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Losing Hearts and Minds: Development and Its Discontents

There is an old Washington adage that the ultimate “man bites dog” story is one in which a politician tells the truth in public. Chris Matthews pointed out on his show recently that there was something almost uplifting about the response of the new senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who, when asked whether he was demanding changes in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to protect the interest of the Boston-based State Street investment firm, replied that, no, it wasn’t just for them. He went on to enumerate a number of other Massachusetts-based banks and brokerage houses that would benefit as well. The same applies to the development world, and I had a similar reaction to a recent paper by Andrew Natsios, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where he presided during most of the George W. Bush administration. Before joining USAID, he was head of overseas programs for World Vision, by far the biggest of the faith-based global relief agencies.

Now at the Center for Global Development, Natsios has produced one of the fiercest and most intelligent critiques of the U.S. government’s aid policies—one that is particularly persuasive because it is written by a man who has been both the administrator of American aid funds and one of the heads of an organization that has long been an important recipient of those monies ($344 million in cash and foodstuffs in 2009). Simply put, Natsios’s thesis is that the inevitable tension between accountability to the bureaucracy, as well as its appropriators in Washington, and good development practice in the field is now so skewed toward regulatory compliance that the U.S. global aid system is becoming ever more dysfunctional. Too often, Natsios argues, Washington’s diktat to its development specialists and its NGO and for-profit contractors “to measure and account for everything, and avoid risk” ends up fatally compromising sensible and effective action on the ground.

This is in large measure because of something that is at once obvious and almost invariably ignored—that, in Natsios’s words, “undertaking development work in poor countries with weak institutions involves a high degree of uncertainty and risk.” It is, in other words, precisely what the new bureaucratic norms make all but impossible. For, while it is possible to deliver goods and services because food aid or road building, to take two obvious examples, can be judged accurately by their visible results, projects designed to support local institutions or to foster reform are anything but subject to quick or easy evaluation. To put it bluntly, the bean counters are out of their depth. And yet, as Natsios emphasizes, “development is, at its root, an effort to build or strengthen institutions in poor and fragile states,” however counter-intuitive it may appear at first glance. Done properly, “all construction or service delivery projects should be subordinate to the larger institution-building task.”

This may seem like an arcane debate among specialists. It isn’t. Instead, it is a crucial issue for American foreign policy across the globe—above all, in the battle zones where U.S. forces are fighting the Jihadists, but, almost as importantly, in the so-called frontline states where Washington is using development aid to try to counter the inroads theses Jihadist groups are making, often by themselves using relief as a way of “winning hearts and minds.”  An example of this is the very effective ongoing relief effort that the Islamists have mounted to aid those displaced by the floods in Pakistan. The American media has been full of declarations by U.S. officials that in offering assistance, as the U.S. military is now doing, to a considerable extent with helicopters seconded from the battle space in Afghanistan, there is a chance to lessen America’s unpopularity in places like the Swat Valley. But the Jihadists’s efforts not only dwarf those of Pakistan’s government, which has conformed to the pattern of corruption, indifference, and, when finally mobilized, incompetence, for which it is justly notorious, but America’s as well.

A year ago, at U.S. insistence, the Pakistani army fought for Swat. With the floods, these forces have managed to lose it again. And, long after the U.S. helicopters are again flying combat missions over Kandahar, the Jihadist relief effort will be ongoing.

In her preface to Natsios’s paper, the president of the Center for Global Development, Nancy Birdsall, notes that President Obama’s new national security strategy has “[elevated] development alongside defense policy.” If this is the case, on the basis of the intellectual incoherence, bureaucratic compartmentalization, and fragmented lines of authority both for funding and management, then it is safe to say that the strategy is in shambles—and, at least if it is allowed to continue in its present shape, or, rather, shapelessness, it is almost certainly doomed to failure. It is all very well for General David Petraeus and his colleagues to have refurbished the Vietnam-era “winning hearts and minds” strategies in their counter-insurgency practices (the so-called COIN).

