Security Studies Program Wednesday Seminar

National Security and Poverty Alleviation as Drivers of U.S. Foreign Policy: Lessons from Afghanistan

Paul O'Brien
Director, Aid Effectiveness Team, OXFAM America

October 17, 2007



Q. Some people do not think it is a great idea to define insecurity anywhere as insecurity everywhere.
A. Our position is that giving foreign aid is the right thing to do, and that by the way it will have a positive impact on security.

Q. Why is the time ripe now? A new administration could think this is a great idea, but the Congressional committee structure will not change.
A. Saying that this is a better moment than we have had in 40 years is not saying a lot. But there is some comparative room for hope. Department of Defense people want to see reform; Robert Gates is on the record saying it is hard for the department to do its job with State/USAID as weak as they are. Also, while there is not a strong set of champions in Congress for reform, nor are there powerful spokespersons against it. On this issue, there is almost a mathematical correlation between presidential will and forward motion. Forward motion will be less likely with a Republican, and most likely with Edwards and to a lesser extent Obama. Clinton is known as being pro-development, though she has kept quiet.

Q. Do the remedies match the diagnosis? Many problems identified are local, but policy prescriptions are focused on the capitals.
A. When USAID staffers know the context, know the language and are given the authority, there are powerful results.

Q. What are the risks to throwing out the bathwater and starting fresh?
A. People are most ambitious about Foreign Assistance Act. A new development agency will probably never be formed, so we will have to focus on fixing what is already there.

Q. Any comments about the Iranian role in Afghanistan?
A. While we were doing strategic planning in Kabul in 2003, Iran was building a road in Harat that was finished by 2003. When they talk about donors, people start and finish sentences with Iranians. That said, there are age-old ethnic suspicions. Interestingly, there is an analogous situation with the Pakistanis and the Pashtuns.

Q. Is there any component in the equation that incorporates the feedback from the ground, versus trusting development professionals?
A. Lots of NGOs are not particularly good at this. Trying to understand exactly what is going on and relying on the first thing you are told is tough, especially in “storytelling cultures” such as Afghanistan. OXFAM prides itself on finding people politically savvy in their own environments.

Q. Economic support funds are used to shore up shaky regimes, rewarding supporting allies. Is the framework you propose a solely developmental foreign assistance program? Where would these other functions sit?
A. Foreign aid could never be purely developmental. Most foreign aid is for pure security motivations (Egypt, Israel). Our argument is that if the U.S. is to recover its global standing as the shining light for development, it had better do development well. And that will have positive security consequences.

Q. In Afghanistan, failure is over-determined – far too many causes could be at work. Where has US aid worked? What are the political circumstances that allow it to work?
A. The U.S. has done lots of good things, often when it was bucking the machine. In winter 2005, there was an electricity shortage in Kabul and Kandahar. USAID had told the Afghani government six months earlier to wean itself off dependence on American money for generators. But when Karzai turned to USAID that winter, USAID agreed to fund generators – arguing that our broader project is strengthening Karzai, which means keeping the lights on. USAID snuck the money to Karzai and he was able to take credit for it. Afterward, U.S. government officials saw the need for a long-term solution. The result: major infrastructure projects. So there are positive benefits to sticking to your strategic guns.

Q. You seemed to skip from humanitarian assistance to building security. What about the difference between humanitarian aid and development aid? Humanitarian assistance is the immediate assurance of daily necessities. Development, on the other hand, can be broadly defined as increasing per capita income. Hence development would be very different from humanitarian aid.
A. The F proposal (foreign aid) suggests moving from an “accounts” structure to a country-driven model. It would allow humanitarian contexts and Millennium Challenge Commission contexts. But the current structure prevents this shift.


Rapporteur: Nathan Black

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007