ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Although aid and the military are often seen as being diametrically opposed, the skill sets and approaches that both efforts require for success are like a horse shoe, where the seemingly opposite ends are in fact closer to one another than the views and practices represented by the majority who hold space in the middle ground. The U.S. government first recognized the utility of foreign aid as a tool of diplomacy during World War II with the Marshall Plan. The U.S. military and international aid infrastructures both grew over the intervening decades and their identities have diverged in the public eye, but in practice are increasingly intertwined.
Protecting the deliverers
A widely underestimated and misunderstood aspect of the successful function of non-governmental organizations and government implementing partners is the fact that in many areas NGOs need armed security escorts. While this truth is anathema to many groups and individuals, it does not make it any less necessary. The simple fact is that aid deliverers are in the business of reaching the most underserved and at-risk populations and they categorically tend to reside in the most inaccessible and often contentious areas.
In a recent posting, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security succinctly argued that contributions made by non-military personnel are often unrecognized or underappreciated because the public often lacks an accurate understanding of what roles these individuals choose to fill, "Contrary to popular perceptions, diplomats, aid workers and civilian contractors on the battlefield arguably expose themselves to more danger on a daily basis than most members of the military serving in combat support assignments. But they receive none of the credit and few of the benefits that the latter do."
The truth is that in some places aid organizations plainly cannot build schools or dig wells or deliver medical aid if there are not "guns for hire" watching their backs. These are the same individuals who are often accused of being "mercenaries" when they protect U.S. State Department convoys but what will the general public say when they learn that those same types of firms are helping government relief agencies reach the most disenfranchised communities or that without their security services the most vulnerable populations could be ignored? These issues are not black and white and nor should be the labels placed on such protective services either.
That being said, it is important to recognize that the use of private security companies by contracted implementation partners, as well as U.S. government personnel, inherently blurs the line of impartiality of aid workers as noncombatants. Many aid workers do face the risks like the ever-present threat of kidnapping in complex or conflict environments. Often NGO workers simply do not have the training to conduct counter-surveillance and accurately assess the risks of the environments that they are working in. In instances like this the presence of private security details can effectively mitigate risks that endanger not only the NGO personnel but also the lives of the U.S. troops who are obligated to conduct search and rescue missions for U.S. nationals who have been abducted.
Getting the "what" where it needs to be
Although not popularly (or recently) known for its role in alleviating human suffering, the U.S. military is one of the most capable deliverers of aid and relief. The American military produces excellent warriors but its real strength lies in logistical capability.
The military can realize greater efficiencies through economies of scale when dealing with logistics and transportation than any humanitarian group or NGO could ever hope to achieve. Although imperfect and redundant in many ways, the U.S. military still possesses one of the most meticulously evaluated supply-and-delivery chain systems in the world. With more thoughtful application of the military's capabilities to the needs of humanitarian missions, the military could offer many valuable lessons to suppliers in the aid and development sectors.
Looking forward, it is clear that the military is preparing to shift repurpose many of its materiel assets to more humanitarian uses as the United States draws down from engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the better-explained goals is to encourage the military to prepare to respond to natural disasters in many ways, not the least of which is the repositioning of military gear from Afghanistan into other theaters the U.S. Department of Defense can efficiently respond from.
Aid as a weapons system
The Department of Defense has painstakingly assessed the efficacy of using money as a weapons system and that does break down into using aid money in a calculated manner to achieve the social or political outcomes that are desired. This paradigm emerged to the fore in the last decade, when the military realized the utility of using coalition money to defeat counterinsurgencies without creating collateral damage through such measures as job creation, infrastructure investment and the offsetting of malicious actions by offering viable alternatives.
Whether it is an intended outcome or a by-product, development is political and development often comes from aid. This progress is political in that where it goes, who it is disbursed by, what entity administers it, and what the purpose is are all value judgments that may appear calculated and that do, in fact, make a difference. Such inevitable judgments, much like the consequences of showing up with an armed escort, must be part of the calculus of aid delivery, regardless of whom or what the funding entity is.
While this increase in funding is beneficial in that it provides more resources to bolster services that assist underserved, vulnerable, and needy populations, it will likely continue to produce unintended repercussions beyond those we have already seen, such as the funneling of aid money to protection rackets run by insurgent groups and local militias. Certainly the combination of civil society and NGOs' experience with implementation alongside the military's dominance in logistical capability could be a fine marriage of convenience but there is a fine line to walk, and with aid and force becoming increasingly intertwined aid projects in the future may be markedly different from those in the past when the two were divorced.
(Whitney Grespin is an operations specialist at Atlantean, a provider of specialized services to the U.S. government and private sector clients around the world. She is also a member of the Eurasia Foundation's Young Professionals Network, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and Women in International Security.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)