At first glance, Somaliland is an interesting case study on overcoming in spite of obstacles rather than a study on the benefits of aid. While it is nice to think Somaliland is overcoming without aid, doing so is not a condemnation of aid. (When confronted with illiteracy, it is refreshing to find a child who taught herself how to read, but that doesn’t mean we stop supporting literacy programs.) Many would contend that Somaliland would stabilize faster or be more stable had aid been available. Not much use in arguing, because there’s no way to study that particular hypothesis. However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to link this case study to the overall analysis of the efficacy of aid. From a logical perspective, the question of the efficacy of aid (Does aid help stabilize a country?) is only peripherally related to a case study not involving aid (Is it possible to stabilize without aid?). That is unless or until, like Eubank, we consider that aid may hinder stabilization.
The international community has a pattern of introducing radical change into the economy of a country immediately following international military operations. We take pride in it. This country is suffering from a condition that necessitates international intervention, but the international community does not abandon the population after military operations. We charitably stay to help fix the country back up with an influx of money. The question that has plagued two generations of “nation builders” in Africa is whether that investment has fixed everything or anything. There seems to be growing support for Thomas Bauer’s work 40 years ago predicting the failure of international aid.
Counterinsurgent theorists like Bernard Fall contend that a government losing to an insurgency isn’t being outfought, it is being outgoverned. The counter-insurgency response uses a rapid insertion of aid to fill a vacuum left after a competing government is temporarily removed from the battlefield. The hope is to capitalize on a permissive environment and quickly expand governance before the competing movement can reorganize. Even if the aid is sustainable in total, the rate at which it was introduced is, by design, as fast as possible. Rapid change in response to turbulence.
A country like Somaliland that does not receive an influx of international aid experiences much more gradual and incremental change. They may not have chosen to be denied aid, but the result was a slow, more organic evolution of the economy. It wasn’t kickstarted. It grew slowly over time.
My numerous helicopter flights over Nangarhar have afforded me an excellent view of the land. I’ve seen fractal images in the valleys: in the snow in winter, in the river in spring, and in the fauna in summer. Fascinating Mandlebrot sets appear everywhere. (See the description of the seahorse on the Wikipedia entry on Mandlebrot sets.) They remind me that I am an organism, made up of trillions of cells working together, and one cell in a larger effort working in Afghanistan. This is an important lesson because it implies that there is symmetry across scales in life. We can expect a population to react to stimulus in many of the same ways that an individual will react to a stimulus on a smaller scale. This is obviously a theoretical argument. In physics, there is a balance between experimental and theoretical physicists. That the theoretical physicists work with equations does not make their work not applicable to the world. Their work is borne out by the world. We engage in theory because it pertains to the world. Reading about Somaliland and considering the fractal nature of the world makes me consider our efforts in Afghanistan differently. We know that the human body does not react well to a large insertion of foreign bodies. The implication at a societal level is that a nation-state will also have difficulty in adapting to a large scale insertion of external force.
A large influx of international aid weakens a country by the very fact that it is foreign in nature and organisms cannot adapt to the introduction of overwhelming change in a short period of time.
At the outset of this blog, I mentioned this was going to be an abstract argument. And that is the borderline metaphysical extrapolation behind this blog. It is something I sense. This hypothesis may be tough to swallow for people who place less value in the power of fractals. As a systems engineer, I’ve worked with systems of systems. Life itself is a complex system of complex systems. We tend to think of distinct lives. Two people. A person and a dog. A person and a tree. But at some level, the pollinator and the plant are part of the same life, dependent on each other for each other’s mutual survival.
Afghanistan is alive, as all countries are. Countries do not react well to stress. They do not react well to change. They do not react well to the introduction of foreign elements. The US population was content as the mixing pot of immigrants until too many immigrants started coming across our southern border. Just as a body may reject an organ introduced to save its life, it may be that our international aid into a developing country may force an organic rejection even if it is the lifeblood necessary to save the country.
