War? Aid?

The biggest war at the moment is the civil war in Somalia, started in 1991. It has claimed over half a million lives. Second, is the civil war in Syria which has led to about 400,000 deaths. Third, is South Sudan where approximately 400,000 have been killed. Yemen is a younger conflict, with over 230,000 deaths. Human suffering is at its worse in Yemen- it is held in the pincers of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates. Food and medical supplies have often been squeezed to a dribble. The US and the UK contribute to relief in the Yemen via the UN’s World Food Program and Unicef, while supplying arms to the side of Saudi Arabia.

The civil war in Afghanistan with an estimated 50,000 deaths continues. There are also lesser civil wars in Mali and Chad, (2000 deaths) Nigeria (10,000), Mozambique (100s), and in the Philippines (6000), among others. In Crimea, despite the Russian invasion, hardly anybody died. In Ukraine fighting can be described as intermittent and low-level. Serious casualties are rare.

Interstate wars appear to have come to a standstill. There is no Iran versus Iraq or India versus Pakistan, for example. (And there hasn’t been for many years.) This is an encouraging development for mankind. It shows that, given the will, diplomatic initiatives and the work of UN peacekeeping operations, progress to dampen down wars can be made. Since the end of the Cold War UN peacekeeping has expanded at a rapid rate, resulting in the bringing of peace to many of the world’s conflicts.  Even China contributes peacekeepers- it is 9th in the league table of givers. 

Besides that, group terrorist attacks have decreased markedly, except in the Middle East. Since 9/11 the US has suffered no terrorist attacks. There is terrorism in the US but it comes from native white people.

One way to exacerbate the continuation of civil war is to give foreign aid. Or is it the other way round?  The former is argued in a book, “Small wars, Big Data”, written by Eli Berman, Joseph Felter and Jacob Shapiro. They give the example of Afghanistan where the American USAID created the so-called Local and Governance and Community Development Program. It paid men to dig irrigation channels, build footbridges and shovel snow to clear paths to markets and health centers. The results were disappointing. The average district chosen was a bit more violent than non-selected districts before the program began but after it was completed violence worsened faster. At the end in an honest report USAID confessed that their program had “failed to foster stability”.

Food aid can be successful but there are a number of cases when it has been counterproductive. For years ago in my latest book I wrote about the days of the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When they faced defeat from invading Vietnamese forces they retreated to the Thai border where Unicef set up facilities to feed hungry families. But much of it was skimmed off by the Khmer Rouge leadership to feed their troops. What should Unicef have done? If it had pulled out the children would have starved.

Ripping off the givers of aid is a well-known technique of revolutionaries- as in Liberia’s civil war, with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and with the Serbs during their war against Bosnia and Croatia. Aid meant for everyone is captured by one side and distributed to their supporters or is sold on the black market to buy weapons. The worst offenders have been the Taliban who have grabbed more than a third of humanitarian aid sent to Afghanistan. Indeed, all kinds of aid, not just food, have been misappropriated. Contractors, who are often warlords themselves, have colluded with insurgents to extort money from the development effort. It remains to be seen if the Afghan government manages to use foreign aid more effectively and honestly when the American and Nato troops have departed.

In 1992, during the height of the Somali civil war, the US and the UN sent in soldiers to protect food aid shipments, but also financial aid meant to develop educational and health services. Much was sold on the black market and the money channelled to the warlords. Part of the reason the war intensified was that insurgents wanted to seize the keys to foreign aid. It appears that sometimes aid can prolong the duration of civil wars.

Much research has concluded that it is the poorer countries that are more likely to experience civil war or unsettling political strife. It could be because poorer countries often have high youth unemployment which seeds uprisings. Or it could be that richer countries have more resources to either buy off protests or to repress them. It could be a mixture of both when there is a significant inequality with 20% of the people rich and 80% poor, as in many Latin American countries and South Africa. Or it could be that the poor have less to lose in an insurgency- but contrawise, research in Pakistan has shown that the distaste for violent militants was 23 time stronger among the rural poor than among the middle-class and among poor urban people.

The civil war in Rwanda (which led to genocide) and Sierra Leone show clearly that lack of opportunity can be the trigger for violence. Yet other research in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines has shown the reverse. Perhaps it is the theory of rising expectations at work- higher employment rates can lead to more violence, not less.

Maybe this explains the negative results of the USAID programs in Afghanistan. They increased employment but also violence. The Special US Inspector General for Afghanistan concluded that the idea that “economic development and modernization foster stability” and that “more jobs means less support for insurgents” are “myths”.

If foreign aid can be counterproductive why not use other tools of development? Land reform, for example, which over many years and in many Third World countries has had great success in increasing the poor’s standard of living. This is because production per acre is usually greater in small peasant farms than in large farms and estates. The poor, post re-distribution, can make better use of the land than large farmers. They work harder for themselves and they are more employment-intensive. Those countries who have moved the fastest from poverty to well-being are those who engaged in serious land-reform- Japan, (pushed by the US occupiers after the end of World War 2), Taiwan, South Korea, parts of India, China, Costa Rica, Mexico and Bolivia in particular. Other countries which have never followed through on their promises of large-scale land reform, like Zimbabwe and South Africa, have failed economies.

Land reform programs do not correlate with increased violence. Quite the reverse. But they must be backed up by extension programs that introduce modern agricultural practices- new high-yielding seeds, fertiliser and improved tilling and irrigation practices. The Shah of Iran introduced land reform in 1963, supported by an enormous majority of Iranians, but without investment in new agricultural practices. The clergy who were against the reforms- they were major landowners- could point to agricultural production going downhill. It was one of the factors that led to the clergy under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrowing the Shah.

Withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan is well overdue but aiding the right kind of development in the right kind of way will remain the crying need. It’s not easy to find the right approach, especially when there is civil war, major civil disturbances and violent upheaval. But land reform is certainly a preferable tool for diminishing war than aid.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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