to happen. Men and women in power know much more about the situation than I do, and have decided that it is prudent to intervene militarily. I wish I knew why. I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to succeed at regime change. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to bring democracy. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to save more lives than it costs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign leaders to know what’s best for Libyans. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we’re not training and supporting thugs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we won’t inspire future outrage and violence. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, the long history of disastrous foreign military intervention will find an exception. But I don’t.

I wish I knew why, this time, procedural safeguards on grave decisions are not important. But I dont.

F.A. Hayek once argued, albeit in a different context, that such astounding ignorance as mine calls for staunch adherence to principles rather than the expedient pursuit of concrete objectives. I just don’t know enough to judge this or any prospective case for military intervention by its own merits. Lacking the detailed knowledge necessary to distinguish this from other cases of intervention, I am left leaning on what I know about the success and consequences of military intervention generally. But I can’t know beforehand whether Libya will be an exception.

So I’m stuck with my principles, like  Jeffersons recommendation of “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” along with some more basic rules. They don’t work every time. But that’s not the point. When they’re held firmly--even dogmatically--as principles, they do better than someone as dumb as me could manage.

Maybe that makes me a lunatic. Maybe those in power do know the exceptional merits of this case. Maybe they know why dropping bombs and shooting missiles makes sense this time. But I don’t.

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

- F. A. Hayek

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America's Warrior Women

FIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES: Update Tues Mar 23 3:45pm: Maureen Dowd in NYT also notes (colorfullly) the Lady Hawks vs. Male Doves split in the Administration on Libya

Breaking news 7pm: US starts bombing Libya to knock out anti-aircraft missiles, to begin enforcing no-fly-zone.

The Christian Science Monitor notes one difference between those in the Administration who argued for the war in Libya, and those who argued against it.

FOR: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior aide Samantha Power

AGAINST: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and White House chief of staff William Daley

Let me see, what difference, um, do we notice here, um,  some difference, let's not get too essentialist here...if you figure it out, let me know.

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Stop! Tom Friedman said something smart, about Arab world, Afghanistan, Pakistan

This blog and this author have given poor Mr. Friedman grief in the past for babbling nonsense. So it's only fair that we give America's favorite random idea generator credit when he comes up with a surprisingly cogent paragraph:

When one looks across the Arab world today at the stunning spontaneous democracy uprisings, it is impossible to not ask: What are we doing spending $110 billion this year supporting corrupt and unpopular regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are almost identical to the governments we’re applauding the Arab people for overthrowing?

Overlooking a few technical details -- such as Afghanistan and Pakistan NOT being almost identical to pre-revolt Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya -- the general idea seems vaguely correct. Why pour in US aid to finance a very unhappy political equilibrium?

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QDDR: we can hardly contain our excitement

Aid Watch is as excited as everyone else to get a leaked, advance summary of the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, (HT Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy) which is a critical part of the US government process to set its priorities  on Development.

We love to seize occasions where we can be more positive to reward positive things happening, and not be our usual snarky selves.

Today is not one of those occasions.

Some highlights of the QDDR:

It would concern us that the QDDR is as aggressive as previous efforts we have complained about that want to merge Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. Fortunately this alarming militarization of development only covers actual or potential Failed States which according to the above Map in the QDDR is the entire developing world.

The review recognizes that US suffers from “insufficient internal coordination”of existing officials, offices and bureaus and so proposes to…create new officials, offices, and bureaus: Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; a new Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environmental Affairs; a Special Coordinator for Sanctions and Illicit Finance; a Bureau of International Energy Affairs.

The QDDR is very persuasive that the US government needs to set priorities, that it should focus on development issues where the US government has a comparative advantage, which turn out to be…all development issues: sustainable economic growth, democracy and governance, food security, global health, climate change, and humanitarian assistance.

We could go on, but let's mercifully draw this discussion to a close, and move on to something more useful, like trying to think of an iPod playlist of songs most relevant to development.

