On April 30, 2015, President Barack Obama nominated Gayle Smith, a senior director of the National Security Council, as the new head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Critics saw her nomination as yet another example of the deepening of links between U.S. military interventions and development aid.
Most of the initial criticism focused on Smith’s close relationships with various African despots and her belief that aid is the vehicle for obtaining foreign policy concessions. If confirmed, Smith will no doubt solidify the idea that development is subservient to American security interests. Over the last decade, USAID has emerged as Washington’s key instrument within which it couches counterterrorism efforts and military interventions. Her national security background ensures that she will continue this legacy.
The American public should be concerned about this mixing of war strategy with development aid, not least because U.S. misadventures are funded by taxpayer dollars. The cover of aid hampers the public from critically evaluating the wars waged in its name. As those on the receiving end, the intertwining of military intervention and development assistance has meant a de-legitimization of the premises of development. Education and healthcare are universal rights that should not depend on U.S. national security interests.
This intermingling of defense and aid dollars also leads to a lot of graft. On Jan. 25, barely a month after the U.S. mission in Afghanistan officially came to an end, USAID suspended International Relief and Development (IRD), one of its biggest non-profit contractors that run projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2007, IRD was granted nearly $2.4 billion in USAID contracts and co-operative agreements. In just over a year, the budget of a mom-and-pop operation run by a minister and his wife ballooned from a paltry $1.2 million to $706 million, according to the Washington Post. IRD’s revenue went up even more as President George W. Bush bolstered the aid budget, and projects as diverse as road building and boosting wheat production fell magically in its lap.
By the time it was suspended, IRD had racked up over $2 billion in government contracts, more than any relief and non-profit organization in the United States and 83 percent of it went to projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. USAID provided little or no oversight. The minister and his wife received $4.4 million in salary and bonuses in 2008 and 2012. They hired an all-star cast of humanitarian workers, all of them making hefty salaries. A sum of $1.1 million was billed to the U.S. government to fund “staff parties and retreats,” including one at a fancy resort in Pennsylvania. Attendees were given gift certificates for clothing, jewelry and massages.
The waste and lack of accountability was not limited to subcontractors. In February, USAID’s Inspector General warned that the agency’s employees in Afghanistan might be taking millions of dollars in unauthorized overtime pay because there was no one to monitor them. The cost of this unauthorized overtime is estimated to be at least $16.3 million, small change compared to the whopping $850.5 million that USAID spent in collusion with the State Department. The funds were supposed to go to 17 projects, but when audited neither the State nor USAID could say whether any of the money had actually reached the Afghan women it was earmarked for.
As it was for the British colonists, women’s education and empowerment are particular USAID favorites, and hundreds of “gender experts” arrived with U.S. troops with the ennobling goal of “liberating” women. The eager USAID administrators and bureaucrats appeared to care little about the consequences of mixing aid with war or whether the goals were achievable or sustainable.
As the U.S. begins its troop drawdown, Afghan women, who may be perceived as collaborators with an occupying force, must bear the burden of suspicion. They have their schools, but such aid came at the cost of innocent lives lost and villages bombed by U.S. forces. The backlash against women is undeniable: while USAID claims to have spent hundreds of millions on improving the welfare of Afghan women, violence against them increased 25 percent from 2012 to 2013.
That is not all. The reconstruction on which $104 billion was spent is hard to see amid the general dilapidation in Afghanistan. The economy is in free fall, with only slightly more than 1 percent GDP growth last year. And as the U.S. war machine and USAID look for new countries to transform, the lack of coordination and monitoring mean that $484 million in projects left behind are unlikely to achieve their goals.
Across the border in Pakistan, where USAID also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on women’s education, the taint of intervention-laced aid remains. In the years since the U.S.-led war on terrorism began, girls schools have become the primary target of terrorist attacks. With hundreds bombed every year, Pakistan ranks first for attacks on schools and last in female literacy. Even more damning, public support for girls’ education has fallen from 71 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2014. In effect, the intertwining of development and education with U.S. counterterrorism not only made schools targets for terrorists but it also prevented progress on women’s education.
Meanwhile, the USAID’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforced a perception that U.S. wars are actually benevolent endeavors. Its violence is rendered “good” and “permissible” with the outpouring of aid dollars, which masks the twin realities of U.S. intervention — first that the money rarely reaches or helps the distant others, and that it does not render forgettable the killing of 1.2 million Iraqis and Afghans.
If development is made a handmaiden to war and security interests, it is transnational collaboration for human progress that ultimately suffers. To prevent this, USAID must be separated from Washington’s strategic and security interests. Humanitarian aid must not bear hidden agendas and accepting assistance should not come at the cost of cowing to imperialism. Smith’s ascent to the head of USAID sends the wrong message and raises the concern that the very progress that the agency so often hopes for but rarely achieves will remain elusive.