The consequences of using humanitarian aid for geopolitics
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Nonprofits that deliver international aid sometimes face the distrust of the very people they want to help — a stigma that Western money comes with ulterior motives.
Even though it suffers from terrible poverty, the African country of Eritrea banned foreign aid this year because of that suspicion. President Isaias Afworki said that "aid is meant to cripple people."
The fears of some developing countries will likely be exacerbated by an investigative report published Monday by The Intercept, which found that the Pentagon spied on North Korea via a Christian aid group that was providing basic humanitarian assistance from 2004 to 2013.
The U.S. had long wanted to gather more intelligence on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but Washington had no espionage presence inside North Korea — that is, until it forged a relationship with Kay Hiramine, CEO of Humanitarian International Services Group, who had his aid workers unwittingly smuggle in equipment that allowed the U.S. to both measure nuclear anomalies and disrupt North Korean military devices, according to The Intercept.
The use of aid work to advance Western interests has happened before, and remains controversial within the development community.
Sam Worthington, president of the NGO association InterAction, told The Intercept that the U.S. manipulation of aid workers “violates international principles” and jeopardizes legitimate aid and development workers, he said.
In 2011, the CIA hijacked a vaccination program to help gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. It worked, according to National Geographic, but when the news broke, the program’s doctor landed in prison, and since bin Laden’s death, the Taliban has assassinated medical professionals working on polio eradication.
Along with the risk to aid workers themselves, another concern is that these actions by the U.S. make it harder to administer aid at all. The vaccination scheme fostered anti-vaccine sentiment in Pakistan, which led to a resurgence of polio.
In the last decade, nearly a billion dollars have been disbursed in Pakistan via U.S.A.I.D., yet The New York Times reported last month that it has had little impact on the ground, in large part because this money is often used to advance American business interests.
“Critics accuse the agency of taking on projects with little consideration for local priorities and being over-reliant on American contractors with little development experience,” according to The Times, which added that these problems are exacerbated by anti-Americanism.
“There is also this deep-seated suspicion that this aid — whatever the objectives — are kind of subject to the U.S. foreign policy’s short-term goals,” said Raza Rumi, a fellow of the National Endowment of Democracy, which does development work in Pakistan.
The Times reported that development work by China, which is much more politically hands-off in its foreign aid policy, has been much more effective in Pakistan for this reason.
The debate over politics and foreign aid could ultimately be over trade-offs between short-term and long-term prosperity. If the aid community rejected all politics, developing countries could be more receptive of international help; but if the aid community embraces politics, it could lead to better government in countries receiving aid.
In 2013, Bolivian President Evo Morales accused U.S.A.I.D. of conspiring against his government and expelled the organization from his country. In response, Foreign Policy magazine argued that although such actions are unfortunate, it’s still natural and necessary for international aid to play politics. During the middle of the 20th century, NGOs sought to detach themselves from all geopolitics, but by the 1990s, donors “accumulated considerable knowledge about how to make a positive political difference” and naturally “embraced the idea that governance failures in aid-receiving countries were often at the core of disappointing socioeconomic results.”
“Building schools and providing textbooks without paying attention to a government’s willingness and capacity to manage educational finances cleanly, hold teachers accountable, and ensure equal access to education is not a recipe for success,” Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont of Foreign Policy argued. “And providing support to a government without attention to its human rights record or practices of social inclusion is not likely to win durable friends, as the case of Egypt under Mubarak so vividly demonstrates."