Why helping fragile states serves America's best interests

Why helping fragile states serves America's best interests
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The world today is a messy place: overheated, conflicted, ideologically polarized and battling a pandemic. An unprecedented number of people are leaving their place of birth to escape governmental persecution, gang warfare, and food and water shortages. Many of the world’s ills emanate from its most fragile states. 

The poorest countries capacity for coping with both natural and human-made crises is severely limited. I served in government when violent conflict and natural disasters devastated many of these societies. Interviewing the traumatized survivors in refugee camps, I listened to the stories of lost family and friends and felt the pain of people who have lost everything of value to them. The situation is, if anything, worse today. 

The drought and fire storms in the Western United States and the floods in Germany remind us that we are not invulnerable to natural disasters. However, Western countries are blessed with emergency response mechanisms. In the U.S., organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state and local fire and rescue operations provide assistance to victims. The poorest countries mostly have to depend on the international community for relief.

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The news reports of just the past week underscore the sad reality. South Africa, a nation still overcoming its apartheid history and corrupt practices by previous governments, lost 72 people in riots after the arrest of former President Zuma.

India is an admirable democracy, but it has a huge and diverse population and large pockets of poverty. Thousands have died because of a weak response to the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Haiti, still recuperating from an earthquake five years before, lost a president to assassination and seems again to be in disarray. Gangs rule the streets and governmental institutions are weak or non-existent.

There is little question that these crises were exacerbated by poor decisions by political leaders, past and present. These combined with the underlying conditions of underdevelopment to create the headlines. 

In analyzing these situations, it is useful to return to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological (food, water, shelter), safety (including adequate healthcare), love and belonging (family and community), esteem and self-actualization. Those who are denied basic human needs are most likely to join gangs, become the sources of violent conflict, or escape all that by migrating.

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The causes of violence in these countries are not all that different from what we have faced in inner cities in America. Sociologists Sampson, Roudenbush and Earls looked at violent crime in poor Chicago neighborhoods. They found that “alienation, exploitation and dependency wrought by resource deprivation acts as a centrifugal force,” pulling communities apart. The greater the “resource deprivation,” the “stronger the correlation to the level of violence.”

This is what is driving migration from the Northern Triangle states of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Weak and often corrupt governmental institutions are at the mercy of gangs, drug cartels and criminal elements. This is the central challenge for agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) working in these and other fragile states.

Finding and helping political and community leaders who want to reverse the centrifugal forces spinning these societies out of control is essential. USAID missions on the ground, staffed not only with Americans but also with nationals from the host country, are essential. Often risks must be taken. Not all projects will succeed. The flexibility to quickly abandon failing projects and try something else must be a part of the process in fragile states.

These troubled societies are all democratically organized, though the essence of democracy has been compromised to varying degrees. Creating institutions that are accountable to the people and that operate efficiently in the peoples’ interest is at the core of a responsive democracy. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen put it best with the notion that no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.

The keyword in Sen’s theory is the word “functional.” In fragile states, the institutions of government are susceptible to corruption of various kinds. The relationship between the people and government is not a healthy one. Those in power too often are looking to serve their own interests, not those of the people. 

Numerous studies have shown that effective development requires a high degree of local ownership. Foreign agencies can provide technical assistance and resources, but buy-in by the local population is vital in the quest for sustainable results.

Achieving development success has never been more challenging. There is a vicious cycle that undermines progress. For example, just as many poor nations were beginning to cope with diseases like Ebola or HIV/AIDS, they were hit with the COVID-19 pandemic and its frightening variants. 

Refugees International just released a study on the impact of climate change on migration. When families cannot feed themselves they will move beyond borders compromising the stability not only of neighboring societies but also, as we have seen here in the U.S., altering the democratic politics of Western nations with populist appeals to fear.

Recent coverage of the situation in Haiti has brought the history of U.S. and U.N. interventions into focus. There is little doubt that a dependency was created that undermined local initiative. This is a concern that today’s development professionals carefully consider. Any whiff of the colonial past or paternalism is anathema, and there is a recognition that trust is essential if results are to be achieved. They may need help, but only Haitians can save Haiti.

History shows that investments in effective development have paid dividends. The goal of self-reliance has been achieved in many developing countries that have now become stable middle income nations. Some are now even helping others as donors.

The amount we Americans spend on crises that spill over onto our shores has begun to dwarf what we spend on prevention. That makes no sense. The Biden administration has begun to reverse that trend and the effort deserves the support of all Americans.

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Clinton administration and chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) during the Obama administration.