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

Updated: Apr 6

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 tracking aid effectiveness and reforms at the United Nations; empowers the monitoring, evaluation and learning sub-field; fuels debates about economic growth versus poverty alleviation; and permeates much of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s traditional approach to development.

An interesting aspect of this trinity is that just about any critique of aid starts from one of these three corners and aims at the other two. For example, those actors driven purely from interest may denigrate the need motivation as hopelessly naïve, and the efficiency argument as out-of-touch with the way the world really works. The need constituency brings a lot of emotion and resources to the table; often sees national interest as too narrow or earthly a perspective, and vaguely military; and views economists as too hung up on optimization and measurement to address immediate problems in the here and now. The efficiency folks can point out obvious examples of waste and seemingly poor decisions being made for the sake of expediency - never mind that wars might be averted, or lives saved, by the inefficient interventions in question.

The conclusion one might draw is that aid works best when it is at the midpoint between these three motivations - the center of the triangle as it were. In practice, we at USAID constantly need to balance the three motivations to explain how our work is relevant to national security, serves as a force-multiplier for and embodiment of the compassion of the US population, and does all of this as efficiently as possible, using taxpayer dollars wisely.

About the Author: Ryan McCannell is the director of the USAID Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He previously served as the USAID faculty instructor at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA, where he also received a Master's degree in Strategic Studies. Ryan is a member of the Civil Affairs Association Board of Directors.

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