Dangerous poor people: Part II

Mischa has posted a very well-written and well-argued response to my post on Susan Rice. Mischa knows more about Rice’s background than I do, so it’s worth reading what he wrote about her.

The following is my response to Mischa:


Mainstreaming the human security doctrine is a massive pain in the ass, because we have an entire political discourse (and industrial base and contracting constituency) built around the traditional state-centric concept of security.  The article you linked reads like an attempt to convince advocates of traditional security models to treat human security seriously.  She has all these book blurbs and such with titles like “Poverty breeds insecurity,” and this really isn’t debatable, even if saying it out loud could have potential policy results.  Further, it’s crucial that it be said out loud.

Fair enough. I’ll admit I don’t know Susan Rice’s background that well, and your response has made me think again about her. However, I was responding to just that one piece she wrote for UN Dispatch, which I think you’ll agree was poorly worded, at the very least.

You say: “if development is approached as a way of reducing threats to U.S. national security, it’s going to involve military means.”  This would be news to the United Nations, the General Assembly of which has spent the last 8 years trying to reign in the cowboys even while publishing papers like this one.  Rice is trying to make American policymakers take human security seriously, in the way that Europeans and other non-U.S. governments do.

[…] Also, whether we like it or not, security forces and purely humanitarian NGOs exist on the same plane.  Whether in Afghanistan, Congo, or anywhere, you’ll find both Doctors Without Borders and Dudes with Machine Guns.  There’s an entire emerging literature on how to manage relations between NGOs and armed forces, coming as much out of good international institutions as out of the caverns of Foggy Bottom.

[…] Most human rights organizations are not now, and never have been, pacifist.  Not UNHCR, not ICRC, not MSF, certainly not the think-tanks like ICG.  The choice simply isn’t between militarized foreign policy and pure humanitarianism.  Wish is was, maybe, but there isn’t.

None of the above-mentioned are human rights organizations. One is the UN’s refugee agency, two are “first responder” type humanitarian aid organizations, and one is an advocacy think tank. Let’s keep human rights out of this for now, though, I should point out that Human Rights Watch, arguably the most influential human rights organization on the planet, makes its criteria for humanitarian intervention quite clear.

One doesn’t need to be a pacifist to believe that development and aid work should not be militarized. And while there may be a wealth of emerging literature about civil-military relations, there’s also a huge backlash going on within the aid and development communities, and plenty of literature reflecting that.

There has been a serious shift in the past decade or so from aid and development workers being seen as neutral humanitarians, to being seen as part of broader military projects — in some cases even some kind of unarmed cavalry whose presence signals “the troops will be here soon.”

This has resulted in decreased access in conflict and disaster zones, the loss of these professions’ historical neutrality, and substantially increased fatality rates among aid and development workers.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been epic failures in this sense, but so, too, have places like Sudan, Somalia, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

Brooks Keene at Humanitarian Relief eloquently makes this last point with a telling anecdote:

To illustrate how clashing objectives can lead to distrust on the ground that ultimately undermines even our security (much less good development), I’ll point to something an ethnically Somali aid worker living in eastern Kenya said that stopped me cold in my tracks.  Her own impressions of the US government  were decidedly mixed.  She pointed to the good work she sees the US government doing through USAID projects or in resettlement of Somali refugees into the United States.  On the other hand, the periodic bombings just over the Somali border and intelligence gathering in the area created a decidedly more negative impression.  She said that perhaps this is a case where “the hand that feeds you is the one that kills you.”  How much trust do you think she had in the U.S. troops digging wells nearby?


It’s a big reach to take Rice’s view of development and conclude that she finds poor people dangerous.  You’ve phrased it like it’s a personal attack on the poor.  All evidence on civil wars, contagion theory, and state failure suggests: Poverty is dangerous.  It’s dangerous to the people living it, and it’s dangerous to the people in the states next door and increasingly next-next door.  Characterizing this position as Susan Rice Hates the Poor isn’t fair.

Yes, poverty feeds a dangerous cycle, but that doesn’t mean people living in poverty should be viewed as threats. A threat calls for a very different response than an ethical or moral obligation, or a sense of solidarity.  And notice that Rice frames global poverty (and those who live in it) as a threat to the United States. Ideas tend to take on a life of their own, and Rice should be cautious in trying to win over the traditional “security” crowd.  Development is a long,  slow process, and our political system isn’t designed to take kindly to any policy that won’t show big results within a single presidential term.

On the ad hominem point, you’ve got me. It wasn’t fair.  However, I stand by my assertion that Rice’s piece was poorly-worded and implies some pretty scary things.

Think of it this way. Most of our foreign policy establishment sees international development as foolish, too costly, or too slow. So, if poverty feeds insecurity because poor people are inclined to start wars, launch revolutions or join terrorist groups, then the most expedient way to reduce the threat they pose to the United States is  not to help them out of poverty, it’s to support systems that contain them where they are. In other words, we give money, arms, and diplomatic support to the dictators that oppress their populations the most successfully. This has been our policy from Latin America to Central Asia, from Augusto Pinochet to Islam Karimov. And it’s been a humanitarian disaster. I don’t think Susan Rice is a terrible person, or that she’ll be a terrible ambassador, I just think she should be careful not to unintentionally provide support for more of the same, or worse.