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Reader exercise: please explain "aid fungibility" to our Secretary of State

UPDATE: OK I finally define fungibility (see end of post). It involves brothels.


 the United States said Friday that it planned increased aid for Pakistan’s military over the next five years.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the announcement in Washington ...

In announcing the aid, Mrs. Clinton did not discuss the administration’s moves to stop financing certain elements in the Pakistani Army that have killed unarmed prisoners and civilians.

On Thursday, senior administration and Congressional officials said that the Obama administration planned to cut off funds to those units.

From today's NYT

T or F: Increasing aid to Pakistani military while you "stop financing certain elements" who kill civilians is equivalent to increasing aid to these same "certain elements."

UPDATE: OK, OK I can tell you guys really want me to define "aid fungibility". Here's the official definition given by the World Bank's Chief Economist in the 1950s:

It's when we think we're financing a power plant, and we're really financing a brothel.

Aid Fungibility is when the Donor gives the Government Aid for Good Thing A and refuses to fund Bad Thing B. The clever Government then reduces its own spending on Good Thing A one for one with the aid, so that total spending (Donor + Government) on Good Thing A is unchanged. The government uses its savings on A to spend more on Bad Thing B. So de facto (compared to the pre-aid situation)  the Donor really has no effect on A and only has the effect of increasing total spending on Bad Thing B.

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David Rieff takes on Hillary’s “new approach” to global health

In a blog post for The New Republic, author David Rieff calls Hillary Clinton’s approach to development naïve, contradictory, and muddled. His post is a response to Clinton’s speech, delivered last week at SAIS, about the administration’s six-year, $63 billion Global Health Initiative. Rieff’s critique rests on three main arguments, all of which will be familiar to Aid Watch readers.

1) Insisting that development is going to be “elevated” to the level of diplomacy and defense won’t make it so. Better to follow the money and see where the real priorities lie:

The secretary was already on record as claiming that the initiative would be a “crucial component of American foreign policy and a signature element of smart power.” On its face, this seems highly unlikely. Anyone doubting this should ponder the fact that one military program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—a weapons platform that no one claims is needed for the counter-insurgency operations that are currently at the core of the U.S. military’s requirements—is on course to cost $325 billion, and may well go higher....In other words, Washington is going to spend on a ‘signature element’ of its smart power less than one-fifth of what it is already committed to spending on something that even the Pentagon does not claim is a signature element of our hard power. No, money may not be everything, but 'follow the money' remains the best advice for understanding what the priorities of the American government really are, as she has claimed before.

2) The bureaucratic structure of the initiative verges on the absurd, fails to make any one agency responsible for success or accountable for failure, and seems almost designed for a meltdown:

[I]n either designing or at least signing off on a program which grants authority for day to day running of the program to three separate agencies (USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, and PEPFAR, the Bush-era President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), each with their own institutional interests, while calling on the resources and expertise of the National Institutes of Health, the Peace Corps, not to mention the departments of Defense and of Health and Human Services (“among others,” as Secretary Clinton said, without irony, in her speech), all reporting to Deputy Secretary Lew, the administration has laid the groundwork for a bureaucratic calamity.

[We would add to this only that Jack Lew, the designated leader of this crew, is leaving his post, no word yet on his replacement, which could take months.]

3) Politicians who assert, as Clinton does here, that health aid can be used as a public diplomacy tool to win the hearts and minds of America’s reluctant allies are basing this view on too little evidence and simplistic assumptions about how aid recipients come to their perceptions of the US:

A far graver mystification is Secretary Clinton’s claim that investments in global health are an important tool of public diplomacy....

…[I]f the secretary really is suggesting that that recipients of foreign aid in very poor countries are so childlike that they view these contributions as dispositive about the nature of America’s values and intentions, then however unintentionally, she is speaking of these adults as if they were children.

But perhaps this hyper-conceited, hyper-complacent conviction of America’s good intention is so internalized in U.S. policymakers—even in one as intelligent as Secretary Clinton—that they are incapable of thinking clearly about how U.S. foreign aid, whether for emergency relief, health, or long-term development, is received by its beneficiaries.

