THE BLOG
05/21/2013 04:56 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

Review: Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

If Christopher Coyne's new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails needed a subtitle, I'd be willing to offer up "We Meant Well, Too."

Coyne's book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I'll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria...) will not accomplish America's national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.

The Man

Coyne's book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?

Central to Coyne's explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of "the man of the humanitarian system." An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith's "man of the system," the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can't help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne's theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq's Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.

The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne's book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.

Subtractive Harm

With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money "spent" actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.

Some more bad news: in today's development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a "weapons system," and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.

Real Harm

In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.' need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren't ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use "their" local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.

(One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented "I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.")

And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in "helpful" foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.

Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department-hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, bloody harm is often done under the guise of good.

The End?

Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.

And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne's book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That's a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.