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Worst in Aid: The Grand Prize

Hillary Clinton recently declared: “We are working to elevate development and integrate it more closely with defense and diplomacy in the field…The three Ds must be mutually reinforcing.”

Clinton says that the 3D approach will elevate development to the level of diplomacy and defense. Unfortunately, it could instead lower development further to an instrument employed to achieve military or political priorities. Clinton foresaw these objections: “There is a concern that integrating development means diluting it or politicizing it – giving up our long-term development goals to achieve short-term objectives.” She said reassuringly, “[t]hat is not what we mean, nor what we will do.”

But it’s too late. Sacrificing long term development aims for short term military and diplomatic objectives is what the US already does, and the 3Ds is making it worse. That’s why the Grand Prize for the Worst in Aid goes to…the 3D approach, nominated by an anonymous reader.

References to the “3D approach,”… have become so pervasive in foreign policy, development, and national security circles that they have taken on the status of self-evident, common wisdom.
J. Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator, February 2010

The frequent contradiction between defense and development is the most obvious instance of 3D dissonance. A coalition of eight NGOs in Afghanistan lamented that “[d]evelopment projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structres aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate, and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable.” Nonetheless, increasing amounts of aid get channeled through the military, “while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty and repair the destruction wrought by three decades of conflict and disorder are being sidelined.”

An Oxfam case study on programs to reform the security sector in “frontline” states like Iraq illustrated another way in which narrow military goals (to train and equip soldiers and police) are not entirely compatible with development goals. The report found that an increasing reliance on military contractors rather than civilians “has strongly reinforced the focus on operational capacity over accountability to civilian authority and respect for human rights.”

In the battle of the Ds, enervated development loses to pumped-up defense, and not just in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trend goes two ways: USAID is compelled to spend more and more of its budget on states that are strategically and militarily important (The 2011 foreign aid budget allocates 20 percent of State and USAID money for “securing frontline states.”) A development priority like India (with a huge chunk of the world’s poor) loses out. At the same time, a growing proportion of what the US calls Official Development Assistance flows through the Pentagon rather than USAID.

All US ODA by recipient, 2004-2008, OECD data

Frequent readers of the blog will already be familiar with our final example. On Christmas Eve in Madagascar, President Obama bowed to the exigencies of diplomacy when he punished the nondemocratic government of Madagascar by taking away trade access to U.S. markets. But this same action was disastrous for development.  Already, tens of thousands of jobs created textile exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) have been lost. Factories are closing, increased competition among street workers is pushing down wages, and the effects are spilling over into neighboring countries that made inputs to Madagascar’s factories. Any claim that the Madagascar AGOA delisting was part of a high-return Diplomatic initiative to promote Democracy became a wee bit more tenuous when we saw Angola, Cameroon, and Ethiopia named on Christmas Eve as still eligible for AGOA.

[We could go on — This week brought another collision of development and defense/diplomatic goals in Somalia.]

The lie that underlies the 3D framework is that development, diplomacy, and defense are complementary (or totally “mutually reinforcing”); that there are no difficult choices to be made. Alas, politicians are fond of denying the existence of tradeoffs (we are not trying to pick on Hillary in particular; many politicians are guilty of this).

The only 3D strategy that makes sense for development is one that acknowledges the frequent conflicts between these three very different goals as natural outcomes of their different agendas.  Then we can hold our politicians accountable when they sacrifice Development big-time to achieve small-time (or sometimes illusory) Diplomatic or Defense goals.

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  1. Nathan wrote:

    I can’t speak to Somalia or Madagascar, but having lived in Afghanistan for over a year (Feb 2009 to current), I feel I must point out a fallacy in the argument from NGOs about aid being channeled through military structures.

    While it is true that the military (especially the U.S. military) tends to focus on short-term, quick-fix projects in Afghanistan, it is equally true that these are often the only projects worth doing. Lack of Infrastructure, security and jobs are the primary underlying problems in Afghanistan and these are what the military-directed aid best address.

    Longer-term problems like access to decent healthcare and education are certainly holding back the development of Afghanistan, but trying to build schools without reliable electricity is putting the cart before the horse.