Rieff’s whole, incendiary piece is worth reading in full.

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Wishful thinking on Pakistan

From last weekend’s New York Times:

As the Obama administration continues to add to the aid package for flood-stricken Pakistan — already the largest humanitarian response from any single country — officials acknowledge that they are seeking to use the efforts to burnish the United States’ dismal image there.…

American officials say they are trying to rekindle the same good will generated five years ago when the United States military played a major role in responding to an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 that killed 75,000 people.

…But American officials warn that the glow from the earthquake assistance faded quickly without more enduring development programs.

“LeFever [the senior US officer in Pakistan] clearly understands the P.R. value of flood assistance, but he also knows that absent other high-profile public diplomacy efforts, the half-life of any improvement to Pakistani impressions of the U.S. will be short,” said John K. Wood, a retired Army colonel….

This article raises several questions related to recent Aid Watch blog posts. First, has anyone quoted in the article examined the evidence for or against the hypothesis that giving disaster relief will improve the US’s image in Pakistan? As we blogged recently, there is startlingly little evidence at all on whether aid can “win hearts and minds,” but one of the few studies that exists looked specifically at the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. It found that even though US relief efforts were effective from a humanitarian perspective, they had no lasting impact on Pakistani perceptions.

Second, the Army official quoted above warns that flood assistance from the US may not be enough to create lasting change. Maybe he read the studies (or our blog)? But from which studies did he get his evidence that  “high-profile public diplomacy efforts” have a huge payoff for making Pakistanis love us?

Third, could the love affair between US aid and Pakistan be suffering because Pakistan remembers that US aid jilted them several previous times? (See great graph from CGD.) And because the aid to Pakistan was driven by our own strategic interests?

US assistance to Pakistan, 1948-2011

Now this may sound hopelessly naïve, but here are some reasons the American government should be providing humanitarian assistance to Pakistan: This is an unprecedented disaster causing tremendous suffering and disruption for millions of Pakistani people. The ongoing floods that have submerged one-fifth of Pakistan under water have killed 1,500 people, destroyed crops and livestock, and have put as many as 6 million people at risk of dying from water-borne diseases in “a second wave of deaths” now predicted by UN officials.

If ever there was a time for US aid to demonstrate that it is NOT always and everywhere ONLY about US strategic interests, this would be a good time. And because it’s the right thing to do.

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Can aid win hearts and minds?

A recent Christian Science Monitor article reported that USAID is “losing hearts and minds” in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakshan province because of failed and shoddy projects, corruption, secrecy and waste. Given how much of the US aid budget is spent trying to make the world a safer and more secure place for Americans, you might think there would be plenty of studies testing the hypothesis that aid funds can reduce terrorism or shift hostile public opinion. In fact, there is startlingly little evidence that we know how to use aid for this purpose.

Andrew Wilder, who led a two-year study at Tufts on the relationship between aid and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, has studied perceptions of the US following the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, for which the US quickly pledged $50 million and played an early and visible part in relief efforts. A widely-cited poll taken a month after the quake showed that the percentage of Pakistanis with a favorable opinion of the US had doubled, from 23 percent to 46 percent.

But it took only six months for those numbers to drop back down to near pre-quake levels. A year and a half after the earthquake, Wilder’s team found that while the US response was effective from a humanitarian perspective, there was “little evidence of any significant ‘hearts and minds’ or security benefits....”

A slightly sunnier outlook on the question  comes from a quantitative study on Iraq by Eli Berman, Jake Shapiro, and James Felter, entitled “Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought?” The answer seems to be a tentative “sometimes:” The authors concluded that increased public service provision did reduce violent incidents, but could only speak to CERP funds, which are allocated to small-scale projects and made up a very small fraction of overall reconstruction funding.