But, if it is possible at all, what Natsios’s report makes all too painfully clear—that is, if the daily news of one failure after another in Afghanistan and Pakistan had not done so already—is that it is not going to happen if the bureaucratic structures of U.S. development assistance are simply incompatible with those policies and programs development specialists believe have at least some chance of success.

Natsios is emphatically not arguing that development should be separated from American military and diplomatic aims in the battle space and the frontline states. It should be remembered that, when he was the head of USAID, Natsios told a meeting with representatives of mainline American relief organizations that they needed to understand and accept that their U.S. government-funded programs in Iraq were meant to buttress Washington’s military and diplomatic plans. And, in his paper, Natsios insists that evaluation standards for aid programs in places like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Palestine should be conceived as being fundamentally “political, not development, aid programs and should be judged by whether they win hearts and minds, attract the support of particular warlords or political factions, prop up fragile allies, or send diplomatic messages.” He notes, “we should stop applying development performance standards, and dispense with the polite pretense that they are development programs at all.”

But here, Natsios may be letting his understandable irritation with politically correct denials of these realities get the better of his reasoning. This is because winning hearts and minds, which is what the Obama administration and the senior leadership at the Pentagon profess to want to do, depends on these “best development practices” (the same ones Natsios recommends we need to stop kidding ourselves must or always can be followed across the theaters of the Long War). It is almost invariably incompatible with the propping up of warlords, the reassuring of tyrants, or the buttressing of political factions—in short, the approaches we are mostly taking on the ground in these places.

To put it starkly, the development work that might just possibly win over ordinary Afghanis, Pakistanis, or Yemenis—that is, the hearts and minds we really need to win over if we are to be successful—depends, as Natsios points out elsewhere in his paper, on institution building, that is, on reform on the ground. But supporting the warlords or funneling aid directly to the government of Pakistan, as Richard Holbrooke has succeeded in doing with much of the funding Congress has appropriated (the floods provide an object lesson in how well that is likely to work out), not only makes no significant contribution to winning any hearts and minds other than the privileged recipients of this largesse, it is actually inimical to it. It was because they understood this, even if Holbrooke and the senior leadership of the U.S. military apparently either do not or, more likely, do not wish to, that the principal U.S. NGOs campaigned so hard, even though, in the end, so fruitlessly, to have COIN objectives taken out of the requests for proposals that USAID has been issuing.

But, to his enormous credit, in a time when Washington is more focused on development issues than it has been for a generation but, if anything, seems more muddled than ever about development, Natsios has cut through the business-as-usual rhetoric that is still preponderant among policymakers and tried to start an adult debate. Given the current infantile political atmosphere, not to mention the cargo cult status liberals and conservatives alike have conferred on General Petraeus, the debate is unlikely to happen. But it should. There is an old Russian Jewish joke about a Cossack hetman about to kill two Jews during a pogrom when one of the Jews says, “Spare us, and I’ll teach your horse to talk.” The Cossack relents, saying that he will spare them and leave the horse. But, when he returns the following year, if the horse cannot speak, he will certainly kill them. They leave, and, once they have gotten away, the other Jew says, “What were you thinking of, are you crazy?” To which his friend replies: “Who knows? In a year, anything could happen. The hetman could die, we could die, or the horse could even learn to talk!”

I rate Natsios chances of starting a debate among those in a position to change policy no better than those of the two Jews in the story—that is, as virtually nil. Petraeus is already telegraphing his intention to postpone the American drawdown, and even to ask for more troops, and the Obama administration already seems to be telegraphing its intention to accede to his requests. Can anything be done? One fierce critic of U.S. policy in Afghanistan recently wrote that it was not yet quixotic to campaign for a better policy. “Hard is not hopeless,” he wrote. Perhaps. But, while there is always a chance, I see no rational reason to be hopeful. Nonetheless, in the spirit of that joke about the Cossack’s horse, let me end as the joke does: Who
knows? The Obama administration could even come to its senses. But I would not bet my daughter’s college fund on it.

David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.