    Ask an Afghan whether they would rather have a PRT or one of those eight NGOs operating in their hometown. I’d wager that the vast majority would prefer the PRT for the security and tangible benefits they bring.

    Note: I am not employed by either an NGO or the military, nor any government institution.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 2:03 am | Permalink
  2. Reuben wrote:

    I think pretty much everyone, including the US military itself, would agree that the militarization of aid is not an optimal solution. But realistically, how many NGOs were operating in Helmand or Anbar before the US military showed up? Is there a reason they weren’t there?

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 5:22 am | Permalink
  3. Brian wrote:

    “Lack of Infrastructure, security and jobs are the primary underlying problems in Afghanistan”

    Sweet, so if we follow a formula of providing infrastructure, security and jobs we’ll have solved everything and can get out?

    I feel there should be some more thought in your statement about what potentially underlies the lack of infrastructure, the ongoing security struggles, and the practically non-existent formal employment sector. The formula of Infrastructure + Security + Jobs will most likely not look as relevant. But hey, it sure looks good on paper.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  4. nadeem haque wrote:

    Why is the choice NGOs or military? What an Orientalist conception. The people of that country that aid wants help seem to play no role.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  5. Nathan wrote:


    I don’t know “what looks good on paper” because I don’t study this stuff in the academic sense. I find that spending my day reading briefing papers and NGO action plans for Afghanistan would take away too much time from my actual job, which is too provide “jobs” and “security” and support those who provide the “infrastructure.”

    I doubt that providing those three things would, as you put it, “solve everything” but it would be a hell of a start.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  6. Brian wrote:


    I wasn’t really speaking in the academic sense. More in terms of, if you wrote infrastructure + security + jobs = success on a napkin, at first glance I probably wouldn’t disagree. I’m simply just asking that people ask why those things aren’t there in the first place. And then after they answer that, they should probably ask why 3 or 4 more times, dive a bit deeper. I think in that light, some of the more systemic problems that underly the issue may come to light.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  7. Homira wrote:

    Unfortunately the days of when there was a clear distinction between aid and military workers are long gone. The deterioration of respect for neutral humanitarian workers occurred before Iraq or Afghanistan. From Nicaragua to Chechnya to Rwanda, the disregard for aid/development workers by state and non-state actors has grown. Remember Fred Cuny’s death? The fact is that we each have our comparative advantages, and whether you’re military, NGO, Government, or private sector, collaboration and coordination gets you a lot further than disdain for each other. The Canadian and American military saved my behind more than once in Helmand and Kandahar, and when you’re in that spot, no matter what your principles, you don’t mind the Marines arriving. But the Army also did some thingss a lot better and faster than we did, like build the midwife training facility in Lash before we even had the contracts signed with providers. It’s not black and white.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  8. Scott wrote:

    “Why is the choice NGOs or military? What an Orientalist conception. The people of that country that aid wants help seem to play no role.”

    No. That’s just you projecting. NGOs are more often local than international. The real question is why does the choice not include the local government, and the subsequent question of how corruption and inefficiency can be tolerated in the pursuit of supporting “nation building”.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  9. Yngvar Guttormsen wrote:

    “A development priority like India (with a huge chunk of the world’s poor) loses out.”

    Prioritizing India would certainly rank at the top for Worst in Aid. India is developing nuclear submarines and have a ambitious space program. Since India can afford that, they can afford helping their own poor. It’s all about accountability.

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  10. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Good comment on Twitter from @MarkLGoldberg:

    nice @aidwatch post, but I wonder: are dfnse or diplo goals EVER sacrificed for dvplmt interests?

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Answer to @MarkLGoldberg:

    Mark, Glad to find you are more negative than me, it makes more like a centrist :>)

    My answer would be yes, the US govt sacrifices defense and diplomacy to development all the time. It does so Anytime the US government does something that mainly makes sense as a Development initiative and makes little or no sense as Defense or Diplomacy. If you look at the pie chart, there are countries receiving at least some US aid that are of zero significance for Defense or Diplomacy. I’m sure you can think of other US govt development initiatives about which the same could be said.