But researchers working with Wilder on the Tufts study conducting interviews in eastern Kenya found that small-scale projects (carried out in this case by AFRICOM’s Joint Task Force) didn’t succeed in getting communities to change their minds about the US. The authors explained:

…We found that attitudes were influenced by factors that went beyond the scope of aid projects- faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, US foreign policy, and events in Somalia- were all much more important.

And in a context where US foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East is perceived as an attack on Islam, a strategy that aims to win both "hearts" and "minds" appeared to people locally as an attempt to directly influence a Muslim community's faith and beliefs.

Wilder also tipped us off to a German longitudinal study underway in northeast Afghanistan. They found that aid positively influenced perceptions of the peacekeeping mission, but only when people felt that their own security was not at risk. Aid also had a positive impact on perceptions of local government, but these perceptions were “short-term and non-cumulative.”

So, are there cases in which aid COULD be used to promote security objectives? Maybe. The studies cited here lead to a couple of possible hypotheses, both of which would need much more research:

  1. Aid could help consolidate stability in areas that are already relatively stable, but is not much use in stabilizing a war zone
  2. Aid could help shift public opinion in a country that is already favorably disposed towards the US, but is less useful where attitudes are hostile to begin with.

It is hard enough to demonstrate that development assistance effectively promotes development. Especially in conflict zones like Afghanistan, the smart aid programs that can show lasting impact are sadly few and far between. The additional, unproven assumption that aid can tamp down terrorism and change the way people think about Americans in the midst of a conflict fought by Americans is almost certainly too much for it to bear.

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Holy Bureaucratic Gibberish, Batman!

This post is by Adam Martin, a post-doctoral fellow at DRI. On July 1 the Department of Defense rolled out two notable new projects that will undoubtedly inaugurate a new era of peace and safety for the streets of Gotham international community. Even the world’s greatest detective could not have seen this coming.

Like their caped crusader namesakes, the DoD versions of BaTMAN and RoBIN are shrouded in mystery, their real identities cleverly disguised. BaTMAN is:

Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature (BaTMAN) could develop an understanding of the relationship between biological systems and the spatial-temporal universe through the application of advanced principles from the physical sciences... Topic areas that may be of interest include, but are not limited to: quantum biology and molecular clocks; resetting and synchronization of biological clocks and rhythms; microscale recapitulation in macroscale; evolutionary pressure and time; physiological signal processing and clocks; timing and cognition; and robustness of clocks in development.

His faithful sidekick RoBIN:

Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks (RoBIN), seeks to apply the critical control features of biological networks to build unique models for adaptable networks, and create a dynamic biologically-inspired network of scientists and other experts for crisis response and complex decision support.

What does any of this have to do with foreign aid? Most prominently, it serves of a reminder of just how bad an idea it is to ask the military to be more involved in aid. Despite the distilled frenzy of a few prominent voices in the air, the defense establishment is more likely to lead us into a funhouse maze than solve the riddle of development.

But it’s not just military involvement itself that should resisted. The BaTMAN and RoBIN projects are perfect examples of the obfuscating language and flagrant non-accountability that accompanies bloated bureaucracies. These megalomaniacal ideas work great at keeping the funding flowing but achieve little else. The dynamic duo of massive government budgets and weak feedback mechanisms are a source of mischief in military and non-military organizations alike.


Editor’s note: BaTMAN and RoBIN sound almost too outlandish to be real. We did call Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to confirm that we were not being had, and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, I work at New York University and write for a blog called Aid Watch.


Me: I am wondering if you could confirm that Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature and Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks are in fact DARPA programs.

DARPA: want to try that in English? (laughs)

Me: Your language, not mine! The acronyms are BaTMAN and RoBIN...

DARPA: (Looks up the programs on his screen…) Well, what we issued was a Request for Information so they are not technically programs per se....They are potential new DARPA programs.

Me: So you can confirm that they are real potential DARPA programs.


There you have it, BaTMAN and RoBIN are not a spoof.

