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Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails by Christopher Coyne (Stanford Economics and Finance 2013), 272 pages.

In the aftermath of the carnage wrought by World War II, Harry Truman committed America to humanitarian action. In his 1949 inaugural address, he pledged to “continue our programs for world economic recovery” and “embark on a bold new program for … the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”

One of those underdeveloped areas was Afghanistan. The Helmand Valley Project, referring to Afghanistan’s southern province, received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid and aimed to “increase the standards of living of the poor through the development of farms, infrastructure for electricity, and protection against flooding.”

In the ensuing years Washington’s humanitarian project continued to receive funding, but produced little but failure. The first dam built for the Afghans in Helmand Province “resulted in salt deposits, which had devastating effects on the soil, making it useless for farming purposes.” Increases in the inflow of water, intended to help farmers yield their crops, resulted in “numerous instances of flooding of fields,” which led to a 50 percent drop in agricultural output in some areas.

A 1960 article in the New York Times described the Helmand Valley Project as a “comedy of errors,” but U.S. involvement in the project lasted until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Fast-forward several decades. The United States picked up where it left off, tasking itself with a broad reconstruction effort following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. Reconstruction of the Kajaki dam, built originally with resources from the 1950s-era Helmand Valley Project, was one small part of that effort.

The U.S. government invested $128 million to rehabilitate the dam and replace two neglected, inoperable turbines to provide electricity to Afghan villages. To this day, the project “remains incomplete.” Only one of the turbines is operational, and while the delivery of the second one “ultimately was successful,” three years later it “remains unpacked and in its original crating.”

Knowledge and interest

That unnerving anecdote comes from Chris Coyne’s latest book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. Coyne, a professor of economics at George Mason University, explains with commanding precision why failures like this one pervade the government’s so-called humanitarian interventions.

Humanitarian action fails, Coyne argues, for two reasons: “(1) those carrying out humanitarian actions often lack the relevant knowledge to accomplish the desired goals, and (2) humanitarian action is often not compatible with the incentives of those in political power, both those in power in the nation or in a coalition of nations carrying out the action and those in power in the country where action is taking place.”

For a long time, the libertarian movement has suffered from a dearth of foreign-policy expertise. To be a libertarian, one typically has to be well versed, not just in the principles of limited government, but in economics as well. The focus has therefore been heavily slanted toward domestic economic issues.

Coyne breaks that mold, and Doing Bad by Doing Good boldly applies two crucial economic strains of libertarian thought to the realm of foreign policy and international humanitarian action: knowledge-problem analysis and Public Choice analysis.

The first comes from Friedrich A. Hayek’s renowned essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” In it, Hayek pits central planning, the “direction of the whole economic system according to one unified plan,” against competition, or “decentralized planning by many separate persons.”

“Hayek’s point,” Coyne explains, “is that economic interactions rely on dispersed knowledge” that is specialized and “not available to everyone.” In other words, top-down central planning doesn’t work.

The market helps society shortcut this problem of economic knowledge through the price system, which provides signals and coordination to what would otherwise be too complicated and opaque a system.

But humanitarian action, Coyne notes, “takes place through numerous, oftentimes overlapping, layers of bureaucracy, ranging from national governments to local governments to NGOs, often connected to governments through funding,” and therefore doesn’t benefit from a price system or the kind of specialized knowledge that exists in markets.

That creates problems when trying to allocate scarce resources to their most appropriate uses, as was certainly the case in building dams in Afghanistan. Coyne also cites a recent Doctors Without Borders report describing how hospitals in Afghanistan are “piling up with advanced medical equipment — digital X-rays, mobile oxygen generators, scialytic lamps — donated by a range of [foreign] states,” that apparently didn’t have enough local knowledge to understand that Afghans couldn’t make use of those expensive machines.

“This equipment is usually dropped off with little explanation and no anticipation of maintenance; most of it sits in boxes, collecting dust, unopened and unused,” the report laments.

Another study Coyne cites, conducted in post-tsunami Indonesia, found that 70 percent of the drugs donated from abroad “had foreign labels that could not be understood by local workers and were therefore unusable,” and 60 percent “were not relevant to those affected by the tsunami.”

Underlying the current fad of humanitarian action, Coyne writes, is a “mentality [which] holds that the world can be improved through well-designed rules planned and implemented by enlightened experts.” Humanitarian projects, whether they’re about long-term economic development or cultural augmentation, suffer from this conceited mentality of the central planner.

The second strain of economic thought Coyne applies is the Public Choice model. “In practice,” Coyne writes, “political actors at all levels are not guided by some higher, unconstrained ideal of humanitarian benevolence but by incentives created by the political institutions in which they operate.”

Coyne weaves together an array of anecdotes and statistics to demonstrate how those in political power use the brand of humanitarianism to further their own personal ambitions and goals.

The business of humanitarian action has become much like that of other industries with ties to government. Rent-seeking behavior leads NGOs to expend resources to influence the political process to secure precedence and privilege in receiving and distributing humanitarian resources.

