The militarisation of aid: military forces as development and humanitarian actors

If the question as to what is legitimate aid spending is more problematic than might first appear, so too is the question as to who is a legitimate development actor. We are used to donors, international organisations such as the World Bank, UNDP, etc, non-governmental organisations, and now even philanthrocapitalists. But what about the military?

In 2006, the US army planned to undertake some 556 ‘humanitarian projects’ in 99 countries. These projects included building health clinics and schools, helping provide improved water supplies, protect villages and communities against flooding, as well as training officials how to respond to natural disasters. The US Department of Defense took a lead role alongside USAID in coordinating the official American response to the disaster caused by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. In Iraq, the US Army built schools, hospitals and other development projects as part of its effort to reconstruct the country following war and occupation. Indeed, between 2004-2010, the US Army Corps of Engineers undertook reconstruction projects to the value of over $9.1 billion, and providing jobs for 20,000 Iraqis. In Afghanistan, Green Berets have helped build new and expand existing health clinics and help in other local projects.

The US is not alone in relying upon its armed forces in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and increasingly ‘development’ activities. During the reconstruction efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, some 35 countries channelled their aid efforts through military or civil defence, and around 30,000 soldiers were engaged in relief activities. In Afghanistan, a group of aid agencies has calculated that international military forces had spent $1.7 billion of humanitarian development aid in the country by January 2010.

However, military intervention is controversial, especially if military leadership is seen to override civilian in responding to an emergency. International guidelines have sought to minimise this potential. The Oslo Guidelines (established in 1994 and updated in 2006) recommend:

“Foreign military and civil defence assets should be requested only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military or civil defence assets can meet a critical humanitarian need. … The military or civil defence asset must therefore be unique in capability and availability.”

Yet such distinctions have not always been the case. The DAC noted, for example, that US compliance with these guidelines was only put in place with 2009’s Department of Defense Instruction 3000.05 (p.79). Yet even so, questions remain about whether USAID fully  embraces international guidelines calling for full civilian leadership.

In some cases, the necessity for a rapid response in conditions where infrastructure has been destroyed or so seriously damaged as to preclude a civilian-led mission may be a good rationale for armed forces leading the response. But there are inevitable dangers with military-led operations, especially when those interventions are occurring in the midst of conflict. This ‘militarisation of aid’ that occurred especially from the mid-2000s in response to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (but also, to be fair, to major disasters such as the 2004 tsunami, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) has caused some to fear that humanitarian principles of neutrality are in danger of being subverted as aid increasingly reflects narrow national security and strategic interests. Many NGOs, in particular, have refused to work on programmes that involve military forces, for fear of compromising their perceived impartiality, concerned that they might be perceived to be part of an occupying force.

One area of concern is whether military forces are appropriate development and humanitarian actors, capable to delivering an effective response. According to a group of aid agencies, including Oxfam, Actionaid, Christian Aid, and Afghanaid:

“Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable.”

Moreover, projects undertaken by the military, such as building of schools, were perceived to be more likely to be targeted by Taliban fighters, thereby politicising interventions and putting lives at risk.

This might be true. However, NGOs themselves have faced questions as to their competence in many of these same arenas. A more problematic issue is the extent to which the militarisation of aid has been accompanied, or is driving, a view of aid which sees it as allied to the strategic objectives of the donor. The 2011 DAC Peer Review of US aid highlighted concerns over the priority given to strategic considerations in determining US aid policy:

“The US national security strategy drives the government’s engagement with partner countries. Its objective is to advance US values and interests in the areas of security and prosperity. The alignment of diplomacy, defence and development can be instrumental in supporting the development efforts of partner countries. However, the US needs to be careful when dealing simultaneously with geopolitical and security priorities and development assistance, ensuring that the security driver also supports development purposes.”

Whilst the US might be particularly overt in linking development and humanitarian aid efforts to security interests, it is not alone (and, to be fair, there does appear to have been a softening of this under the current administration).

That such aid is designed primarily to meet strategic concerns rather than broader humanitarian ends is clear, in the case of Afghanistan, by the dominance of Helmand in allocation of funding compared to more militarily secure provinces.

The question as to whether the military is an appropriate actor in development and humanitarian activity rests largely upon its effectiveness, and the precise structures and chains of authority that underlie its action. But the deeper question is whether aid that reflects the strategic (military, economic, or political) interests of the donor can ever really be considered an appropriate use of aid.

And this brings us back to the issue with which this week’s blogs started: what is a legitimate and appropriate use for aid money? Must it be explicitly and solely linked to the core objectives of the donor organisations mandate? Or are more oblique uses, such as police salaries and investigative units in the donor nation, or support for refugees living in that country, also considered development spending? How do donors account for their aid spending, and does it matter what is included, provided the overall levels meet stated commitments? And are some development actors more acceptable than others: if so why? Does it matter who is implementing a project provided it gets the job done? None of these are easy to answer, with plenty to argue from both sides. But they are also critical issues to engage with if development aid is to achieve the purposes for which it is intended, if governments are to be held accountable for their promises and their delivery, and if aid is to be delivered not just efficiently, but appropriately and with a view to the interests and needs of recipients, not the strategic gains to be made by donors.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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