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We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint: NYT on the military

The New York Times had a front pager today on a story that this blog (twice: Dec 22, 2009 and Dec 12, 2009 ) and other blogs has been all over for months -- the use of nonsensical Powerpoint slides to guide the US military in Afghanistan. The NYT reproduced the infamous Afghan nation-building spaghetti chart over most of the front page:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

It gets worse:

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious. ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

What's bizarre about this is that there are so many high-ranking military critics and yet war-by-Powerpoint continues. This blog's criticism got a friendly response from high-ranking military also. Yet none of this was enough to stop a practice that would get the military held up to ridicule today in the New York Times.

Indulging in sheer speculation here, is it because Powerpoint is indispensable to make  the military's assigned task appear feasible when it is inherently infeasible  -- to achieve development, democracy, and peace by military means?

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Never-before-seen video of a peacekeeping intervention to end war

Short clip:

From Twitter: undispatch @undispatch:

@bill_easterly instead of trying to be funny, can you actually explain your beef with peacekeeping?

Well, @undispatch, if you click on the category, "aid goes military" at the bottom of this post, you will get more than you probably want to hear from this blog on this topic. You are also welcome to check out my New York Review of Books article Aid goes military!

For the video, HT James Rauch at UCSD. Would anyone like to nominate someone most likely to be the real life counterpart to Robur in this video?

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The “smart power” military-industrial complex takes off

What do Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp, and L-3 Communications Inc. have in common? Yes, all are top 10 Pentagon contractors. But they are also increasingly winning lucrative government contracts to implement “smart power” or “nation-building” programs—like educating peacekeeping troops in human-rights law, sending anthropologists to Afghanistan to understand local culture, mentoring Liberian prosecutors to combat corruption and crime, and rebuilding airports and government ministries.

Hillary Clinton and others in the administration have helped pave the way for this shift by calling for a “smart power” approach in which the 3Ds—defense, diplomacy and development—are mutually reinforcing (which we respectfully acknowledged by giving the 3Ds idea our Grand Prize for Worst in Aid).

From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

Defense firms are eager to oblige. "The definition of global security is changing," says Lockheed's Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens. He wants the maker of the Air Force's most advanced fighters to become a central player in the U.S. campaign to use economic and political means to align countries with American strategic interests

Last year, Lockheed had two of its highest profile programs, the F-22 Raptor fighter and a fleet of presidential helicopters, ended by the Obama administration. Now, Lockheed is one of several defense firms expected to bid for a new State Department contract to support "criminal justice sector development programs world-wide," that could be worth up to $30 billion over five years.

Africa won’t be overlooked:

Africa—where few U.S. troops are stationed—is a major focus. Many countries on this continent already are, or risk becoming, failed states. While they previously hadn't been considered a threat to the U.S., that view is changing. Somalia's nexus of terrorism and piracy is one example of how destabilized countries can become a redoubt for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

The U.S. military is already overstretched between Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Pentagon is eager to send defense firms to fill the gaps, in the hope that investing millions in training or advisory programs today may stave off a regional calamity that could cost billions in the future.

"Africa certainly is an area of interest to our U.S. government customers, and what's important to our customers is important to us," said Lockheed's Mr. Stevens.

UPDATE: Vijaya Ramachandran reminded us on Twitter that she had a related post "Blurring the Line Between Defense and Development" on the CGD Blog:

In a little-noticed move in January, private military contractor DynCorp bought 100% of the shares of international development contractor Casals & Associates ....The .. merger suggests a blurring of the line between development and defense in the private sector, as well.

...what happens when unarmed development project managers and heavily armed private security providers work under the same company brand? How will local people respond to a company employed by both USAID and the U.S. military?

On the other hand, there are some clear advantages to the new approach....

