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Aid Workers Anxious about US Military Involvement in African Development - PART 5 of 5

By Darren Taylor
Washington
26 May 2008

The new United States military command for Africa, AFRICOM, is preparing for its official launch in October. In addition to training African militaries in peacekeeping and counter terrorism, AFRICOM staff will also be doing some humanitarian work on the continent. This entrance of the U.S. military into a sphere that has until now been the territory of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NGOs has upset many American aid workers. They fear that AFRICOM will result in U.S. aid to Africa becoming “militarized,” and that they’ll be in danger if they’re seen to be working closely with the U.S. military in sensitive areas, such as conflict zones. In the final part of our series on AFRICOM, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the Command’s plan to engage in development in Africa.

Military analysts say the war in Iraq, among other international conflicts, has finally convinced the Pentagon that the development of weak and failing states is key to preventing future conflagrations.

“Terrorism flourishes in places that aren’t developed, so the attitude at the U.S. Defense Department is that AFRICOM must be proactive in fostering development in Africa to prevent conditions in which conflict and terrorism on the continent could thrive,” says Gerrie Swart, who directs the Conflict and Terrorism Unit of Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African security analysis company.

Sean McFate, program director for the National Security Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C., says “failures of development” are probably going to drive AFRICOM, “simply because terrorists thrive in ungoverned spaces of fragile states by exploiting the grievances of populations – lack of access to social justice, lack of access to political organization, unfair distribution of wealth, etcetera. (Terrorists) exacerbate these public grievances, which are in many ways the failures of development.”

AFRICOM Deputy Commander for Civil-Military Affairs Ambassador Mary Yates says the Command is based on the premise of “soft power.”

“It’s the idea of working with countries to bring about better security and stability before it gets to a crisis situation. And that’s what I truly believe AFRICOM and the wonderful men and women here – civilian and military – are intending to do once we get ourselves built.”

Aid workers agree that improving living conditions in impoverished Africa could prevent a lot of conflict and stifle terrorists on the continent. But they maintain that they, and not the U.S. military, should be helping communities develop.

The former chief of Liberia’s Center for Democratic Empowerment in Liberia, Ezekiel Pajibo, a critic of AFRICOM, says: “We don’t know of anywhere in the world where U.S. military involvement has led to the development of those economies. The U.S. military was involved in Haiti for a very long time, and Haiti continues to be the poorest (country) in the western hemisphere.”

AFRICOM Chief of Public Information, Vince Crawley, counteracts that “positive economic examples” resulting from relatively recent U.S. military intervention include, but are not limited to, Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait.

AFRICOM must ‘stay in its lane’

Pajibo’s view is similar to that of many aid workers: that if the U.S. wants to prevent conflict and terrorism in Africa by means of development work, it should bolster funding to USAID and aid NGOs, not create a new military command for Africa.

Professor Gerrie Swart, who heads the Conflict and Terrorism at Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African security analysis firm, says, “USAID has a major presence in Africa, and despite frequent criticisms made against it, it’s doing a lot of good work on the continent. Why AFRICOM has particularly focused on the humanitarian side is quite perplexing in that regard.”

AFRICOM officials are adamant that USAID and other development experts will continue to take the lead in humanitarian efforts in Africa and that AFRICOM will merely support those efforts.

Yates also points out, “There have been humanitarian assistance programs in the U.S. military for decades. And actually some of the most successful programs that I did with the U.S. military in a number of African countries were humanitarian assistance programs.”

Theresa Whelan, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, acknowledges that “friction” is “slowing down the integration” into AFRICOM of USAID and State Department development experts.

She says attempts are being made to remedy this situation.

“That process is underway. It began in January with a senior level roundtable. We had 80 per cent of the U.S. government inter-agency represented. We are continuing that process in a series of workshops…. We hope to have that process completed by the end of this summer, and be able to move forward with integrating at working level interagency personnel into command positions.”

Yates says AFRICOM Commander General William Ward has met with a number of U.S. NGOs to address their concerns and that he told them “what we were going to do and that their traditional entry point into the U.S. government will still be USAID.” She says she’s also spoken with NGOs and is confident that the “misunderstanding that was there before with development agencies has probably lessened a great deal.”

Sam Worthington is the president of InterAction, a Washington D.C.-based coalition of 165 American non-profit organizations that provide disaster relief, refugee assistance and sustainable development programs in developing countries. He says there’s no “misunderstanding” at all: U.S. NGOs remain convinced that AFRICOM must “stay in their lane” and the U.S. military must focus on what it’s good at, “strengthening police forces, strengthening local militaries, providing a stabilizing capacity for local governments and their militaries – rather than get into humanitarian and development activities, which is not their area of specialization.”

