This blog was originally featured at AllAfrica.com.
In her recent Foreign Policy column, "The Pivot to Africa," Rosa Brooks made a plea for letting go of comfortable old assumptions about roles and missions between the civilian and non-civilian sides of the US government, particularly when it comes to US civil-military cooperation in Africa. My plea is for an evidence-based discussion of US development policy and its intersection with US national security.
US interests will be ill-served if we merely move from comfortable old (and false) assumptions about poverty and terrorism in Africa to comfortable new (and equally false) assumptions about "whole-of-government responses" to complex challenges. While the United States should of course think and work creatively, skepticism and, dare I say, opposition, from civilian agencies to AFRICOM taking on non-traditional military roles is not rooted in turf battles but in legitimate concerns about efficiency and results.
In terms of comfortable old assumptions about poverty and terrorism, the reality is far more complex than "poverty breeds terrorism." We know from empirical research that underlying "root causes"--socioeconomic, political, and cultural drivers of violent extremism--are important.
However, their salience varies greatly from one situation to another, their role is more often indirect than direct, and they are best understood in conjunction with other factors-- for example, the influence of a charismatic leader; the quest for dignity, recognition and respect; or a profound sense of marginalization and victimization.
If the Defense Department's humanitarian assistance in Africa is intended to prevent or counter threats to the United States from violent extremists, then these programs should be predicated on context-specific analysis of likely drivers of violent extremism and be independently evaluated to verify that the programs are effective. There is no evidence of either.
This has gotten lost in the rush to comfortable new assumptions about whole-of-government responses to complex challenges. AFRICOM was intended to be a new breed of geographic command: non-kinetic (no longer in the wake of the operation in Libya), whose primary objective would be to lend security sector support to diplomacy and development efforts to "prevent problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming catastrophes."
Specifically, it "would help build the capacity of African countries to reduce conflict, improve security, deny terrorists sanctuary and support crisis response." Accordingly, interagency participation in the command (for instance, one of two deputy commanders would be a civilian) would ensure that its efforts supported US diplomacy and development efforts.
In other words, AFRICOM was intended to support civilian efforts to confront drivers of violent extremism, not to attempt to do so directly.
Unfortunately, AFRICOM's mission was muddled when it was launched in 2007 and remains muddled today. As Brooks writes,
"The Pentagon is right to see poverty, underdevelopment, disease, repression, human rights abuses, and conflict as likely drivers of future security threats to the United States. And if the Defense Department's job is to defend the United States, the mission must surely include preventing threats."
Yet the fact that "poverty, underdevelopment, disease, repression, human rights abuses, and conflict" persist in many African countries is the result of myriad factors. Their mere existence does not make any of them a driver of transnational violent extremism. Nor is it evidence that civilian-led development and diplomatic efforts in these regards have failed or that a void exists that the Defense Department (DOD) must step into.
At the time AFRICOM was announced, US development-related assistance to Africa totaled nearly $9 billion; security assistance amounted to $250 million, or 1/36th of non-security related assistance. The proportion is still roughly the same now. If we look more specifically at DOD's so-called humanitarian assistance in Africa--more or less what we call development assistance in the civilian world--it is not clear that the Defense Department even knows how much it is spending.
Through some budget sleuthing, it appears that AFRICOM spent around $150 million on development and health-related activities in FY2011; 87% of this was HIV/AIDS-related. That left $17 million in "humanitarian assistance" for countering the "likely drivers of future security threats to the US"--hardly an amount to get excited over, much less see lasting impact from. In contrast, USAID's Africa bureau alone programmed more than $4.1 billion in development assistance for FY2011. (This excludes food aid and emergency response programs; Millennium Challenge Corporation funds; and other State-funded, non-security sector programs.) The militarization of US aid to Africa is a myth.
What I found irksome about the discussion at the time AFRICOM stood up--and I still find irksome today--is the suggestion that USAID's initial grumpiness at spending staff time and program resources to help AFRICOM do work that it had minimal resources and no competency or experience to do was somehow a sign of being unreasonable, short-sighted, and turf conscious. The real root of this grumpiness came from understanding that "development is more than improvements in people's well-being: it also describes the capacity of the system to provide the circumstances for that well-being," to borrow some words from my colleague, Owen Barder. Development is not simply providing an input (digging a well or handing out used clothes) that improves a person's well-being for only as long as the assistance is provided.
Yet there is still little evidence that the Defense Department grasps that development is more than temporary fixes, much less that it understands how security and development intersect in specific situations. Introducing any resource into a resource-scarce environment is an inherently political act, affecting the haves and have-nots. The non-security sector programs DOD conducts are largely ad hoc and without regard for a broader development strategy or plan to support lasting change. In fact, they are explicitly intended to increase the visibility, access, and influence of DOD above all else.
While USAID is not a perfect agency when it comes to fostering development around the world, it is a serious professional institution with more than 50 years of development experience, lessons learned, expert staff, resources, and credibility with the peoples and governments where it works. In Africa, security is a pre-requisite for development; AFRICOM's role in helping to professionalize African militaries is vitally important to achieving US governance and development objectives there. DOD and USAID should be informed of the other's priorities and coordinate strategies and efforts where it makes sense; some organizational integration can help this. But that does not mean either should attempt to do the other's job.
Development done badly is not only a waste of taxpayer resources; it's harmful to the societies we're trying to assist and detrimental to the rest of the US government's development efforts--and, by extension, to our broader national interests. If development progress in Africa is important to our national security, then it's too important to leave it in the hands of newcomers without the knowledge, expertise, mandate, or resources to help promote it effectively. If that's what whole-of-government means, then we should expect outcomes that fall far short of our goals.