The Failures of Long Distance Social Engineering

One particularly attractive fantasy dies hard: Let's send over some of our government officials or volunteers, loaded with good intentions and some money, to turn an illiterate, corrupt regime into an American suburb. Quickly (if only to "drain the swamp in which terrorists thrive"). Cheaply (there is not much tolerance for foreign aid among our voters). And on the run (no need to learn the local language and culture; we are soon on the way to develop the next nation).

When reality finally set in, we found rather sobering accounts. One such account is the Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East by Neil MacFarquhar. The book chronicles one reconstruction debacle after another. Here is a teaser, for the rest, see the book: In Lebanon in the late 1990s, the United States tried to help the Lebanese combat hashish cultivation by promoting dairy farming with 3,000 fancy American dairy cows. The farmers knew nothing about the care of this kind of cows, could not afford the imported feed they needed, and blamed the United States when the cows could not produce enough milk to make them economically viable. Iran learned about the American debacle and granted the farmers $50 million aid, complete with cows that were cheaper and easier for the farmers to maintain.

Now turn to the latest report on USAID's efforts in Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in The Washington Post. His short article exposes one calamity after another. Teaser: the United States invested $40 million in Afghanistan to launch a strawberry plantation on soil too salty to grow crops; built a highway from Kabul to Kandahar using asphalt too thin to withstand melting snow; and laid a sixth of a mile of Bolivian cobblestone road that hurt the hooves of Afghan camels. Read the rest and cry -- or better yet, wake up.

Even in countries with far more stability and infrastructure than Iraq and Afghanistan, development aid has often fallen painfully short of its goals. More than half of World Bank investment recipients from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s had the same or worsening rates of per capita income as before they received aid. Corruption and mismanagement of funds run rampant on both sides of reconstruction efforts. By attempting multiple projects simultaneously, each far too ambitious in its own right, on ever-tightening aid budgets, the West often causes more problems than it solves.

The lesson? Less is more. The United States, other nations and international institutions who are out to help develop far away places need to greatly scale back their promises and ambitions and instead focus their always limited resources on a few carefully selected projects chosen based on a deep understanding of the local culture and how it does business. At the top of the short list of such projects should be those that soon can be taken over by the local people and that have a multiplier effect, so that success on one front (say, in Iraq, ensuring that less oil is stolen and more is making it to the market, through legitimate channels) will help many others (increased revenue available for many other projects). Above all, we must take a deep breath. Development at best is slow and complicated, and advances by taking at least one step back for every two forward.

**I will respond to the comments of those persons who are willing to identify themselves, because I hold this essential for a civilized dialogue.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale, 2007). He can be contacted at