International Development 101 for Civil Affairs Personnel: Part One - Why Aid?

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Ryan McCannell

This post is the first of a series of three notes exploring the ends, ways, and means of development and humanitarian assistance. It is derived from a course I taught at the U.S. Army War College in 2017 and 2018 while I was the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) faculty instructor at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here are my own and not those of USAID or the Department of Defense. I hope they contribute to a shared understanding between the development and humanitarian community and our partners in the Civil Affairs regiment.

Why do Americans provide billions of dollars each year to distant communities in the form of development and humanitarian assistance, and what do we expect in return?

This core question – interrogating the “ends” of humanitarian and development assistance -- is fundamental for Civil Affairs personnel to understand in order to work effectively with aid workers downrange. One basic distinction to draw at the outset is between humanitarian assistance, that is, emergency relief provided to save lives and alleviate suffering, and development assistance, which is long-term economic support and technical advice provided to lift poor communities out of poverty. These endeavors differ from, but often complement, security assistance provided to host-nation militaries and police forces. The term foreign assistance is a generic way to describe all these elements.

To help explain why Americans provide foreign assistance in the first place, below is a diagram I developed while teaching a course on the subject at the U.S. Army War College:

In this perspective, there are three key motivations for aid: interest, need, and efficiency (or opportunity).

National interest is usually the easiest motivation for most Americans to understand, and why U.S. and some foreign experts, as well as joint doctrine, often refer to the interface among Defense, Diplomacy and Development as the “3D’s” of U.S. foreign policy. The interest rationale explains why we provide security assistance to Egypt and Israel, and why we have a development program in a country like Djibouti, alongside the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. From this perspective, aid acts as a carrot that we can deploy alongside other elements of our foreign policy to influence partner nations.

Need is self-explanatory, but also more formally known as the humanitarian principle of humanity (per the United Nations Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance), and less formally as helping others less fortunate than you are. This motivation drives most of the actual aid implementing partners, and responding to need is the reason many aid workers pursue careers in the development field. Also, as I discovered while serving at the Army War College, many of the same folks who work on national security by day are service-oriented folks who donate to charity or provide funds for international relief through their church, mosque, or synagogue as private citizens. By doing so, they are demonstrating personally the power and importance of the need motivation, not to mention the billions of dollars that private foundations, non-profits, and other aid implementers raise on their own. Even the most realist, Interest-oriented thinkers would be making a mistake by leaving all those vast resources on the table if they chose to ignore need as a motivator.

Efficiency is that economic argument. The perennial challenge for this motivation is to ask: with scarce development resources, how can aid donors get the biggest impact? In other words, what opportunity might a targeted investment unlock? Centered on innovation and achieving results, the efficiency constituency brings a lot of problem-solving to our community, not to mention accountability. However, its scientific perspective can sometimes ignore or discount the messy realities of society, politics, history, greed, and other complex aspects of human relations. This motivation explains a lot of Congressional interest in trackin