My experience in Afghanistan has shifted the way I view international aid and the way I think it should be applied. I have not swung to the Bauer camp that views international aid as an inherently flawed outreach. I think that often those contributing international aid do so with an ego that we know better how and where it should be applied. After all, we are the ones that accumulated the technology, wealth, and stability to be in a position to provide aid. This is a critical flaw in developmental assistance.
On my last mission of this deployment in Afghanistan, I was confronted with a peer who advocated building a road between a soon-to-be-finished bridge and another section of road. This village currently is only accessible by ferry, but the 2+ year, $6 Million bridge will change all of that. What the bridge will not change are the dirt roads for the vehicles after crossing the bridge. The hope is that the bridge will open up new commercial routes that require a real road. The government has not made plans to build a road themselves, and the community hasn’t requested a road from the government. Yet this fellow coalition member is pushing for a road, sooner rather than later, for fear that if we don’t build it now, it will never be done. His driving factor for building the road was “it needs to be done”. This position implies that when the local government isn’t capable enough to identify its own needs, international aid should be applied. Obviously, because we have the Guns, Germs, and Steel, we must know better. We already built them a bridge; it’s only natural to connect the bridge to the highway system in order to make the initial investment worthwhile.
As Somaliland implies, I’m not sure that’s the case. I actually believe that in this case, a bridge to nowhere makes more sense because it drives the people and the government to adapt to change as change occurs. If the bridge convinces them that the road is necessary, then they will introduce the road into their own system rather than for a foreign entity to continue to change the internal composition of life in the district of Lal Pur.
We want an Afghanistan that is still Afghanistan but ‘better’ Afghanistan. Same people, less poverty and death, more economic opportunity, and more respect for the sovereignty of others. That sovereignty one is tricky. We want Afghanistan to be independent, and we are trying to create that independence by introducing foreign aid. As in genetic research, we are not adept enough to understand how an organism reacts to changes in its genetic makeup. At some point, as we change the genetic makeup of how this country operates, by building roads and bridges and even the hydrodam I want built, we are changing Afghanistan in ways which we do not understand. We may not like the result.
A lot of my peers in Afghanistan found me annoying because I am considered an idealist. (I’m sure my arrogance doesn’t help.) Idealism is funny. I don’t try to stand in the way of progress for an ideal. I promote progress through a different approach because of how I interpret the environment. I suppose that maybe idealism. I want to build a hydrodam on the Kunar River, but I did not submit it for funding by ISAF. I want GIRoA to build it themselves. This is the lesson from Somaliland. When a government and a population are ready for growth and change, they will pursue it. I think international aid can facilitate that growth, but it has to be primarily organic.
There are many management theories on whether sudden or gradual change is more successful. Most of these theories focus on introducing change into a static or stable system. The cases of Afghanistan and Somaliland raise a different question. When a system is already turbulent, is incremental change even possible? Incremental from what? From the system that was in some way flawed enough to be overcome in turbulence of from the turbulence itself? However, a country is full of many systems, and some of those systems continue through war. In a time of such severe instability, those stable systems may be the anchor that ultimately allows the system as a whole to survive.
I think there are smart ways to use foreign aid. Invest in slow, deliberate change. Identify the stable systems that anchor a country, and reinforce them rather than try to improve them. Develop relationships. There are immediate interventions needed to save lives. Vaccinations, clinics, schools, access to clinics and schools. While investing in those essential services, we must recognize the turbulence we introduce into the community and economy. I believe we must resist the urge to fix everything according to our model of what this country needs.
I think the fractal theory of nature applies here as well. Microfinance has been demonstrated to be a successful implementation because it is introduced on a limited scale at the individual level. I believe international aid should be applied in the same way. Consider how much the country can afford to pay back even when the aid is donated without concern for repayment. Consider the risk of defaulting and the risk of failure of the business model before investing. These interventions require a lot more study and patience. That is a tall order among us Type-A military leaders who want results immediately. That’s a tall order when we have constant reminders that 2014 is getting closer and closer each day.
Somaliland and Afghanistan are only two countries and hardly prove anything. Still, we must be open to the idea that the change we introduce creates destabilizing turbulence in spite of our good intentions and charity.