While it may be true that richer nations have a moral obligation to assist those less fortunate than themselves, the extent to which foreign aid does actually help its recipients is questionable. Given its myriad failures in the past, it is not surprising that people seek ways to improve aid delivery. Not all suggestions for change, however, are good ones. The current proposal to divert part of the UK’s foreign aid budget to the military would certainly be change for the worse.
This latest bright idea came to prominence in January of this year with the publication by the Civitas think tank of a book by Jonathan Foreman, Aiding and Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures and the 0.7% Deception. Foreman argued that the armed forces can ‘deliver emergency aid more quickly and more effectively than any NGO (Non-governmental Organisation) or international aid agency’. He assessed that the Department for International Development (DfID) had performed poorly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that these were environments in which the military would be much better placed to deliver aid to the local population.
In an announcement made recently in India, Prime Minister David Cameron took up Foreman’s suggestion and declared that he was ‘very open’ to the idea of diverting aid money to security and peacekeeping operations. Foreign aid would thus become an adjunct of defence policy, aimed at helping to bring stability to war zones such as Afghanistan.
While it is true that the armed forces can provide emergency relief quickly in the aftermath of major natural disasters, they are not particularly efficient deliverers of aid more generally, and have little understanding of development. Conflict zones are not environments in which aid tends to flourish and there is little or no evidence that aid actually does create stability or support peacebuilding goals.
The military tends, when dispensing aid, to favour short-term projects which it believes will win ‘hearts and minds’ and make an immediate contribution to military operational objectives. This is not development. Indeed many such projects run counter to the requirements of longer-term economic progress. Others are merely wasteful of resources. Smaller examples include building numerous schools for which there are no teachers, while a bigger, much more visible example was the high profile effort by the British army to fix the power station at the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province. In 2008, at great expense, the army succeeded in getting a new turbine to the dam, but since then it has lain idle and has yet to produce a single watt of electricity.
Waste of this sort is not the exception. A report published in February 2013 by the American Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction suggested that $8 billion of American aid to Iraq had been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse. The report could not fully identify what had been done with American money or what its results had been. According to the Iraqi Minister of the Interior, Adnan Al-Asadi, ‘There is little evidence of the [aid] program’s effects, not withstanding nine years of rebuilding activity and tens of billions of dollars in US dollars expended.’ Reports issued by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction paint a very similar story. Consequently, Andrew Wilder of Tufts University, who has analysed foreign aid in Afghanistan in detail, writes that he ‘did not find evidence that aid projects were making a significant contribution to stability in Afghanistan. Similarly, given the largely negative perceptions of the aid effort by Afghans, there was little evidence that the large amount of money spent was helping to win hearts and minds.’ The only obvious result from much of the aid is corrosion of local government integrity in the recipient countries.
The conflation of foreign aid and military operations also creates great difficulties for NGOs, as they become associated with military forces and so lose the trust of those whom they are trying to help and possibly also become targets for attack. Cameron’s suggestion has been roundly condemned by NGOs, who argue that it would be counterproductive.
In short, giving responsibility for foreign aid to the military is not a good way for Britain to fulfil its responsibilities as a developed nation to those less fortunate than itself. The government should reject this proposal out of hand.