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Worst in Aid: The Grand Prize

Hillary Clinton recently declared: “We are working to elevate development and integrate it more closely with defense and diplomacy in the field…The three Ds must be mutually reinforcing.” Clinton says that the 3D approach will elevate development to the level of diplomacy and defense. Unfortunately, it could instead lower development further to an instrument employed to achieve military or political priorities. Clinton foresaw these objections: “There is a concern that integrating development means diluting it or politicizing it – giving up our long-term development goals to achieve short-term objectives.” She said reassuringly, “[t]hat is not what we mean, nor what we will do.”

But it’s too late. Sacrificing long term development aims for short term military and diplomatic objectives is what the US already does, and the 3Ds is making it worse. That’s why the Grand Prize for the Worst in Aid goes to…the 3D approach, nominated by an anonymous reader.

References to the "3D approach,"… have become so pervasive in foreign policy, development, and national security circles that they have taken on the status of self-evident, common wisdom. - J. Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator, February 2010

The frequent contradiction between defense and development is the most obvious instance of 3D dissonance. A coalition of eight NGOs in Afghanistan lamented that “[d]evelopment projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structres aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate, and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable.” Nonetheless, increasing amounts of aid get channeled through the military, “while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty and repair the destruction wrought by three decades of conflict and disorder are being sidelined.”

An Oxfam case study on programs to reform the security sector in “frontline” states like Iraq illustrated another way in which narrow military goals (to train and equip soldiers and police) are not entirely compatible with development goals. The report found that an increasing reliance on military contractors rather than civilians “has strongly reinforced the focus on operational capacity over accountability to civilian authority and respect for human rights.”

In the battle of the Ds, enervated development loses to pumped-up defense, and not just in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trend goes two ways: USAID is compelled to spend more and more of its budget on states that are strategically and militarily important (The 2011 foreign aid budget allocates 20 percent of State and USAID money for “securing frontline states.”) A development priority like India (with a huge chunk of the world’s poor) loses out. At the same time, a growing proportion of what the US calls Official Development Assistance flows through the Pentagon rather than USAID.

Frequent readers of the blog will already be familiar with our final example. On Christmas Eve in Madagascar, President Obama bowed to the exigencies of diplomacy when he punished the nondemocratic government of Madagascar by taking away trade access to U.S. markets. But this same action was disastrous for development.  Already, tens of thousands of jobs created textile exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) have been lost. Factories are closing, increased competition among street workers is pushing down wages, and the effects are spilling over into neighboring countries that made inputs to Madagascar’s factories. Any claim that the Madagascar AGOA delisting was part of a high-return Diplomatic initiative to promote Democracy became a wee bit more tenuous when we saw Angola, Cameroon, and Ethiopia named on Christmas Eve as still eligible for AGOA.

[We could go on -- This week brought another collision of development and defense/diplomatic goals in Somalia.]

The lie that underlies the 3D framework is that development, diplomacy, and defense are complementary (or totally “mutually reinforcing”); that there are no difficult choices to be made. Alas, politicians are fond of denying the existence of tradeoffs (we are not trying to pick on Hillary in particular; many politicians are guilty of this).

The only 3D strategy that makes sense for development is one that acknowledges the frequent conflicts between these three very different goals as natural outcomes of their different agendas.  Then we can hold our politicians accountable when they sacrifice Development big-time to achieve small-time (or sometimes illusory) Diplomatic or Defense goals.

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Top 5 reasons why “failed state” is a failed concept

1) “State failure” is leading to confused policy making. For example, it is causing the military to attempt overly ambitious nation-building and development to approach counter-terrorism, under the unproven assumption that “failed states” produce terrorism.

2) “State failure” has failed to produce any useful academic research in economics.

You would expect a major concept to be the subject of research by economists (as well as by other fields, but I am using economics research as an indicator). While there has been research on state failure, it failed to generate any quality academic publications in economics. A search of the top economics journals1 reveals that “state failure” (and all related variants like “failed states”) has been mentioned only once EVER. And this article mentions the concept only in passing.2

3) “State failure” has no coherent definition.

