Proposed cuts to foreign aid in the United States budget have some experts wondering whether the military will play a greater role in responding to humanitarian crises on the African continent.
The military, however, has neither the expertise nor the desire to take on a greater role in the stabilization of countries that happens after crises, development experts said during a panel at the Center for American Progress on July 13. The Department of Defense wouldn’t have the expertise to take over the U.S. Agency for International Development’s role of implementing long-term economic and social development efforts that accompany the U.S.’s efforts in these crises situations, they said.
“They really want to pass the baton. They will be the first to say they don’t have the expertise,” Gayle Smith, former USAID administrator and current president and chief executive officer of the ONE Campaign, told the audience.
Both President Donald Trump, in his proposed budget, and House Republicans, in a budget bill released last week, have called for significant cuts to foreign aid and increases in military spending. The Trump administration has also failed to nominate an assistant secretary of state for African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and there is no director of African Affairs at the National Security Council.
Stay up to date on Devex coverage of U.S. foreign policy under Trump:
The Department of Defense partners with USAID and the Department of State in humanitarian emergencies across the continent. However, these types of situations have usually seen the DOD confined to a targeted mission. This might include building shelter, providing transport, the use of military equipment, search and rescue and medical evacuations. Its services are typically short term and aimed at providing fast relief in an emergency situation. The military assists in up to 10 percent of all disaster responses, according to a USAID spokesperson.
The military excels at what it does in these situations, but it is also clear about what isn’t its role, said Smith, who worked closely with the DOD during her time at USAID to establish the boundaries for when the military would hand over responsibilities in crisis situations to the civilian portion of the U.S. government. The collaboration happens through USAID’s Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation.
Some Pentagon officials have been outspoken about maintaining a robust budget for USAID and the U.S Department of State. Commander of U.S. Africa Command General Thomas Waldhauser testified in March that the military’s partnership with the Department of State and USAID is key to achieving long-term success on the continent. The trio works together to target the root causes of violent extremism, unaccountable governments and push for economic and social development, he said.
The trend of the military taking on an increasingly greater role in the long-term stabilization of countries is not new. The DOD’s National Defense Strategy in 2008 found that U.S. forces had “stepped up to the task of long-term reconstruction, development, and governance,” but that “this is no replacement for civilian involvement and expertise.”
“The military is an incredible operation that can put a hospital ship off the coast of Haiti, can drop into West Africa to build treatment centers, but that’s not generally what they do. And they don’t want to be doing it.”— Richard Leach, president and CEO of the World Food Program USA
In the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, military civilian affairs teams began building schools, bridges, and hospitals, and provided humanitarian relief while USAID was still pulling together in-country teams.
During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, military engineers oversaw the creation of Ebola treatment centers and sent medical personnel to train health workers. Some 3,000 U.S. forces were involved in the response. The use of the military was crucial in that case because it was able to move quickly, said a USAID official. The Disaster Assistance Response team, in USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, organized the broader response.
When the military does take on a more significant role, however, it has often been temporary. “The military is an incredible operation that can put a hospital ship off the coast of Haiti, can drop into West Africa to build treatment centers, but that’s not generally what they do,” said Richard Leach, president and CEO of the World Food Program USA, at the panel. “And they don’t want to be doing it. They are very clear at suggesting where the lines are.”
Operating under United Nations guidelines, USAID can only call upon the military when it provides a unique service, civilian response capacity is overwhelmed and civilian authorities request assistance. This is most common during natural disasters.
According to a USAID official, any changes to the budget will not change the relationship between the two entities in responding to crises because of the framework of existing authorities and the roles that they have played in managing crises in the past.
But with cuts to foreign aid over time, the DOD could, by default, be the more capable partner to take on more aspects of these responses from the development and diplomacy communities, said Alice Friend, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“DOD’s concern is it will respond and will still be on the ground a long time later,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that the DOD really resists, because it’s not in their job description.”
It also ties up assets that are supposed to be used in the case of a military crisis somewhere else in the world, said Friend.
Blurring the lines between the military and humanitarian aid could be problematic particularly in countries such as Somalia that have made gradual development gains that could be compromised without strong civilian engagement, Smith said at the panel.
USAID’s current efforts in Somalia, in addition to its response to the ongoing food crisis, include a $74 million economic growth initiative focused on expanding access to investment into key industries including agriculture, fisheries and renewable energy.
It can also send problematic political messages. In March, Médecins Sans Frontières published a report that found that the entry of military and political actors into the humanitarian field in Mali heightened security risks for aid workers. It found humanitarian support could be confused as support for the Malian government, rejected because of this perceived link, and that aid workers can be attacked if they are identified as a part of the enemy’s factions.
Military partnerships with host nations across the continent can help build a base level of trust which could be needed in a crisis situation, said Ambassador Reuben Brigety, former U.S. Representative to the African Union, at the panel. But there is a balance.
“This kind of military partnership is a good thing. It becomes problematic if there is no strong countervailing civilian component on the other side,” said Brigety.