There is also bureaucratic competition from within government for resources to address humanitarian crises. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Peace Corps, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and countless others all vie for bigger budgets and the sway that comes with them.

Most of the time it is “political influences, and not just the altruistic desire to help those in need, [that] will play a role in how humanitarian resources are allocated from start to finish.”

The incentive structures of recipients are also important here. So-called humanitarian aid, or development assistance, is highly correlated with corruption. It “often empowers political elites responsible for suffering and discourages reforms to already dysfunctional political and economic institutions,” Coyne writes.

Another illustrative example in the book describes the experience of aid workers who rushed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Many were “required to turn over their donations to Haitian customs officials for inspection [and then] were required to pay a tax to reacquire them despite the fact that they intended to distribute them to those in need free of charge.”

“The implication is straightforward,” Coyne explains, “all state-led humanitarian action is political” and subject to the selfish interests and perverse incentives of state actors.

Hypocrisy and propaganda

Coyne ably supports the theoretical implications of both the Hayekian “planner’s problem” and the Public Choice model with illuminating empirical data. Popularizing these ideas to an audience interested in humanitarian action is an incredibly important task, but it is not complete.

It is equally vital to inform people of the base hypocrisy and propagandistic nature of the rhetoric of humanitarian action, something Coyne approaches when he discusses the Public Choice model but fails to fully deconstruct.

That is not a failure of adequacy, but of intent, as Coyne lays out his purposes clearly at the beginning: “Economists take ends as a given and focus on whether the proposed means are appropriate to achieve the stated ends.” But when the stated ends of politicians in Washington are almost invariably disingenuous, that can be a grave analytical mistake.

As I said, Coyne does not completely ignore that disingenuity. He mentions that humanitarianism has often been used to justify colonialism and empire, and his erudite critique of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine is a valuable contribution to this line of thought, although it is tackled too briefly.

Coyne declines the opportunity to flesh out the military-intervention aspect of “humanitarian action,” which is incredibly important at a time when the country seems to be constantly on the verge of new and dangerous military quagmires justified by appeals to saving people from this, that, or the other thing.

The truth is, virtually all wars, no matter how transparently imperialistic, are framed as humanitarian in nature. Hitler justified his invasion of Czechoslovakia by invoking “the security of more than 3,000,000 human beings” who “have been maltreated in the unworthiest manner, tortured … [and denied] the right of self-determination.”

The Nazi dictator cited the plight of “refugees who have been driven out,” and explained that Germany was “determined to terminate these attempts to deny by dilatory methods the legal claims of oppressed peoples.”

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Washington described it as a cruel attempt to expand the influence of the Evil Empire. But the Soviets described it as a mission to protect the Afghan people from religious extremists with inhumane cultural practices.

In 1991, when the United States went to war in the Middle East to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, largely an effort to secure American dominance over the oil-rich region, the suffering of the Kuwaiti people was cited as a justification, not to mention fabricated stories about Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators.

And when the United States invaded Iraq again in 2003, George W. Bush, in addition to making false claims about Iraqi connections to al-Qaeda and possession of WMDs, insisted, “The lives of Iraqi citizens would improve dramatically if Saddam Hussein were no longer in power,” because Hussein “is a student of Stalin” whose “opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured.”

Horror stories of oppressed people, and promises to alleviate suffering, lie behind virtually every war in the modern era. Even interventions that are almost universally considered altruistic and humanitarian have rested on such deceit.

The Clinton administration’s intervention in Kosovo is often held up to be the archetypal instance of humanitarian intervention. Most remember it going something like this: the Serbian regime was committing massive atrocities against Kosovar Albanians, and NATO bombs put a stop to it.

In reality, that inverts the chronology. The vast majority of Serbian atrocities against Kosovar Albanians occurred after the NATO bombing began. Washington’s intervention sharply increased the humanitarian crisis in the immediate term.

Moreover, the U.S. government was, at the time, helping to perpetrate mass atrocities on a vastly greater scale in Turkey. Ankara had been crushing a Kurdish separatist movement in the southeast in a campaign that killed about six times as many people as died in the entirety of the Kosovo war — all with enthusiastic U.S. support.

Such conduct typifies the bloody history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet most Americans still think of their government as a leader in “humanitarian action,” and that’s what makes the task of exploring this history so important. The point is that U.S. foreign policy is not just incompetent; it is nefarious.

Coyne’s decision to constrain himself to taking stated ends “as a given” is a missed opportunity to persuade readers on what is probably the most pressing issue within the “humanitarian action” framework.

He has carved out a niche in libertarian academia with his maverick focus on applying economic analysis to the often-neglected realm of foreign policy. Doing Bad by Doing Good is an expertly researched and readable book — worthwhile to economists, foreign-policy wonks, and laymen alike — that continues this invaluable mission.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    John Glaser is a contributing editor at Antiwar.com and a columnist at the Washington Times Communities Section. His work has also appeared in the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, The American Conservative, and the Daily Caller.