Linda Polman on "Afghaniscam": Is U.S. "Aid" Making Things Worse?

It is frequently acknowledged that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is "failing." But a sharper question is less frequently posed: are the actions of the U.S. government making Afghans worse off than they would be if the U.S. were doing nothing in Afghanistan?

If Afghans would be better off if the U.S. were doing nothing in their country, that is not only a powerful indictment of current policy; it strongly suggests that the direction that U.S. policy ought to move in is in the direction of doing much, much less in Afghanistan.

If current policy is not making Afghans better off than if the U.S. were doing nothing, after nine years, two Presidents, two Secretaries of Defense, different generals, different force levels, many revisions of policy, thousands dead and maimed, and a huge expenditure of resources, we should be skeptical that any proposed policy which purports to be better than doing nothing is actually feasible. We should consider the possibility that our inability to do better than nothing in Afghanistan has deeper causes than Presidents or generals or Secretaries of Defense, causes which are more difficult, perhaps impossible, to change.

While Afghans clearly have little effective voice in our current policies, it is apparent that the interests of the Afghans do matter, even from the point of view of Washington, because if the majority of Afghans conclude that the actions of the U.S. are worse for them than if the U.S. did nothing, over time they can take actions which will compel the U.S. to move in the direction of doing nothing in their country.

And if this is the likely future -- that the majority of Afghans will take actions to compel the U.S. to move in the direction of doing nothing in their country -- then it is obviously in our interest to expedite this process, by taking domestic actions to compel the U.S. government to move more decisively in the direction of doing much less, to minimize the human suffering and waste of resources caused by our current policy.

Whether Afghans are worse off as a result of current U.S. policy is than they would be if the U.S. were doing nothing is a counterfactual, comparing the state of the world under a particular policy to what the state of the world would be if the policy were not present. Since it implies assessing a state of the world that does not exist, one shouldn't expect to answer it in a way that will end all debate. Someone can always say: "Well, if we hadn't done this, the situation would be even worse," and such a claim can't be proved or disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But making reasonable judgments about counterfactuals is an essential, daily, and unavoidable task on Planet Earth. Every time a new policy is introduced, or a present policy is maintained, a judgment about a counterfactual has been made.

A key sub-question about the "more harm than good" counterfactual in Afghanistan has been far from fully aired: is U.S. "aid" to Afghanistan doing more harm than good? If so, is "more harm than good" likely to change or persist? If "more harm than good" is likely to persist, should we not move decisively in the direction of doing much less in terms of "aid" specifically?

This is a key question raised by Linda Polman's new book, The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? It is not primarily a book about Western policy in Afghanistan, but a book that urges us to ask of each proposed Western "aid" intervention whether it is likely to do more harm than good.

Nonetheless, in her ninth chapter, "Afghaniscam," she does specifically address the question of Afghanistan. And putting the question of Western "aid" to Afghanistan in the context of the broader debate over the efficacy of Western aid is a starting point for consideration which should be much more common than it is. More often, it is simply assumed that we know in general how to do "aid" effectively, while Afghanistan may present particular challenges, which we may or may not be able to surmount.

But as Polman recounts, there is a longstanding debate in the aid community over whether some major Western aid interventions have done more harm than good, and in the examples that she recounts, the presence of armed conflict -- a frequent cause of humanitarian disasters -- and the question of whether Western aid actually contributed to the armed conflict which brought about the humanitarian disaster to which the aid was supposedly responding, make a regular appearance.

The fact that there is a longstanding debate about the consequences of Western aid interventions, especially in the context of armed conflict, doesn't tell you that a particular humanitarian aid intervention in the context of armed conflict is wrong. But it does suggest that there is always a question to be asked about whether a particular aid intervention in the context of armed conflict will do more harm than good, and in Afghanistan, that question has not received the airing it deserves.

And it should go without saying that consideration of that question in Afghanistan should be informed by the history of the question elsewhere.

