Bill Easterly stirred up the blogosphere last week with a call for USAID to get out of the national security business, declare that “aid is for poverty relief and only for poverty relief,” and “build a firewall between USAID and the defense department.”

Nancy Birdsall replied on this blog that Easterly is too quick to jettison Pakistan.  But in CGD’s spirit of open debate, I want to argue that Easterly’s critique is much harder to dismiss in Afghanistan.

The rhetoric of aid to Afghanistan is about “winning hearts and minds,” aka WHAM.  Clearly WHAM is not development.  But the question remains, within a national security context, does the model work?

Can aid WHAM?

There is a growing body of evidence that giving people considerable sums of money and goods does in fact lead to gratitude – either for the government or the foreign donor.  (Shocking, I know.  But there are RCTs to back me up.)

The Asia Foundation recently released findings from its annual “Survey of the Afghan People”, which found that sympathy for the motives of the insurgency plummeted from 56% in 2009 to 29% in 2011.  And there is solid evidence that aid deserves at least a sliver of credit for this victory in the war for public opinion.

Last week, a team from MIT and the World Bank released a new working paper summarizing results from a large-scale randomized evaluation of the Afghan government’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) – one of the largest and most highly praised conduits for aid monies.  The results are positive, if not exactly value for money: for a cost of roughly $200 per household the NSP raised the proportion of villagers who reported improvements in their economic conditions by 5%, and raised the share who felt government officials act for the benefit of all villagers by 4 to 6% across virtually all levels of government.  This is not an entirely isolated finding: World Bank research on aid relief to Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake also found a significant impact on public opinion, in that case benefiting foreign donors.

Is WHAM the point?

Note what the researchers did not find in Afghanistan’s NSP villages: any reduction in violence.  A massive influx of aid left people with positive feelings about the government.  But the rate of security incidents in and around the village was unchanged.  Indeed, a recent study out of UC Berkeley examining a similar World Bank aid program in the Philippines found precisely the opposite: aid projects may be a magnet for insurgents.  Municipalities just within the eligibility threshold for the Philippines’ flagship anti-poverty grant program suffered significantly higher casualties in the country’s longstanding civil conflict than municipalities just outside the cutoff for eligibility.

If aid is so bad at quelling insurgency, why does the U.S. military continue expand its aid model of “Money as a Weapons System”?  This initiative, known as the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP), doles out cash for small, relatively ad hoc reconstruction and humanitarian projects that have been derided as “quick impact, quick collapse”.  In 2010, CERP spending reached $1 billion in Afghanistan, roughly a quarter of all non-security related US aid to the country.

I know of no study that attempts to rigorously measure the development impact of CERP spending.  But that’s the point.  CERP is about military tactics, not development impact.  And on this front, a much touted study just published in the Journal of Political Economy (ungated version here) provides some evidence that CERP works.  Districts receiving more CERP funds in Iraq saw a significant decline in insurgent attacks, controlling for a host of other factors.  Notably, the authors conducted the same analysis using non-CERP reconstruction spending and found no effect, suggesting these small-scale, “quick impact” projects may be well-suited to the military’s needs.

So, returning to Easterly’s challenge to USAID: If WHAM seems to be missing the point, and the Pentagon is refining its own models of aid for its own goals, why shouldn’t USAID re-focus its energies on its core mission of development, and leave the war to the experts?

Over the next several months, my colleagues and I at CGD will be digging deeper into these issues and examining the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan -- splicing and dicing data on USAID and Pentagon projects, socio-economic conditions, and the violence itself.   There’s some hard thinking about aid in conflict zones going on within the agency (see here) and those new initiatives deserve a closer look.  We’d love to have your ideas and comments on what you think the open empirical questions are in this ongoing debate.