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US Development policy

October 15, 2010

President Obama has declared development assistance vital to US national security interests. Some humanitarian organizations believe the President's policy will end a growing trend toward the militarization of aid.

Obama UN
Obama announced America's first global development policyImage: AP

For the first time in American history, a US administration has issued a global development policy.

President Obama declared during his recent speech before the UN Millennium Goals Summit that development is not strictly an end in itself. Instead, it is a component of a wider national security strategy that defends US interests abroad.

"My national security strategy recognizes development not only as a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative," Obama said before the UN General Assembly.

In an era when the Defense Department is playing an increased role in development, some humanitarian organizations believe the President's new policy will reverse the growing trend toward the militarization of aid.

New conflicts, new threats

For decades, the US had trained its military to deter a conventional Soviet military advance into Western Europe. But in a wave of unexpected political upheaval, the Eastern bloc imploded without a shot being fired.

As a consequence, political leaders in Washington questioned the utility of bloated defense budgets in the belief that the "peace dividend" should free up resources for civilian ends.

Peacekeepers in Haiti
Humanitarian interventions are designed to protect civiliansImage: AP

Although the Cold War had ended, the peace dividend proved premature. The media broadcast images of social collapse from the battlefields of Bosnia and Somalia, documenting a growing trend toward war fought within nations instead of between them.

"The end of the Cold War to some degree meant the lid came off that had suppressed internal conflicts in many countries, and as a result you then see the breakdown in weaker or failed states," Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, told Deutsche Welle.

"You see the break down of institutions and internal conflicts grow and multiply," Schneider said. "It's in that context that the United States and the European Union view the consequences of failed states and instability as a potential for conflict that can affect their own citizens and interests."

Job of civilians or soldiers?

As the US military intervened to contain these brutal civil wars, it began to adopt a new humanitarian mandate with the goal of protecting human life instead of destroying it.

The enemy was no longer a uniformed army, but instead the political and economic instability that had led to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and famine in Somalia.

Commanders on the ground recognized that a process of social collapse could not be reversed by airstrikes. Ultimately, long-term economic and political development would secure victory.

In an ad-hoc fashion, soldiers started taking on traditional civilian roles, acting as policemen, diplomats and social workers. The front line had vanished, and the difference between military and development objectives had become muddled.

"Meanwhile, more and more responsibilities have been delegated to the military," David Bosold, an expert on human security at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "Since there isn't a stable security situation, sometimes it's simply not possible to find development organizations that are willing to go there. The main problem is that there's nobody except for the military that can make an impact."

Military taking the lead

After September 11, the convergence of development and defense responsibilities took a new turn. A transnational network of terrorists had launched an attack on the US from Afghanistan, underscoring the dangers of failed states.

In response, policymakers in Washington turned to development as a way to defeat terrorism by combating the poverty that leads to social instability and extremism.

The Bush Administration institutionalized this view by designating three pillars of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy and development - the 3Ds. However, development agencies such as USAID remained poorly resourced while the Defense Department's budget rapidly expanded.

As a result, the military started conducting its own development work. The goal was not to altruistically satisfy human need, but to advance American interests and win the War on Terror.

US soldiers distributing food aid
The military has become increasingly involved in humanitarian and development assistanceImage: AP

"The politics of it are rather stark," Noam Unger, the director of the Foreign Assistance Reform Program with the Brookings Institution, told Deutsche Welle. "The defense industry and the Department of Defense have assets placed in every political district across the United States."

"There are bases, manufacturers, suppliers and those are tied to political interests at the local level that feed up to Capitol Hill and effect funding," Unger continued. "The State Department and USAID operate overseas and so the constituency is actually different and that affects the politics."

Development as a weapon of war

As the US military struggled to contain growing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, military commanders looked for quick ways to win hearts and minds. In response, the concept of the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) was introduced.

PRTs would apply the 3Ds by bringing military and civilian agencies together to conduct development work in regions at risk for extremism. The military, however, increasingly became the face of development to the local population.

"It creates a degree of confusion," Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America, told Deutsche Welle. "They (local population) do rightly question our intent when they see soldiers involved in this work. It doesn't necessarily increase their trust of troops to a large degree, but it does reduce their trust in civilians."

The Defense Department was using development as a weapon of war. As a consequence, aid agencies voiced concern that a militarization of development was taking place which would undermine their humanitarian objectives.

In search of balance

By declaring development vital to US national security, Obama's new strategy - at least in word - makes development indispensible to achieving foreign policy goals. Development becomes important in its own right, not just as an instrument of Defense Department objectives.

Iraqi children with US food aid
US policy now views development as vital to the national interestImage: AP

"There's a lot of people involved in development who argue for development for development's sake," Beth Ellen Cole, an expert on post-conflict and peacekeeping activities with the United States Peace Institute, told Deutsche Welle.

"But in a resource-constrained environment where every dollar is under scrutiny, you have to make a case why development...is important," Cole said. "If you're going to elevate development, you have to make a strong case that it's important to national security."

The rebalancing of development and defense may signal a change in the way American foreign policy is conducted.

Instead of planning how to win wars, policymakers in Washington may start planning how to prevent them from ever breaking out. And an institutional bias toward prevention could reduce the demand for military involvement in development work.

"If the President is going to be serious about the 3Ds that define our national security strategy and how we pursue our foreign policy mission, then development needs to have a voice at the table for how those decisions are made," Adams said. "If you don't have a development voice at the table you're basically deciding from the beginning that you're not going to take a development approach."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge

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