Change.org’s War and Peace blog has been posting a series on the militarization of humanitarianism in Afghanistan. It is a good series and I recommend you read it. Today’s article is from Una Vera, a good friend in the development community. Let’s hope what I am about to say doesn’t change that, because I disagree with her wholeheartedly. Una writes:
It’s flat out wrong for USAID to attach counterinsurgency strings to aid funds. Period. If organizations like the IRC and Oxfam don’t want to do post-battle reconstruction and development work, they should not be expected to, and they should be eligible for USAID funding anyway. Most of the major humanitarian NGOs working in Afghanistan are working in dozens of other countries, and their leadership must consider how civil-military relations in Afghanistan could affect relief and development efforts elsewhere in the world. For an organization like CARE, working closely with the US military in Afghanistan –especially in areas where where coalition forces have caused civilian casualties– could imperil vital projects in other conflict zones.
I have heard this argument before, and both then and now I am left scratching my head. The United States is, for better or worse, at war. I wish we weren’t at war, but I am only given a single vote in deciding such matters, and I was outvoted. USAID and DoD are both institutions of the United States government. When American servicemen are giving their lives to win a war, how could it be “flat out wrong” for USAID to use its budget to help them win? It is impossible to expect USAID to remain neutral while soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines fight.
Unlike USAID, NGOs are independent actors. They can have as much or as little interaction with the US military as they wish. But, they cannot accept US government funds and then not expect some strings attached. Well, they can, but the United States has the right to give the money to someone else. Is what the US government doing humanitarianism? Absolutely not. It is a military and political strategy. If cooperating with that strategy furthers an NGO’s own normative goals, they should take USAID funding. If not, they should look for money elsewhere.
I wish the US government was an absolute humanitarian and altruistic force in the world. But, it isn’t. The United States is a country working maximize the self-interest of its own citizens. Sometimes those of us with normative goals can use this self-interest to help some people (e.g. promoting hospital-ships instead of warships). Sometimes we can’t. But, what we can never do is expect the United States to act with solely humanitarian motives.
There are international organizations working for all: the United Nations and ICRC to name just two. I believe in these organizations. I love these organizations. Their work and ideals are the best of humanity. But, USAID is not one of these organizations, and it is unreasonable to expect them to act like one, especially in war.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.