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March 10, 2011

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March 10, 2011

How not to run an aid programme: Afghanistan

March 10, 2011
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US counterinsurgency in Afghanistan


‘The American marine captain [Patrick Lavoie – see pic] only has to step out of his base to be overwhelmed by turbaned men anxious to be his best friend. All along the main road they try to catch his eye and beg him for money to spruce up their shops. As part of his campaign to smarten up the market, which is not especially shabby, Mr Lavoie is happy to oblige. But they must follow his rules, including putting up signs above their shop. Many are in dodgy English, in a town where few can even read Pushtu. One ten-minute conversation with some vegetable-sellers ends with Mr Lavoie agreeing to give them over $8,000 to fix up their stalls. “I’m like Santa Claus!” he says.

With their programme of small grants, goodies such as a surfaced road and street lighting, and a policy of putting many of the district’s “fighting-age” males on the payroll of a rash of new defence militias, the marines are spending $500,000 every ten days in a poor rural community of 250,000. The people have known only predatory government or Taliban rule. It is the sort of splurge that horrifies development experts.’

Yep, I’d say that this recent Economist account is pretty horrifying, wouldn’t you? Just how does this have anything to do with long term development, rather than just buying some short-term acceptance of the US military (a clue: it doesn’t)? For good measure, the article quotes an ‘old saw that you can rent an Afghan, but you can’t buy him.’

For more on the dangers of this kind of nonsense, check out Whose Aid is it Anyway? Politicizing aid in conflicts and crises, a recent Oxfam paper. Wonder if Captain Lavoie has a copy. My favourite stat from that report: ‘the Spanish army’s high-profile vaccination programme and water distribution following the Haiti earthquake cost over 18 times that of comparable civilian efforts, which the Spanish military partly duplicated.’


  1. Interesting and yes, quite horrifying. In fact, in addition to not doing much for long term development prospects, this approach may not even help to buy acceptance of the US military (and other forces). A recent impact evaluation commissioned by BMZ found that the main driver of Afghan attitudes towards the international mission is perceptions of their own safety and security. Small aid projects can improve perceptions (including of views on the Aghan government) but only in relatively stable and safe areas. The evaluation concludes that using aid to “buy support” in areas where insecurity is rising is basically a wasted effort. Aid is more effectively and efficiently used in secure regions. The report is available on DEReC: “Assessing the Impact of Development Cooperation in North East Afghanistan 2005 – 2009″ [http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/17/31/46785983.pdf ]

  2. Interesting article. But I’m wondering why you’re bothering to evaluate it against the standard of an “aid project”. It doesn’t seem that anyone claimed it was an aid project. It’s a political effort and should be evaluated against that standard.

  3. Please excuse my ignorance. But apart from inefficiency and NGOs being mistaken for military, is this actually bad or horrific?

    Are the 250,000 people who are being given this windfall in a worse situation than before? Of course it could be better focussed or achieve more and it is an unsustainable bubble of wealth in the region, but surely this will stimulate markets and give some power to people who had less before?

    Would an international company moving in for 6 months and paying huge wages be equally bad?

    Of course, if it was my donated money that was being given out like this I would be horrified, but it isn’t.

    Duncan: I guess it passes the ‘chucking money out of helicopters is generally better than no money at all’ test, but that strikes me as a pretty low bar……

  4. What I find frustrating is that the US military is not learning from its own experience. More than one after action review has found that these commander’s emergency funds do not achieve any goals – political or humanitarian – but the military ignores its own conclusions to keep on handing out this money.

    Pete H – one review found that this money actually went to support insurgents because it’s given out without proper research and controls.

  5. Thanks for the replies, I came to this blog posting from reading about the news in Libya, so I was reading it with a different context of what is ‘horrific’, especially when linked to a military.

    I’ll agree it is dreadfully inefficient and I can understand why professionals in the field (this doesn’t include me) are horrified by such a simplistic approach to their profession.

  6. I agree with BA. You have not included the first sentence of the article. “HAD Patrick Lavoie strolled down the main bazaar in Marja a year ago, locals would have greeted him with sniper fire and roadside bombs.”

    I’d say this is military expenditure to help keep GI’s safe but not development , though from the photos is this marine not your long lost twin brother ?

  7. Since the purpose of the program is to bribe Afghans into not shooting at Americans until our leaders muster the strength of character to pull us out of Afghanistan, that seems like a description of a program which is working perfectly.

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