Aid for the Future

CAPAF’s Reuben Brigety testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee on the Military’s Role in Development Assistance. Read the full testimony.

The increasing involvement of the U.S. armed forces in addressing the basic human needs of civilians abroad represents one of the most profound changes in U.S. strategic thought and practice in at least a generation. The Pentagon is recognizing that conventional “kinetic” military operations, which utilize armed force through direct action to kill or capture the enemy, have limited utility in countering the threats posed by militant extremism. Therefore, they are searching for—and finding—“nonkinetic” options other than the use of force to tackle the nonviolent components of pressing security problems, both in and out of warzones.

This may seem like an appropriate approach to America’s new security challenges in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it is not without controversy. The increasing involvement of the U.S. military in civilian assistance activities has launched a contentious debate about the role of the military in global development, and the relevance of global development to American national security. Nongovernmental organizations argue that the “militarization” of development assistance threatens to undermine the moral imperatives of poverty reduction, the neutral provision of emergency relief, and the security of civilian aid workers in the field. Nonmilitary government agencies, most prominently the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, have demonstrated a complex ambivalence about the subject. Even as their bureaucracies have changed to accommodate the military’s growing role providing assistance, some rank-and-file staff at USAID have argued that the military’s programs do not constitute “real development” work, while a vocal minority of foreign service officers in the State Department have protested their deployment to promote political reconciliation in active warzones as hazardous assignments inappropriate for professional diplomats.

Although the Pentagon is not of one mind on this issue, many Defense Department officials argue that these criticisms from NGOs and other parts of the government are overblown, and that these nonkinetic operations have the dual benefit of helping people in need while serving American interests. This is something that both the military, other government agencies, and the NGO community should welcome.

The Pentagon has called on the State Department and the USAID to undertake more activities in direct support of American national security objectives, even as these agencies counter that their ability is constrained by years of chronic underfunding

The role of the U.S. military in development work

The growing debate about the role of the military in development efforts points to two central questions: Should the United States view aiding civilians abroad as a critical element of its security? If so, what is the best way for the United States to perform development missions in support of its national security objectives?

The physical threats to the United States in the 21st century are of such complexity that they defy solution by force of arms alone. Neither the struggle to overcome drought triggered by climate change nor the defeat of predatory ideologies can be won by waging conventional wars. Addressing the basic needs of individuals in developing countries, and helping their governments be more responsive and effective, are critical strategic capabilities necessary for the United States to protect itself and its allies around the globe.

Helping civilians abroad to improve their lives strengthens American security in three important ways. First, it supports long-term stability by improving the economic prospects of developing countries, decreasing the likelihood of violent conflict fueled by economic hardship or extremist ideologies that can spread in such an environment. Second, it strengthens America’s moral leadership in the world by increasing its reputation as a benevolent power, improving our ability to persuade other nations to support our foreign policy objectives. Finally, it serves immediate security objectives by channeling assistance to groups of people abroad that may harbor threats to the United States—diversifying the approaches available to combat the enemies of the country and its interests.

Each of these assistance missions—promoting stability, serving morality, and enhancing security—is crucially important to the United States in this changing global environment. The strategic purpose of assistance is increasingly clear, yet the method of providing it matters as well.

Assistance that is offered by civilians as a means of fighting poverty is viewed differently than is aid provided by uniformed military units fighting against global terrorist networks. To those on the receiving end, traditional development assistance provided by civilian agencies is a manifestation of our collective interests, and of an American commitment to improve the lives of others. Assistance to civilians delivered by the U.S. military, however, may be seen as undertaken in pursuit of America’s national interests. The civilian-led method is largely in pursuit of a development objective, while the military-led method seeks a security aim. Though both of these methods serves at least one of the three principal missions of promoting stability, serving morality, and enhancing security, the delivery of assistance must be pursued in a way that supports all three missions rather than privileging one over the other, even inadvertently.

Despite its traditional task of fighting and winning wars, the military has an important role to play as a development actor. Its focus on countering threats to the United States makes it well-suited to performing development activities linked directly to security objectives, both in combat zones and in more permissive environments. Yet the security mission of development cannot be separated from efforts to fight poverty, with ancillary benefits for promoting stability and strengthening America’s moral leadership in the world.

The military’s involvement in activities to improve the lives of civilians around the world has grown dramatically over the last five years. It is attributable not to an increase in humanitarian need, substantial as it may be, but to recognition that such need poses a threat to American interests. This is true in combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, in less hostile environments such as the Gulf of Guinea—where political instability threatens the free flow of oil shipments—and on Mindanao in the Philippines, where a long-active Islamic separatist movement challenged the authority of the central government and supported Al Qaeda.

Read Reuben Brigety’s full testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Military’s Role in Development Assistance (CAPAF)