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Achieving Diplomatic Goals through Humanitarian Means

By Michaela Gramzinski | Considering Another Side Essays

Directly after World War II, programs such as the Marshall Plan served not only as a response to the humanitarian needs of crippled European nations, but also as a means of stabilizing economies and governments. These measures made European nations, “as a national security measure,” more resistant to communism (Atwood, Shleifer 381). These post-World War II efforts not only achieved diplomatic goals of economic growth, but also addressed the humanitarian needs of those affected by the carnage of war (Atwood). These efforts were heralded as a great success. As time has passed, the diplomatic goals of foreign aid have changed. The United States is currently less concerned with communism as it is with “rogue regimes” (Travis 808). This is largely due the regimes’ capacity to sprout terrorist movements, to become violent, unpredictable and uncontrollable (Travis 808). Current U.S. foreign aid goals can be divided into humanitarian goals and diplomatic goals. The humanitarian goals are in line with the United Nations (UN) adopted Millennium Development Goals, which emphasize issues such as the eradication of poverty and universal primary education. Meanwhile, diplomatic goals emphasize spreading and supporting democracy, decreasing terrorism, and creating strategic allies (Travis 799). Whereas aid programs during the Cold War seemed to be able to address both diplomatic and humanitarian goals together, current U.S. aid efforts seems to focus more on achieving diplomatic goals, often leaving humanitarian needs overshadowed and largely unmet.

Eric Lundsgaarde, of the Department of Political Science at Washington University, explains that the current use of much of the U.S. foreign aid money, “in the most skeptical view…amount[s] to little more than bribery, with donors transferring resources to other states as a means of securing some political concessions” (3). While bribery may ensure some strategic allies in the short term, giving money directly to the government fails to meet other diplomatic and humanitarian goals (Bearce & Tirone 838). In fact, funds given directly to recipient governments can easily lead to corruption, exacerbating many of the problems that both diplomatic and humanitarian goals are meant to resolve (Shleifer 383). I am not suggesting that any one of these diplomatic goals is any more or less important than any humanitarian one. However, with a “public…ill-informed about development aid policy and more preoccupied with other policy priorities,” the average American is much more concerned about security issues than with the humanitarian needs of people halfway across the globe (Lundsgaarde 7, Bearce & Tyrone 839). It follows that the U.S. government is more focused on achieving strategic goals than humanitarian goals. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the way diplomatic goals are currently addressed is often counterproductive. Ultimately, diplomatic goals do not have to be separated from humanitarian goals. In fact, diplomatic goals can best be achieved through humanitarian means. What I am proposing is that shifting money away from governments and focusing instead on community-based and community-run projects will, in the long term, achieve both humanitarian and diplomatic goals. Thus, investing in communities’ humanitarian needs is a much better investment of U.S. taxpayer dollars. This paper will address the United States’ major diplomatic goals of spreading and supporting democracy, decreasing terrorism, and creating strategic allies. It will also address how current uses of U.S. aid can be counterproductive, and will show that a focus on humanitarian projects can better achieve these three diplomatic goals in the long term.

