Whose Aid is it Anyway? Politicizing aid in conflicts and crises

Since 2001, donor governments have increasingly tied aid to military agendas to win “hearts and minds” in conflicts. According to a new Oxfam report, this type of aid often by-passes the poorest people and dangerously blurs the line between civilian and military activity.

February 10, 2011

There is a bright spot in Canada’s eventual exit from the grinding stalemate of Afghanistan’s war. With the drawdown of Canadian troops, our aid program should be freed from political directives to spend where Canadian forces operate and liberated from military demands to use aid for their own ends.

No longer would generals’ orders to “win hearts and minds” drown out the considered advice of the government’s own development professionals. No longer would our precious aid dollars be squandered on “quick-impact” projects that do nothing to alleviate poverty.

The dire problems with militarized and politicized aid are the subject of an Oxfam report released this week.

It warns that integrating aid into military and foreign policy pursuits since 2001 has undermined its effectiveness across the world, skewing allocation toward countries donors perceive as security threats, and diluting a decade of commitments to effective, needs-based aid.

Just two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, have eaten up more than two-fifths of the entire US$178 billion cumulative global increase in aid since 2002. One third of all development aid to the 48 states labelled “fragile” by the OECD has gone to those two plus Pakistan.

Canada is not immune. Afghanistan and Iraq received 24 per cent of Canada’s cumulative increase in bilateral and humanitarian aid spending since 2002. And CIDA’s twenty “countries of focus” were explicitly designated in part on the basis of “their alignment with Canadian foreign policy priorities,” sweeping aside CIDA’s excellent tools and principled policies to allocate aid according to need.

Conflicts not in the spotlight, like Chad or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lose out. So do the hundred-plus stable countries that are home to between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s poor. The DRC receives just $10 a year per capita in aid, while Iraq, itself a much wealthier country, receives twelve times that amount.

Not only does aid driven by security concerns skew allocation of scarce aid dollars, too often it does not work. In Afghanistan, militarized aid has proven largely useless for reducing poverty, unnecessarily costly, and, worst of all, sometimes downright dangerous, exposing beneficiaries and civilian aid workers to attack.

It’s no surprise that relief supplies handed out randomly by soldiers tend to end up in the Kandahar market. But the military’s favourite, highly visible buildings – like the 95 schools built by NATO teams – are also of little practical use without longer-term follow-through, like support for teachers and books. This sort of project fails to build state capacity, and usually ignores the concerns of those not wielding political power, especially women living in poverty.

Such buildings often sit unused because Afghans rightly fear they will draw the fire of anti-government forces. What’s more, they are outrageously expensive: the NATO schools cost on average more than 30 percent more than the 371 schools financed by the Afghan Ministry of Education. The difference wasn’t quality, but the margin pocketed by private contractors.

Even the military’s belief that such aid will further acceptance of foreign troops is basically wishful thinking. People living in poverty are poor, but they are not stupid. Aid given to buy loyalty or to demonstrate “results” in the end does neither.

The horizon now opens for Canada’s aid program in Afghanistan. For the coming four years, CIDA is now contemplating long-term integrated support to girls’ education and maternal health across the country, modernizing state institutions and backing health and education facilities owned and led locally, like the thousands of community-based schools now operating in over a dozen Afghan provinces using existing, low-profile venues.

The United States, however, continues marching down the dead-end road of militarized aid, wherever the war on terror is fought. The US allocates nearly as much aid money via front-line military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan as the entire worldwide development assistance budget of its aid agency, USAID.

To make aid effective and fair, donors should ensure that all aid has as its purpose reducing poverty and suffering, not winning wars. Canadian law states it baldly: Aid must contribute to poverty reduction, take into account the perspectives of the poor, and be consistent with international human rights standards.

The evidence suggests that the increasing and increasingly explicit use of humanitarian and development assistance for military or foreign policy objectives fails on all three of these counts, and provides no long-term security for recipient communities or donors themselves. Let’s get it right in Afghanistan from here on in.

Mark Fried is Policy Coordinator for Oxfam Canada.