Thursday, November 8, 2007

Development As National Security

As this post from Small Wars Journal makes clear, development aid can be determinant in stabilizing fragile countries that are either post-conflict or still experiencing insurgencies. The example the authors use, Sierra Leone, managed to conduct vigorously contested elections that remained peaceful just five years after a civil war had bitterly divided the country. Even the limited success of the post-conflict assistance went a long way, and the authors present a vision for what they call a "New Deal" for nation-building to improve the outcomes even more.

There's another point to be made here, though. Since the end of the colonial era, development aid is essentially the primary method for introducing pre-modern societies to modernism. But the idea that modernism exclusively presents gains to be offered, as opposed to an exchange to be made, is a fallacy. Modernism often entails a violent disruption of traditional social structures, resulting in alienation, loss of cultural identities, the rise of individualism, and other not so pleasant social consequences. The transition from traditional to modern economies also often entails transitional periods of intense dislocation, as largely agrarian populations adapt to urban productive economies.

An argument can be made that all of the painful consequences of modernism are worth bearing due to the enormous benefits that come with it. Improved health and sanitary conditions lead to both longer life expectancies and longer healthy life expectancies. Technological advances lead to improved living conditions and wider diffusion of the fruits of productivity. And modern social arrangements lead to increased innovation and personal freedom.

The trouble is that, in practice, very few of the benefits of modernism are actually reaching the populations we're asking to modernize. Which means we're essentially asking them to undertake this painful transition without delivering on the payoff. So it's not surprising to see a backlash, not only of insurgencies contesting control of the modernizing institutions, but also of movements -- such as radical Islamic fundamentalism -- that reject modernism completely.

Many, though not all, of the regional crises that we're periodically forced to parachute in on could be prevented through the much less costly approach of helping developing nations alleviate the conditions that lead to conflict in the first place. That requires a commitment to finally making good on the promises of modernism, something we have in our power to do. But it would first require seeing past the false distinction we've drawn between national security and development.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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