    Best, Bill

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Zamat wrote:
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Jeff wrote:

    Perhaps next year’s prize for best in development can go to some great thinker who describes what the ideal interplay should be between defense, diplomacy and development. Clearly, there are trade offs that cannot be wished away. But it is equally useless to assert that development must take place in some ideal diplomacy free, defense-free zone..

    Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink
  14. Al Brown wrote:

    build it and they will come… and bomb it

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Stephen Jones wrote:

    but trying to build schools without reliable electricity is putting the cart before the horse.If people hadn’t built schools before they had electricity we probably wouldn’t have electricity

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  16. Sam Gardner wrote:

    The essence is that you must recognize that choices must be made. This is what politics is for: to recognize the options and make a choice. Not to wish them away. Or gloss over them.
    This is why consensus politics is not so successful (as in government of national unity): it shies away from the choices that are necessary to fight corruption, to stand up to vested interests, to recognize that elections are useful. It is not surprising that governments of national unity have been popular with diplomacy and less so in development.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  17. roque wrote:

    Forgive me if this is a stupid question. But why isnt Israel on this chart?

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  18. Phillipe wrote:

    What about Israel? How come it doesn’t show in the pie?

    I thought Israel was the number one benefeciary of US AID.

    Also the money spent in Iraq was not exactly aid but US Army military expenditure.

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  19. spamSoup Party wrote:

    Now let me get this straight. Since we are unable to expand our own inflated but shrinking economy, merely to look less like a bumpkin at home we shall go to the far corners of the world to show foreigners how to do it. Show them even though we don’t know where their country is, even though we don’t remember how we screwed it up for them last time around. Perhaps we will look brighter if we rename it. We will call it, “Preemptive Strike”.

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  20. mike ferrell wrote:

    Israel is a developed country – largely due to the US taxpayer, BTW. About 1/3 of US aid goes to Israel – and due to their “special” relationship, they can do anything they want with it, like build settlements on the West Banks. From the OECD website:

    Moreover, aid to Israel, which accounted for over 30 per cent of the United States bilateral ODA in 1995/96, will no longer be counted as official development assistance in subsequent years, reflecting that countries’ advanced development status.

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  21. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Comments from a couple of people here and on other blogs made me realize that we should clarify the figures in the chart:

    The figures came from the OECD-DAC Database, the most complete collection of data we have at the moment on foreign aid that can be compared across donor countries. Many of you know that OECD data includes only what is called Official Development Assistance (ODA).

    For funds to be counted as ODA they have to 1) go to a country on an approved list of ODA-eligible recipients, and 2) have “the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries” as their main objective.

    So this chart does not include military aid, and it would not include aid to Israel even if that aid were economic in nature, since Israel is not on the DAC-approved list of developing countries. (

    One purpose of the (admittedly ugly) chart was to show that even excluding actual military aid, a large chunk of the funds which should by definition have the “promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries” as their primary objective is actually going to countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt) where the US has pressing political and military objectives, as opposed to countries where the economic needs and the potential to improve welfare are the greatest.

    If the US spent its Official Development Assistance to promote economic development in countries with the greatest need, many of those nations whose names are essentially blacked out in our chart would be receiving a larger piece of the pie.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  22. Ernest wrote:

    Excuse me but I think the 3D in the case of Africa is important and good .
    Let us suppose that when Adam & Eve were out of the Garden of Eden ,the devil surely challenges them to return to the Garden of Eden,with the posibility of getting whatever means they need ?
    But did Adam & Eve return to Garden of Eden or destroy it ?
    I shall not exchange God against the three D ,but Africa needs protection instead of getting always looted .

    Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

12 Trackbacks

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  11. […] Worst in Aid: the Grand Prize (Aid Watch-William Easterly & Laura Freschi, March 15) But it’s too late. Sacrificing long term development aims for short term military and diplomatic objectives is what the US already does, and the 3Ds is making it worse. That’s why the Grand Prize for the Worst in Aid goes to…the 3D approach, nominated by an anonymous reader. […]

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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