For example, as Polman recounts, the Western aid intervention in the refugee camps in then-Zaire to which had fled Hutu leaders who had just carried out genocide in Rwanda was so controversial among aid groups who participated in it that Fiona Terry of MSF France described it as a "total ethical disaster." It is by now broadly accepted that the aid intervention did indeed fuel armed conflict. Western aid was subsidizing Hutu militias, as surely as U.S. "humanitarian aid" to groups fighting the Nicaraguan government fueled conflict during the Reagan Administration. But while supporting a guerilla war was clearly the aim of the Reagan Administration, supporting a guerilla war was not in general the intent of the aid groups operating in Zaire.

The current Western "aid" effort in Afghanistan is somewhere in between "contra aid" and the Western aid intervention in Zaire after the Rwandan genocide. Like "contra aid," it is an explicit part of a war policy. But like the Western aid intervention after the Rwandan genocide, it is not the explicit intent of many aid groups operating in Afghanistan to contribute to a war policy.

Nonetheless, if even a humanitarian intervention that is not part of a war policy can exacerbate armed conflict, it seems reasonable to suspect that an aid intervention that is part of a war policy is likely to do the same.

As Polman notes, U.S. officials have described U.S. NGOs as a "force multiplier" in the "War on Terror" and as "part of our combat team." It is not surprising that many in Afghanistan, including insurgents, perceive U.S. NGOs the same way. Polman writes:

"[With Western funding, NGOs] are supposed to run projects...that are aimed in part at depriving terrorists of their grassroots support...Warring parties at the receiving end are not dumb, deaf, or blind. Like those who give it, they see aid as an instrument of war and therefore regard aid workers collectively as part of the opposing force."

A report from MSF France noted:

"After the defeat of the Taliban, many institutional donors required NGOs and UN agencies to help stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. The vast majority of humanitarian actors placed themselves at the service of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and of the interim government. Both of these actors receive varying degrees of support from coalition forces.

NGOs and UN agencies thus abandoned the independence essential to providing independent aid and modeled their priorities on those of the new regime and its Western allies, who were still at war with the Taliban."

The fact that aid workers have been perceived as combatants has obviously contributed substantially to a lack of security for aid workers. This lack of security makes it extremely difficult to supervise projects in an environment where theft, corruption, and deceit are rampant. Polman writes:

"Neither the donors nor their [NGOs] dare to visit the projects they finance. The result is an unfathomable channeling of billions of dollars of aid that is highly susceptible to fraud."

Jean Mazurelle, former director of the World Bank in Kabul, estimated in 2006 that 35 to 40 percent of all international aid to Afghanistan was "wrongly spent."

If you could be sure that the 35-40% that was "wrongly spent" was safely ensconced in the pockets of Westerners and Afghans who simply wanted to live well, it would be still be outrageous from the point of view of the interests of US taxpayers and the majority of Afghans. But it wouldn't necessarily make life worse for the Afghans than setting the money on fire.

But we don't know where that money went. Some of it went to people with guns, who do not just want to live well. Since we don't know where the money went, we don't know if Western aid, on net, did more harm than good. It is possible, even likely, that the amount of the 35-40% "wrongly spent" which fueled violence more than canceled out, in its negative effects, the 60-65% that was not "wrongly spent."

And this ignores the question of to what extent 60-65% was "wrongly spent," even if every dollar was used for a promised project, if the projects were subordinate to an overall political goal of backing one side in a civil war.

The concerns raised in Polman's book should inform debate about what we are going to do in Afghanistan now. It has been common to counterpose a greater focus on humanitarian assistance as an alternative to the war policy we are currently pursuing. Polman's book shows it is not that simple.

Some reports have recently suggested that serious negotiations have begun between the U.S. and leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. I hope these reports are meaningfully true, and that they will create an opening to re-orient U.S. aid from support of a war policy to support of a peace and reconciliation policy. I hope that in the near future, every aid project funded by the West in Afghanistan will have a good answer to the question: "how will this project efficiently contribute, in its likely net effects, to de-escalating the conflicts in the country that produced the civil war in the first place?"