Different sources have included the following:

a) “Civil war” b) “infant mortality” c) “declining levels of GDP per capita” d) “inflation” 3 e) “unable to provide basic services” f) “state policies and institutions are weak” g) “corruption” h) “lack accountability” 4 i) “unwilling to adequately assure the provision of security and basic services to significant portions of their populations” 5 (wouldn’t this include the US?) j) “inability to collect taxes” k) “group-based inequality… and environmental decay.” 6 l) “wars and other disasters” m) “citizens vulnerable to a whole range of shocks” 7

Most of these concepts are clear enough in themselves, and often apply to a large number of countries. But is there any good reason to combine them with arbitrary weights to get some completely unclear concept for a smaller number of countries? “State failure” is like a destructive idea machine that turns individually clear concepts into an aggregate unclear concept.

4) The only possible meaningful definition adds nothing new to our understanding of state behavior, and is not really measurable.

A more narrow definition of “state failure” is: a loss of the monopoly of force, or the inability to control national territory. Unfortunately this is impossible to measure: how do you know when a state has control? The only data I have been able to find that might help comes from the Polity research project that classifies the history of states as democracies or autocracies. 8 It describes “interregnums” that sound like the narrow “state failure” idea:

A "-77" code for the Polity component variables indicates periods of periods of “interregnum,” during which there is a complete collapse of central political authority. This is most likely to occur during periods of internal war.

If interregnums are indeed a good measure, the data show that “state failure” is primarily just an indicator of war. As the data show, the rate of “state failure” in the 20th century spiked in the two World Wars, and then increased again (but not as much) after decolonization, again almost always associated with wars.

Even this measure does not really capture the narrow definition. Many countries were often created as “states” by colonial powers rather than following any natural state-building process in which states gain more and more control of territory. Almost all ex-colonies fail to control national territory after independence, and many still do not do so today – many more than the usual number of “failed states.” (Africa being the most striking example as exposited in the great book by Herbst, States and Power in Africa. 4)

Hence, if we use the measure described above, than state failure is just synonymous with war, and if we don’t (as we probably shouldn’t), then “state failure” is something more common and harder to measure than the current policy discussion recognizes.


5)  “State failure” appeared for political reasons.

The real genesis of the “state failure” concept was a CIA State Failure Task Force in the early 1990s. Their 1995 first report said state failure is “a new term for a type of serious political crisis exemplified by recent events in Somalia, Bosnia, Liberia, and Afghanistan.” All four involved civil war, confirming the above point that  “state failure” often just measures “war.” And we have just seen from the data (and common sense about decolonization) that either the claim of “newness” is false, or we are still not sure what “state failure” means.

Nevertheless, “state failure” became a hot idea in policy circles.  If we use the number of articles in Foreign Affairs mentioning “state failure” or variants, then it first appeared around the same time as the CIA task force, and then really took off after 9/11.

ForeignAffairs_500 One can only speculate about the political motives for inventing an incoherent concept like “state failure.” It gave Western states (most notably the US superpower) much more flexibility to intervene where they wanted to (for other reasons): you don’t have to respect state sovereignty if there is no state. After the end of the Cold War, there was less hesitation to intervene because of the disappearance of the threat of Soviet retaliation. “State failure” was even more useful as justification for the US to operate with a free hand internationally in the “War on Terror” after 9/11.

These political motives are perfectly understandable, but they don’t justify shoddy analysis using such an undefinable concept.

It’s time to declare “failed state” a “failed concept.”

[1] Kristie M. Engemann and Howard J. Wall, A Journal Ranking for the Ambitious Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, May/June 2009, 91(3), pp. 127-39. We included all 69 journals that they studied, which they said were their meant to capture all likely members of the top 50.

[2] Sujai J. Shivakumar, Towards a democratic civilization for the 21st century, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Vol. 57 (2005) 199–204.

[3] a through d: Robert I. Rotberg, Failed States in a World of Terror, Foreign Affairs. New York: Jul/Aug 2002. Vol. 81, Iss. 4; pg. 127.

