Military and aid workers are both working to alleviate suffering in fragile states by delivering short-term solutions. What if together — as a hybrid — they could build a long-term strategy and deliver lasting impact?
As the Islamic State group took over Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah, I was quickly reminded of April 2003 when I found myself in a fighting hole facing north along Highway 7, the main avenue of advance for American forces during the Iraqi invasion. I was a Marine in 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and we had just survived the first major contact of the war in Nasiriyah. As American forces advanced north, Saddam fedayeen had been pushing south, coercing desperately poor farmers to pick up weapons and fight the Americans by promising to feed their wives and children.
I watched as fedayeen soldiers murdered the family of one of these poor Iraqi farmers because he refused to fight. In two seconds, this farmer lost his wife and two little girls, and I couldn’t save them. For the first time in the war, I put myself in his shoes. I thought to myself, I live in a world of choices, but what choices did this man have? He could watch his children slowly starve, fight people he had never heard of, or attempt to escape with his family across our lines knowing that he would be killed if he were caught. As I stood next to that man holding his blood-soaked little girl, something awoke inside of me. It wasn’t fair that he had no choices just because of where he was born.
Southern Iraq was then and still is a desperately poor region. The fragile state ecosystem is mind-numbingly complex. It includes a wide spectrum of actors: rival tribes and clans fighting over ancestral land and power, radical extremist cells with focused ideological intent to destabilize or destroy anything that smells of western engagement, unpaid rogue groups of sanctioned national military forces wreaking havoc in the countryside far from the command and control of the capital, U.N. peacekeepers, tired and underresourced aid workers manning posts at remote refugee camps fighting to make a dent in the problem, courageous local social entrepreneurs leading their communities, and desperately impoverished farmers struggling to give their families real choices.
During my time in combat, I spent countless days in these fragile, complex environments doing my best to create lasting change. Sadly, I was not successful, and this repeated lack of success began to wear on my men and on me. We started to talk about the terrible lack of choices these individuals had for basic human rights and needs. We began to see that, although groups like the Taliban and al-Qaida were horribly oppressive, they also performed basic development services in these remote areas — providing food, education and jobs to families that had no viable alternatives.
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but we observed two primary strategies being deployed to address the fragile state problem: military intervention and foreign aid. Guys like us were attempting to conduct village stabilization operations as a path to success. But we were short-timers. Our time in these regions was usually less than a year, and furthermore, we were trained to take out targets, not help farmers provide for their families. We also saw brave aid workers conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations to alleviate suffering in war-torn, desperate populations. Courageous individuals were routinely kidnapped or even killed as they carried out their work.
We began to see a real market gap and the need for a third way — a hybrid of the military and aid strategies — to give these farmers an alternative way to provide for their families.
What if we could create a sustainable solution that was locally led, driven and owned by the people best suited to solve the problems in that region? What if this solution could be funded by regional markets instead of philanthropy — contributing to a slowly growing economy instead of distorting an already fragmented one? What if this solution could be staffed by former combat operators who know how to handle themselves in chaotic, rapidly changing, insecure environments — operators who could live in these communities, act as catalysts and use their experience in building capacity to create influence by, with and through local leaders?
In 2008, a small team and I began a hybrid experiment. We have met numerous challenges along the way, but we are making steady progress. I have high hopes that the Nuru model will help break through the glass ceiling of the fragile state problem.
Highway 7 haunts me. I hope I never again see a look of such absolute desperation and hopelessness like I saw in that farmer’s eyes. My hope is that in the coming years, we will see a wave of viable hybrid way solutions begin to surface — solutions that will bring about an end to the desperation of extreme poverty and provide millions of people living in fragile states with lasting meaningful choices.
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