Supporting and spreading democracy is a principle rooted in Cold War tensions and the threat of communism.  However, spreading democracy still stands as a basic diplomatic goal in today’s foreign policy. Rick Travis of Mississippi State University states that this push towards democratization arises from a desire “to establish like-minded countries” in hopes of creating nations more in line with “Western standards of governance” (799). Ultimately, this push towards democracy is more of a push to create like-minded countries more receptive to American priorities. Currently, “donor governments [such as the U.S.] benefit strategically by providing foreign aid” with little threat of withdrawing the support (Bearce & Tirone 838). Aid often works against moving developing countries towards democracy because, even when recipient nations adopt policies that are undemocratic in nature, the threat of withdrawing foreign aid is minimal, if not inexistent (Bearce & Tirone 839). Aid removes the United States’ ability to enforce or reward democratic changes, as well as compromises its ability to punish governments for undemocratic changes. More simply, aid is funneled continuously into governments despite “these dictators’ gross violations of basic civil, human, and political rights” (Coyne & Ryan 27). In effect, the exchange of foreign aid for support severely restricts democratic growth. Jane Harrigan, a professor at the University of London School of African and Oriental Studies, explains this dynamic best when she states that “aid might support poor governments and remove the pressure to reform” into a more democratic nation (Harrigan 376). In other words, aid given to governments for strategic support is not retracted when these governments act in opposition to democratic principles. In this way, U.S. aid actually reinforces the dictators’ abuse of power. Christopher Coyne, an Assistant Professor of Economics at West Virginia University, and Matt Ryan, a Charles G. Kosh Doctoral Fellow, also at West Virginia University, agree with this assertion and testify that this use of aid often supports dictatorships and works against democracy (Coye & Ryan 28). Therefore, aid placed into corrupt governments for strategic support directly undermines efforts to move nations closer to democratic ideals.

If spreading and supporting democracies is truly a U.S. diplomatic goal, then it is clear that the United States cannot continue to use foreign aid, as economist Peter Bauer states, as “a transfer of resources from the taxpayer of a donor country to the government of a recipient country” (qtd in Shleifer 379-80). Fortunately, there is a better way to encourage democratic growth. Because democracy begins with the people, programs that reflect the interests of the common people can act as seeds of democracy. By “tapping into the local knowledge” and creating programs “built on local ownership,” not only are programs more likely to succeed, but they also encourage active participation of people within their communities (Williamson 30, Atwood). This increase in participation may be because integrating programs into communities requires active participation of community members, and thus eliminates much of the suspicion that alien programs carry. Successful programs that address humanitarian needs eliminate some of  “the frustration and feelings of helplessness” that Thomas May, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Center for the Study of Bioethics at the Medical College at Wisconsin, says encourage “radicalized social and political structures” (111). Clearly, then, in order to develop stable a stable democracy, these people’s insecurities must be addressed, and basic humanitarian needs met. Furthermore, because community-based projects focus on what the community views as its needs, they encourage the basic democratic tenet of rule by the people. In this way, humanitarian projects can encourage participation of the average person in the political scene and instill democratic ideals at the base of the community. Foreign aid that focuses on addressing the humanitarian needs, as expressed by the community, and programs that are the responsibility of that community, are overall better received (Winters 218). I propose that these programs may have the potential to move the community towards democracy, all the while empowering the people. This use of taxpayer money addresses both humanitarian needs as well as diplomatic goals, making it a more worthwhile investment for the American people than funneling money into corrupt autocratic regimes.

While spreading democracy is important, terrorism is something rooted in the much less distant past, and often evokes a much greater sense of urgency. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, combatting terrorism has exploded as a U.S. national priority. It is something that has touched the lives of many Americans today who have lost cherished friends and family to the attacks. I, myself, was living in Indonesia when these attacks took place, and experienced local anti-American sentiment. Red marks were placed on our house, and rumors of ethnic cleansing arose. Our family and American friends were evacuated quickly, and fortunately this attack never took place. This personal example serves to illustrate the fact that many people were affected by these attacks not only within the United States, but far outside our borders. As a result, combatting terrorism has become the premiere priority of American foreign policy.

Ironically, much of the foreign aid action taken on behalf of diplomatic goals serves to aggravate anti-American sentiment and terrorist hostility. Widespread hostility seems to beg a deeper understanding of the conditions that give rise to terrorism. Terrorism is often misperceived as a societal issue in and of itself, when it is truly more of a symptom of other underlying societal issues. May states “that feelings of helplessness, frustration and rage, along with a lack of confidence that political systems will or can address fundamental crises, are significant contributors to conditions in which terrorist organizations might thrive” (110). Thus, terrorist organizations are often a desperate response to corrupt governments and unacceptable societal conditions. When the U.S. gives money to support corrupt regimes in exchange for strategic support, terrorists may therefore be more likely to identify the U.S. as equally corrupt, encouraging anti-American sentiment. This identification of corruption with the U.S. makes it evident that giving money to corrupt governments exacerbates terrorism.

