There is a school of thought, popular in the aid world, that you can kill terrorism with kindness. Whether you’re attacked by Islamic intolerants in the Middle East or Africa or Christian insurgents in central Africa or Buddhist militants in Burma or renegade Irish nationalists, the argument runs that almost all insurrection is an expression of exclusion—and the remedy to it, therefore, is to suffocate that alienation with development and inclusion. And it is true that marginalization is a consistent theme among militants, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Palestinian knife attackers to those who attacked Paris last week. There is some sense, too, in the idea that if we give them less to complain about, even make them happy, they’ll stop fighting. The problems arise when we think we can do that with aid.
Take Somalia. For the past decade, Somalia has been home to a small al-Qaeda franchise called al-Shabab. In the past few years, it has expanded its reach beyond Somalia into Uganda, Tanzania, and especially Kenya, where it killed 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013 and, in an attack whose modus operandi bears comparison with last week’s events in Paris, 147 in an assault on Garissa University in April this year.
Four years ago, after more than a year of severe drought in East Africa, Somalia, like the region, faced a famine. But while aid agencies handed out millions of dollars of food aid to millions of people in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and South Sudan, almost none was delivered to southern Somalia. Why? Because the U.S. government pressured Western aid agencies to impose a food aid ban on al-Shabab’s southern Somali stronghold, arguing that the group sometimes stole food aid and that therefore emergency food was a form of support to a proscribed terrorist group. In late July 2011, when the disastrous consequences of that policy were becoming clear, the U.S. rescinded its ban—but too late. A quarter of a million people died.
You won’t have heard that story from the U.S. government or the aid agencies involved, some of whom used pictures of a famine at which they weren’t present and had no ability to address to raise $1.8 billion in funds, which they then spent elsewhere. But on the ground in Mogadishu, the prime minister of Somalia, his defense minister, a minister in the presidential office, a military adviser, and a Somali aid manager all blithely confirmed the famine was deliberate strategy.
“When people run out of things, and they are left empty-handed, that’s when they cannot fight and they can only run away from us,” Somalia’s defense minister, General Yusuf Mohammed Siad, told me. Asked about the famine, the then-Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said, “Every challenge comes with an opportunity. The more they are weak, the more we expand our reach.”
This was all a very long way from aid’s origins. The modern aid industry has its roots in the ’60s and a reaction by activists to the way Cold War politics dominated government assistance to foreign countries. Rather than buying alliances with donations, new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sprang up offering apolitical aid focusing on suffering and people, not governments and realpolitik. Neutrality also secured NGOs access to civilians on any side of any war or any disaster. The activists gave themselves a name to encapsulate their new non-discriminatory righteousness: humanitarians.
From the start, however, aid workers overstated their independence. After all, most were mostly Westerners with Western outlooks who took most of their funding from Western governments. Many of them then began plotting career paths in this new industry that, as they swapped back and forth between government and aid agencies, further diminished their detachment from the state.
Today many NGOs have all but totally surrendered their impartiality in favor of working with governments rather than outside them while also expanding their mission from narrowly defined assistance into policy areas more normally reserved for nation states. The World Bank, which once specialized in cheap loans to poor governments, now funds malaria prevention and refugee assistance. Oxfam, founded as the Oxford Committee for Family Relief, now prefers not to relieve famines at all but instead tackles such nebulous problems as global inequality.
Then there is the new generation of advocacy groups who see their mission not as addressing poor world problems directly but rather creating rich world “awareness” of those problems so as to oblige rich world governments to act. The most spectacular example of that is Invisible Children, a campaign group founded by three California hipsters who created such a groundswell of public opinion around an obscure and tiny central African psycho-Christian militia called the Lord’s Resistance Army that President Barack Obama sent a few hundred U.S. soldiers to Africa to kill them.
The result? With their shared positions on human rights, liberal democracy, and free-market economics, today it can be hard to tell governmental and non-governmental apart. Aid’s proximity to power also means it has never been more formidable. It combines the institutional strength of the UN, all the world’s most powerful governments, thousands of aid agencies, and a decent slice of the world’s richest men. It turns over $138 billion a year and employs 600,000 people.
But aid’s power has come at the price of its independence. And once aid is political, once it is no longer a neutral, unequivocal good but an opinion or a strategy or even the means to execute a military campaign, it will find opponents. In the civil wars in Yemen or Syria or South Sudan, governments and rebels block food aid to millions and justify their actions by claiming they are resisting nefarious foreign interference.
In Africa, where $55.8 billion a year in aid ends up, the insurgents go even further. In August 2011, Boko Haram bombed the UN’s headquarters in Nigeria. In the last few years, Islamic militants have also attacked and kill aid workers in Mali, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. On a continent that has experienced rapid economic growth for more than a decade, even moderate African opinion is suspicious of the need for aid, especially the kind distributed by well-paid foreigners in shiny white SUVs implementing the policies of a foreign government.
Assistance tainted by a perception that it is something else entirely is no help in putting out the fires of terrorism. It can even fuel them. Take Somalia again. Aid workers telling you that aid is the answer to Africa’s problems routinely present their argument alongside pictures of starving African babies. Many of those photographs are from the same famine that aid workers helped cause in Somalia in 2011. It is a measure of the gulf between the rich world and those who would tear it down that the same images that represent African helplessness to Westerners depict Western ruthlessness to many Africans.
Alex Perry is an author and foreign correspondent who was based in Africa for close to a decade in Africa. His latest book, The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free, is published this week by Little, Brown.