Sunday, December 7, 2008

Humanitarian intervention, social science, and "the new aid imperialism"

In a review of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, William Easterly criticizes what he calls "the new aid imperialism," i.e., "the willingness to combine foreign military intervention with traditional aid work" in developing countries ("Foreign Aid Goes Military!" The New York Review of Books, 12/4/08).

Easterly notes, among other things, that the "share of U.S. foreign aid distributed by the Pentagon increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2005." What Easterly does not note, however, is that the overall amount of U.S. foreign aid increased from 2002 to 2005, so the Pentagon was distributing 22 percent of an expanded pie, not a shrinking one, which thus still left more in absolute terms for civilian agencies, such as the Millennium Challenge Corp. and AID, to distribute. Nonetheless, it's true that the line between military activity and foreign aid, as far as the U.S. is concerned, has been blurring in recent years.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Easterly thinks it's bad, and he does have a case to make. In using a review of Collier's book to make it, however, he runs into some difficulties. I'll mention a couple of them.

1) The basic argument of Collier's book, according to Easterly, is that the poorest countries in the world "are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, civil war, military coups, looting of natural resources, and failed states. They need outside rescue by the rich nations." Easterly questions this argument on several grounds, accusing Collier's book of failing adequately to distinguish correlation from causation and of engaging in selection bias. Among other things, Easterly notes that poor countries have experienced "growth both directions."
"Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, and Zimbabwe had good growth between 1960 and 1980, before falling prey to economic decline -- brought on by political disasters and other factors -- from 1980 to the present. Conversely, Bangladesh, India, Uganda and Vietnam [my emphasis] had mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980, before registering impressive growth from 1980 to the present. If there is so much movement into and out of success and failure, it is hard to argue looking forward that the Bottom Billion are trapped in failure."
Vietnam? Why do you suppose Vietnam might have had "mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980"? Might it have had something to do with the facts that virtually the entire able-bodied adult male population, at least of N. Vietnam, was mobilized for military service, and that the U.S., from 1965 to the early 1970s, dropped more bombs on N. Vietnam than were dropped during the entirety of World War II? These count as extraordinary circumstances that give the case of Vietnam no probative weight at all, in my opinion, on the point Easterly is adducing it to support.

2) Easterly writes:
"...[B]oth statistical exercises and case study analysis give ambiguous direction on military intervention [for humanitarian or ostensibly humanitarian ends]. I think the moral of the story is that, as tragic as poverty and violence are, social science does not have much to offer as a guide to using military force to stop them. This is not so surprising: why should social scientists have any strategic expertise on whether a contingent of foreign or international troops will pacify a country easily (Sierra Leone) or with great difficulty, or not at all (Somalia)? It is regrettable if social science is used to give spurious cover to military intervention."
Easterly is right to strike a note of caution, I think, but he may go a bit too far in dismissing social-scientific expertise: surely there are scholarly experts on Sierra Leone and Somalia who might have provided insights about the relative likelihood or unlikelihood of successful intervention in the two countries.

In making his case, Easterly himself draws on social science, namely the research of political scientist Alan Kuperman, who has written about "the moral hazard" of humanitarian intervention. In Easterly's words, Kuperman "argues that the hope of international intervention may embolden rebels to undertake military action that will inevitably catch many civilians in the crossfire between the rebels and the government before the interveners arrive. This is exactly what happened with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose members admitted in interviews with Kuperman that their violence against Serbs starting in 1997 was motivated by hopes of foreign intervention." (Although Easterly does not give a footnote citation to an article by Kuperman, I assume he is drawing on Kuperman's "The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans," International Studies Quarterly 52:1, March 2008, pp.49-80. Full disclosure: I have not read the article, only the abstract.)

Political judgments about whether, when and how to intervene in humanitarian crises such as genocide or ethnic cleansing must be recognized as political and not masquerade as purely scientific, neutral decisions: on this point Easterly is unquestionably correct. But in his concern to reveal the weaknesses of what he takes to be unduly optimistic and pro-intervention standpoints, Easterly may be in danger of condemning, by implication if not explicitly, all social-scientific efforts to understand the consequences of intervention and the possible conditions of its success or failure. Careful case studies backed up, where appropriate, by statistical analysis that does not claim too much for itself may still have a role to play in helping politicians reach defensible, intelligent, and practical judgments on these matters.

But you can read the Easterly piece for yourself (see link above) and reach your own conclusions.

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