USAID mulls proposal to train aid workers as special forces

U.S. and Philippine military personnel prepare boxes containing tent material from the U.S. Agency for International Development to be deployed by airlift to the victims of super typhoon Haiyan. Photo by: REUTERS / Wolfgang Rattay

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Global Development Lab is an innovation hub inside America’s foreign aid agency, which is tasked with taking “smart risks” that can unlock new and innovative approaches to tackling development challenges. Over the past few years, one of the challenges the lab has taken on is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s lack of options for deploying its people to insecure and conflict-affected environments.

For years USAID has struggled with a conundrum: to contribute to U.S. national security objectives the agency needs to be able to operate in places that present national security risks; but a culture of risk aversion — which has intensified since the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya — often restricts U.S. civilian officials to capital cities where their security can be better guaranteed. That tendency to confine U.S. civilians to secure areas — sometimes referred to as “fortressification” — creates distance between USAID personnel and the communities they strive to serve.

The gap widens when those communities are located “outside the wire,” in places where violent extremism, instability, and state fragility pose additional risks.

In Feb. 2018, the Global Development Lab quietly released a series of reports it had commissioned from the Frontier Design Group to undertake research and development on new approaches to countering violent extremism.

One of the reports includes a stark observation: “Virtually everyone” the authors of the report consulted — an assortment of military, intelligence, and development officials — “shared a widespread sentiment that the USG [U.S. government] is woefully underperforming in non-permissive and denied environments.”

The project involved carrying out four studies, which were documented in separate reports. One of them examined past U.S. government efforts to put development professionals in “non-permissive environments” — focusing on the establishment of the “Civilian Response Corps” in 2008. A separate study explored the potential demand for and feasibility of a new idea, the creation of rapid expeditionary development teams — or RED teams.

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“Unlike existing USAID officers working in permissive and semi-permissive environments, RED Team members would be specifically recruited and trained to deliver novel techniques, practices, and tools optimized to secure communities vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and exploitation,” the report reads.

“RED Team development officers would be deployed as two-person teams and placed with ‘non-traditional’ USAID partners executing a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations in extremis conditions,” it says.

Those “non-traditional” partners might include U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Special Forces, the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the study.

In order to gauge potential interest in the idea of RED Teams, the study’s authors consulted with representatives from a variety of military and civilian agencies where development officers might be embedded — including the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six.

“Unlike existing USAID officers ... RED Team members would be specifically recruited and trained ... to secure communities vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and exploitation.”

— “Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams Demand and Feasibility Assessment” report

Training to earn elite status

RED Team officers, the report explains, would carry out development activities, but they would also have training and expertise that are not typically included in USAID job requirements.

“RED Team personnel would be able to live and work in austere environments for extended periods of time and actively contribute to their own security and welfare. They would be deployed farther forward than USAID personnel traditionally deploy and would routinely operate under the authority of the host agency with whom they deploy, acting in accordance with their security posture,” the report reads.

“RED team members would be trained and authorized to conduct themselves as a force-multiplier able to contribute a full suite of security skills as needed,” it says.

Some of the “core courses” RED team members might take as part of their training include, “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE), negotiations, cultural communications, EMT-wilderness, austere care, civil reconnaissance, and weapons qualification courses, earning elite status alongside [special operations forces] and [intelligence community] operators and reassuring prospective partners that they will not have to ‘babysit the USAID team,’” according to the study, which characterized potential partners’ views about the idea.

The “priority competency” that RED team members would bring to bear in communities deemed vulnerable to violent extremism would be social movement theory.

USAID declined an interview, but when asked whether the agency was still considering this proposal a spokesperson wrote to Devex by email: “We are still working on the details in formulating the Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams initiative. As a learning organization, USAID is reviewing the insights from the report and others to reflect on approaches like red teaming and their value to USAID moving forward.”

One of the key features that would set RED team members apart from USAID’s standard operations is that they would not work through implementing partners, but instead have the resources and authority to implement projects and disburse resources on their own.

“RED Team members would be able to design, fund, and implement activities immediately in response to urgent and pressing requirements as opposed to working by, with, and through implementing partners via contracting or grant mechanisms,” the report reads.

The report suggested that enabling elite-trained development professionals to engage directly in projects might offer an alternative to USAID’s current system of managing “field representatives” from a distance.

“Rather than continue to deliver remotely-managed infrastructure and service provision contracts in NPEs [non-permissive environments], the RED Team concept also pushes USAID to directly improve community resilience by mobilizing specialized employees able to operate with and complement the efforts of elite SOF [special operations forces] and IC [intelligence community] forward operators,” the report reads.

For some of the study’s respondents, whose opinions were quoted or characterized throughout the report, this model seemed to offer a distinct advantage — and an opportunity to “restore the long-lost doing capacity of USAID,” as one of them reportedly described it.

At least one respondent had reservations about giving specially-equipped and highly trained civilians this much autonomy to operate in unstable environments.

“Who is [a RED team member] accountable to? What if they went rogue?” the respondent reportedly asked when interviewed by the researchers, describing this hypothetical as his, “ultimate fear.”

“RED Team members would ... [not be required to work] by, with, and through implementing partners via contracting or grant mechanisms.”

— “Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams Demand and Feasibility Assessment” report

Blurred lines

The purpose of the report was not to advocate for the RED team approach or to suggest any options for operationalizing it. Instead, the researchers were tasked with gauging feasibility and demand among potential partners and participants in this potential deployment model. Frontier Design Group conducted 36 interviews with people in a variety of military and civilian branches.

“There is a real gap. Whether you’re the interagency partners, or you’re State and AID … the majority of people were saying, ‘we want this expertise. We need this expertise.’ I think it’s a real opportunity for AID to step into this role. I understand there are a lot of reasons why it hasn’t, and I know people are really grappling with that,” Alexa Courtney, CEO and founder of Frontier Design Group and an author of the report, told Devex.

“This was received really favorably by a number of very senior influential folks in the interagency,” she added.

One USAID officer with 15 years of experience, including in “extremely denied environments,” put it bluntly to Courtney’s team.

“We have to be involved in national security or USAID will not be relevant. Anybody who doesn’t think we need to be working in combat elements or working with SF [special forces] groups is just naïve. We are either going to be up front or irrelevant ... USAID is going through a lot right now, but this is an area where we can be of utility. It must happen,” the officer told the report’s authors.

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This proposal is the latest in a long history of experiments to incorporate civilian humanitarian and development personnel into conflict in hopes they might serve as “force multipliers” or help America and its allies win the “hearts and minds” of local communities.

Some of those efforts have drawn significant criticism for eroding humanitarian principles of neutrality and blurring the lines between military tactics and development goals.

“I recognize that there is a very strong debate about humanitarian assistance being apolitical, and I take seriously the debate about optics, and I think that that is certainly important to think about and consider,” Courtney said.

Several respondents recommended that if USAID moves forward with the idea, they should consider changing the name from RED teams to something else.

“This would avoid any confusion with longstanding military and intelligence practices of referring to threats as ‘red,’ they noted, adding that the practice of “emulating adversaries to improve effectiveness” is also known as “red teaming.”

Update, Feb. 19, 2019: The headline has been updated to reflect the intent of the program.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.