It’s rare I agree much with National Review, but they ran a piece by Marine Corps War College professor Jim Lacey that resonated with me a great deal:
The same thing struck me as I flew into Kandahar a few weeks ago. Below me was a city of approximately 800,000, and it was working. In fact, it has been working since Alexander the Great created a Macedonian military colony there almost 2,500 years ago. Do the city’s markets function with the efficiency you would find in the developed world? No. But they do function. Every day 800,000 persons get fed, without the help of American soldiers or any foreign-aid workers. If every westerner left Afghanistan tomorrow, they would all still get fed.
This raises a question: What are we still doing there? If the answer is nation-building, then it is time to declare victory and leave. The nation is built. It may fail again later, but that will be a problem for the Afghans. As of this moment, Afghanistan has a functional society and a working economy. How it works is ugly beyond measure, but it works, and everyone gets fed.
Apart from the “getting fed” part (Afghanistan, including Kandahar, is actually one of the most food-insecure places in the world), I mostly agree with this, and it parallels my discussion last week on Afghan politics. Afghans are capable of running their own affairs just fine; if given the chance they can develop their own economy, grow their businesses, and develop their own economy. We don’t have to dictate to them.
This makes for a good segue to discuss the some of the research I’m doing at my think tank. This week marks the release of an intro paper for a series I’m doing on reforming the aid process in crisis and post-crisis states. It’s a doctrine called “Expeditionary Economics.”
One way to alter aid policy is to invert the normal methods of foreign aid, and improve on “bottom-up,” community-centered aid. Economic development and assistance projects usually take a top-down approach: the host government is supported, and expatriate development workers descend on the capital city to craft plans for they think the national communities they’re meant to serve should grow and develop. The projects that the aid community focuses on tend to be either amorphous and ill-defined (like “capacity building”) or large scale infrastructure development (like paving highways and building buildings). They are focused, in other words, on inputs—if the right things are done to a recipient country, then the right outcomes should result.
Unfortunately, “bottom-up” approaches make this same mistake: they often rely on expats dictating to communities what their needs and opportunities are, and assume that if they bring the right inputs, the right outcomes will naturally follow. Missing in both aid approaches is a full appreciation of outcomes. Many aid organizations measure their success in terms of money spent, miles of road paved, or amount of time devoted to a project; it is relatively rare to see assessments based on outcomes (that is, what effects that money, construction, or time actually had on the target communities). Missing, too, is any consistent means to empower and promote the needs of regular, non-elite people in recipient countries. Rather, aid projects are driven by donor concerns and political arrangements in the recipient capital.
One way to rethink the doctrine of development and assistance aid is “expeditionary economics.” At the heart of ExpEcon, as it is known, is the assumption that economies grow because businesses grow and that growing economies are a benefit both to U.S. national interests and to global security. Growth is not just the result of a generic set of capacities or regulatory structures—the normal “instruments” of aid policy—but rather the result of businesses creating wealth, expanding and hiring new people to take on new tasks to generate new wealth. Therefore, ExpEcon is fundamentally about business development, with a focus on empowering local communities instead of international organizations.
This may or may not really work out in practice — it’s kind of a new thing, and part of why I have a salary is to explore practical and strategic ways of implementing this idea. But when we think about what a country like Afghanistan really needs, it’s not a lot of high-priced consultants telling them what to make and what to grow and what to sell. Afghans (and most people, actually) are really perfectly intelligent. We can best serve them by getting out of the way, and getting other bad actors out of their way so they can do their own thing.