The role of the military in development is a terribly fraught issue – and it has been with us for a very, very long time.  In my book, I argue that globalization and development turned into each other long ago – insofar as development has largely been reduced to a means by which we connect different parts of the world into a global market and political economy.  This is not because development is some sort of militaristic economic movement (though, of course, sometimes it has been used as such), but because one of the dominant assumptions in development is that free markets and a globalized political economy are the best ways to bring about improvements in human well-being (my book is an extended, empirically-based critique of this assumption).  If you accept this definition of development, colonialism was really the first phase of “development” as we understand it today.  Military force was an important part of colonial efforts to open new territories to these markets (often couched in terms of peoples “own good”), thus creating a remarkably negative association with the military in development circles.

Today, the military has largely taken on a very different role – it is a critical means by which relief supplies are delivered to disaster-stricken areas. And, in conflict zones like Iraq, the military has been forced to take on development work, despite the fact that its personnel are not trained for that mission (something most folks in the military are well aware of, and would like to see changed).  Underdevelopment has been viewed as a national security issue (such as the very poorly substantiated assumption that poverty breeds terrorism), especially in the context of climate changes which are presumed to negatively impact the poorest and most vulnerable such that they will threaten state stability in many parts of the world.  Engagement with the military is something that is nearly impossible to avoid if one works for a major agency.

I’ll be frank, here – I’ve never been comfortable with the military’s engagement with development.  As I mentioned above, they are at best highly disciplined amateurs who have little experience and no real knowledge base when conducting “aid work”, which as we all know can make anyone more dangerous than helpful.  I also think it is unfair to ask people trained for one mission to go out and conduct another for which they are not prepared – it’s never good to set someone up for failure.  But the New York Times ran a story today that really gets to the heart of my issues with the militarization of development – it makes it impossible for anyone to do good development work.  When development work is conducted alongside military operations, especially as conscious parts of a hearts-and-minds campaign, development becomes a tool of war.  This makes the practitioners combatants, at least in the eyes of the opponent.  I am in no way justifying the kidnapping or killing of those who work in development in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but I think we have to be honest about why otherwise unarmed civilians working on projects that are intended to have a community benefit might end up becoming targets.  It is not because “the enemy” is utterly depraved and indifferent – indeed many on the other side might see the use of development as a tool of war as itself depraved, a sort of holding people’s well-being hostage to larger geopolitical ends.

This post is not, in the end, a critique of the military – I certainly wish we lived in a world where they were not needed.  I imagine many of those serving in the military feel the same way.  But that is not the world we live in.  We live in a world where the military is doing development because someone has told them they have to.  This is not their fault.  However, I would ask that the military step back and think carefully about using development as part of larger combat campaigns – the association with conflict and combat gives our entire endeavor a bad name.