Terrorism may be best controlled by addressing the societal conditions that allow it to thrive (May 109). While eradicating corruption itself is laudable, it is unrealistic, and largely outside the realm of foreign aid. Meanwhile, conditions such as poverty, which are shown to “contribute to circumstances in which terrorism might thrive,” can be more realistically addressed through foreign aid (May 109). Combatting terrorism is best achieved by creating programs based on humanitarian community needs, and ensuring that these programs are community-run (Winters 229). Community programs give people feel a sense of ownership and pride, thus increasing the likelihood of program success. Addressing the humanitarian needs of communities can work against terrorism. For example, education can help strengthen communities against terrorist influence and radical thinking (May 112). Similarly, eradicating poverty may help empower people and fight the feelings of helplessness and desperation that lead many otherwise rational people to extremism and violence (May 112). David Bearce, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Daniel Tirone, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, states, “the U.S. government now finds its foreign aid to be an indispensible policy instrument in its war on terror” (Bearce & Tirone 849).  Given that foreign aid truly is vital to combatting terrorism, it follows that foreign aid should be implemented in a way that decreases terrorism, rather than provokes it. All too often, foreign aid serves as little more than bribery of corrupt governments (Bearce & Tirone 839). This bribery fuels frustration, and motivates terrorist groups to take violent action against not only their own political structure, but the U.S. as well (Bearce & Tirone 839). Aid must be focused on alleviating poverty, rather than government bribery, in order to combat terrorism. For this reason, I believe that community-based programs meeting humanitarian needs will, by extension, help achieve the diplomatic goal of decreasing terrorism much more effectively than bribery of governments for support.

Beyond spreading democracy and combatting terrorism, foreign aid is used “to expand or maintain its power position” (Travis 799). Oftentimes, countries that would otherwise be unfriendly towards the U.S. will support the U.S. in exchange for foreign aid. Travis testifies that countries which the United States perceives as “located in strategically valued places…generally receive more aid than others” (Travis 799). This perception serves as concrete evidence that by giving grants and loans to strategic countries, the United States essentially buys the government’s official support. It is true that this method buys the short term support of the government, but at the same time, the money directed through foreign governments “further promotes poverty,” as it is “stolen by the governments [while] the citizens are taxed to repay” (Williamson 26, Schliefer 383). The corruption of funds may only promote turmoil and corruption within the foreign nation, making it weaker, and alienating the common people. This strategic use of foreign aid may buy short term support, but, over time, the people’s support for the U.S. will diminish as the U.S. continues to enforce purely self-serving foreign-aid policies (Williamson 20).

In order to establish genuine, long-term alliances with nations, connections must be formed through soft power, rather than coercive bribery. The U.S. may be able gain popular support by funding community-based and community-run projects which address the humanitarian needs of people. In areas where corruption is pervasive, citizens are often suspicious of the motives of foreigners, and as well they should be. Claudia Williamson, of Economics Department at Appalachian State University, states with layers of bureaucracy, and conflicting goals, “[t]here is little reason to believe that the best policies and practices will actually be adopted and implemented” (Williamson 20). Therefore, simply placing humanitarian programs into communities may fail, as community members may be wary of the foreign entity. To gain popular support of U.S.-funded programs, programs must be centered on community demands, and ultimately must be run by the community. I assert that using aid as a form of soft power may create positive associations between the U.S. and the humanitarian services which U.S. aid provides.  In turn, this may generate popular support of the U.S. in strategic nations from the community base and working upwards.