[4] e through h:  World Bank

[5] USAID Fragile State Strategy, 2005

[6] j through k: Fund for Peace

[7] l through m: Overseas Development Institute

[8] Monty G. Marshall and Keith Jaggers, Polity IV Project: Dataset Users' Manual, George Mason University and Center for Systemic Peace, 2009.

[9] Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton University Press, 2000.

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Day of mourning for military Development

afghan warNews sources say that President Obama will choose “escalate” with additional troops for Afghanistan in his speech at West Point tonight. I and many like-minded individuals find this disastrous. “Like-minded” means that critics of top-down state plans for economic development are also not fans of top-down state plans for military development. If the Left likes the first, and the Right likes the second, that just shows you how incoherent Left and Right are.

Will Wilkinson has a great column mocking the anti-PC Conservatives for mindless Conservative PC on militarism:

The public praise of martial virtue encourages a martial culture in which war is seen not as a gruesome tragedy but as a stage for the performance of righteous valor. … applause only reinforces a deeply ingrained American habit of easy patriotism so mindless and self-satisfied that we cannot see the brazen moral relativism of it. This is our war, so it is just.

And when you military claim the sanction of some development economists for armed intervention, I think other development economists have a right to fight back. If you military are going to do development, then we will do military. If you think you can impose conditions on Karzai for military aid, why don’t you read some of our articles on the failure of conditions for economic aid.

The somewhat clumsy words of George Kennan during the Vietnam War have seemed eerily appropriate to many reviewers recently:

If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation - to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale.

And lastly the masterful essay by Garry Wills in a recent New York Review of Books:

We sink deeper into blood, with no foreseeable end in sight…Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from President to President…Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching. Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not.

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Will Aid Escalation Finally Crash in the Mountains of Afghanistan?

There has been a remarkable escalation in the scale and intrusiveness of aid interventions over the years (this was one of the major conclusions of my survey paper on aid to Africa). It seems to be reaching the reductio al absurdum in the current debate on whether to escalate US intervention in Afghanistan.

Let’s review the record:

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The US Army fights me back! -- in a nice peaceful way

The following is the text of an email I received today after asking Lieutenant General William Caldwell IV for comment as one of the authors of the United States Army's Manual with some economic development ideas that I criticized: Classification: UNCLASSIFIED

Caveats: FOUO

Dear Dr. Easterly,

LTG Caldwell is currently on personal leave and not regularly receiving


This is a very important topic to him -- the manual to which you refer

represents the most widely-collaborated publication the Army has ever

produced. It was written over the course of a year and involved

representation from each of the services, all the other agencies of the

USG, and our allies and partner nations, as well as significant

contributions from the development and humanitarian communities, and the

private sector. The manual is not intended to serve as military

solution to a much broader and more complex problem, but a guide for

military leaders to better understand and execute their appropriate

roles and responsibilities within the framework of national and

international approaches to these operations. While the goals

articulated within the manual may seem optimistic, they represent the

collective contributions of acknowledged experts from a wide range of

fields, many of whom brought decades of field experience to this effort.

The content in the manual -- as well as the terms, definitions, and

frameworks -- reflects their wisdom, knowledge, and hard-earned


The manual is certainly not solely a product of the Department of

Defense or the US Army. It is the result of unprecedented collaboration

that, while appearing "utopian" from your perspective, provides a

waypoint from which to navigate the challenges we face now and in the

future. To navigate that path, we relied on a collaborative approach to

best define our own service role within the broad framework articulated

in the manual. While the approach we used to develop the manual was

unique, we believed that this was the most effective was to ensure that

the practitioners in the field had the strongest voice possible and the

end product was shaped with their own words. While the manual will

never be perfect, it has achieved the desired effect of spurring dialog

and discussion on a critical topic -- and your contribution to that

dialog is welcome and appreciated.

Best regards,

LTC Steve Leonard

Director, Commander's Initiatives Group

U.S. Army Combined Arms Center

Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027

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