In an effort to foster better relations between the U.S. Department of Defense, AFRICOM and American aid NGOs, U.S. officials have been meeting regularly with Worthington and other senior InterAction staff. Worthington says despite a series of “long and sort of positive” meetings, U.S. NGOs remain concerned that AFRICOM will trespass on territory that’s traditionally been the domain of aid workers and civilian branches of the U.S. government.

Some in the aid sector are embittered by the fact that people working for AFRICOM will be involved in planning development and aid in Africa. They argue that USAID already has experts on the ground who are getting a lot done with very few resources compared to those controlled by the U.S. military.

“I do wonder whether those are the folks who should be planning…what we should be doing in terms of long-term water supply in sub-Saharan Africa (for example). Planning without content is not always the right answer. There are a lot of people out on the ground, civilians there with very little support, and willing to do the job anyway,” says a member of USAID.

Another source in the agency is concerned that AFRICOM’s entrance into the realm of development in Africa will disturb the “excellent cooperation” that currently exists between USAID, U.S. NGOs and some African governments.

“An extra agency would be very, very foolish to add to a bureaucracy. I think that strengthening that which we already have, strengthening programs that work, is the way to go,” she maintains.

But U.S. officials say conducting humanitarian operations with military precision will only help to make American aid to Africa more effective and will ultimately save and improve many more lives.

Yates is confident that the proof that AFRICOM can boost development in Africa will lie in its “deeds.”

“The proof will be in the fact that we will be supporting – whether it’s humanitarian assistance or whether it’s a crisis or a natural disaster – that’s where I think we will have some assets and some value added.”

‘We don’t want to be U.S. intelligence agents’

Sean McFate says many NGOs and in USAID are “leery” of working with AFRICOM or any U.S. military organization “because it might impugn their neutrality or their impartiality which they depend on for their own protection when they’re working in countries.”

The USAID member told VOA: “We think it’ll work fine for AFRICOM people to be seen suddenly as aid workers in Africa, but the powers-that-be seem at this point in time to be ignoring the danger that exists for us, and that is if we are seen as U.S. military agents, especially in environments that are already hostile to Americans.”

Sam Worthington says aid workers are very protective of what they refer to as “’humanitarian space.’ It’s the ability to be impartial actors in complex environments and to deliver services to ensure the well-being of people and not be associated with one side.”

He adds that General Ward has assured U.S. NGOs that “AFRICOM will, as best as possible, stay within its mandate. Our challenge is that we’re not completely clear as to what the nature of that mandate is as it relates to the humanitarian space, and exactly where they are headed.”

Worthington says AFRICOM’s primary mission will probably relate to the fight against terrorism.

“There could easily be a disconnect between their delivery of that mandate and good, effective development and humanitarian practices,” he warns.

U.S. NGOs working in Africa are concerned that AFRICOM’s entrance into the continent’s development sector will result in them losing the trust and respect of Africans. They’re worried that they could become targets for anti-American forces if they’re seen to be working with U.S. military personnel.

“U.S. NGOs do not want to be associated with efforts that would engage in partnering with U.S. military that might result in the gathering of intelligence, or the perception that our organizations are involved in the gathering of intelligence,” says Worthington.

AFRICOM and aid workers can be ‘good neighbors’

Worthington says AFRICOM’s involvement in development or humanitarian work in Africa should be limited to disaster relief.

“If the military does become engaged in humanitarian work, it should only do it where they add value. One clear example of this is lift capacity,” where U.S. military aircraft could evacuate people from disaster areas or airlift aid workers into these areas, Worthington explains.

“But beyond lift capacity and beyond public relations outreach efforts, I would stress the need for the military to stay as much as possible on specializing in development activities that are focused on military needs.”

The key, says Worthington, is to provide USAID and NGOs with more resources so they’re better able to develop Africa. While development experts are busy with this “massive” task, he adds, AFRICOM could do what it’ll be best at: improving African security forces and the capacity of the African Union to respond to crises.

“There’s a tremendous amount of development work focused on military needs that needs to happen in Africa, and that’s where I believe they (AFRICOM) could add some value,” Worthington says.

Yet he also thinks AFRICOM members and U.S. development players could be “good neighbors.”

“You build a good fence and you need to do a lot of talking across that fence…. We have to work with each other under certain guidelines. For example, we do not want the military to hand out relief out of uniform, because we could easily get confusion between military efforts and relief efforts.”

But Worthington maintains that ultimately “the best image of the U.S. overseas, in development and humanitarian work, should be that of a civilian. Perhaps a practical way of putting it: of baseball caps, not helmets, in terms of our image overseas.”



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