Many counterarguments will emerge from well-educated and inquisitive readers. Reasonable people will argue that humanitarian aid is simply not effective. They will bring up evidence that study after study has “failed to find beneficial effects of foreign aid,” leaving many people skeptical that it can achieve basic humanitarian goals, let alone diplomatic goals such as spreading democracy, decreasing terrorism, and creating strategic allies (Shleifer 380). It is true that in a context where multiple studies indicate that foreign aid has failed that my claims may seem more lofty and idealistic than concrete and realistic (Shleifer 380). However, Andrei Shleifer, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, points out that many of these claims that aid has failed are based on outdated means of measuring the effectiveness of aid. Many measurements of aid are based on its ability to create economic growth despite the fact that “growth has lost its dominance as the goal of foreign aid” (Sheifer 386). David Skarbek, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, and Peter Leeson, a professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, attest to the fact that “foreign aid cannot make recipient economies grow,” and that foreign aid is most effective in increasing a very specific output (Skarbek & Leeson 393). Therefore, the argument that humanitarian aid cannot achieve diplomatic goals because studies have not indicated substantial effects of foreign aid is unsubstantiated, as the systems of measurement are severely flawed.

Measuring effectiveness is not the only flaw with current U.S. foreign aid practices. Beyond issues with measuring foreign aid, many reputable scholars will argue that programs do not work because they focus more on satisfying many “self-interested actors” rather than the interests of the people who need support (Williamson 20). This emphasis on larger groups searching to benefit themselves leads to the adoption of policies and programs that are not designed to address communities’ humanitarian needs, and therefore have little to no substantial impact on the communities. Consequently, it seems unlikely that aid, even if it is directed away from the government, will be used in ways that achieve the basic humanitarian needs of communities. By extension, it seems even less likely that U.S. diplomatic goals will be achieved through humanitarian aid. I would have to agree with this assertion in the sense that foreign aid, as it is currently used (or perhaps I should say misused) achieves very little in terms of the humanitarian and diplomatic goals stressed by the U.S. Certainly, in order for humanitarian aid to affect any diplomatic goals, aid must first be utilized properly. Using aid properly means emphasizing community needs and encouraging community based projects, rather than creating programs based on the interests of greedy players.

With the many other poor uses of foreign aid, it is clear that aid often works against achieving important humanitarian and diplomatic goals.  The act of pumping money into foreign governments in exchange for short term allegiance supports corrupt governments, visibly working against democracy by keeping abusive dictators in power (Williamson 24). These abusive dictators seem to encourage a tense political and societal environment. It is from such societal frustration and poverty that terrorism develops and breeds (May 112). While bribing governments with aid may secure governmental support, buying the support of other nations is based on coercion and is therefore an insecure and weak way of establishing strategic support. It is apparent that giving foreign aid to corrupt governments in exchange for alliance works against the major diplomatic goals, and diverts money away from humanitarian uses. Aid, as it is currently used, seems to be a discouraging waste of American taxpayer dollars, especially when this money can clearly be used in far more productive ways.

Foreign aid has many faults, and while moving aid away from governments is one step towards more effective foreign aid investment, there are many other issues that must be addressed in order for foreign aid to be fully effective. When used properly, however, aid used to address humanitarian concerns such as poverty and education has the ability to positively impact the achievement of more diplomatic goals. By encouraging local citizens to take ownership of aid programs, foreign aid encourages them to become more involved in their communities, and may restore a sense of control into their lives vital for moving towards democracy. Terrorism thrives in places where poverty is pervasive and where there is a lack of societal stability (May 112). Addressing basic humanitarian needs can help combat poverty and strengthen communities against terrorism (May 102). Investing in programs run by communities may help create strategic allies by creating a generally positive association between the humanitarian programs and the U.S. as a donor. Strategic relationships built upon soft power may be stronger, as they are supported by the people. While “[s]aving and improving lives is important in and of itself,” humanitarian aid can also serve as good diplomacy (Shleifer 386). The many goals of foreign aid do not have to be separated, but can be achieved more effectively together, as a much more effective use of tax dollars, ensuring the safety of the average American against exterior threats.



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