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Swords Into Plowshares

Military Intervention is a Lousy Way to Help People Abroad

By Dylan R. Matthews

The United States government should be spending more money—a lot more money—helping people in other countries. On this much I agree with advocates of the war in Libya. Compared to other government spending, the Libya war costs a pittance. The operation required $600 million in its first week, a mere 0.016 percent of a budget totaling $3.8 trillion this fiscal year. But when compared to the $8.7 billion Obama’s budget sets aside for global health programs at the State Department and USAID, or the $1.1 billion total budget of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, it starts to look like a significant foreign aid program.

Given that, it is worth asking whether airstrikes in Libya are an effective foreign aid program and, if they are, whether they’re cost-effective as well. If that $600 million isn’t actually producing results, then we shouldn’t be spending it. If there are other interventions that could do more good for the same money, we should spend the money on them instead.

It’s hard to say, at this point, whether the Libya intervention is doing good in humanitarian terms. There is no doubt that Muammar Gaddafi was attacking his own people, and, as British Prime Minister David W. D. Cameron has said, there was reason to fear a massacre as Gaddafi closed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But we have to balance this averted catastrophe against the human cost of continuing Libya’s civil war. It is possible that by preventing the rebels from being crushed, the allied intervention will produce more casualties than a quick Gaddafi victory would have.

The intervention’s long-term aftershocks also give reason to doubt its effectiveness as a humanitarian measure. Some political scientists, most notably the University of Texas at Austin’s Alan J. Kuperman, have argued that humanitarian interventions create a moral hazard problem. Rebels in other countries may take the Libya war as a sign that the US and NATO will support them if they launch an insurrection. It hardly seems like a win, in humanitarian terms, to encourage violent, likely-to-be-crushed revolts, rather than nonviolent civil resistance of the kind that succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt.

This is not to say that the Libya intervention will be a net loss for human welfare. It could well end up helping more than it hurts. The point is that we are radically uncertain as to whether it will work. This is especially concerning given that the $600 plus million being spent in Libya could be devoted instead to interventions we know can work.

Over the past decade, a group of economists, centered at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, have taken to using randomized controlled experiments to determine, with social scientific rigor, what bang-for-the-buck certain foreign aid programs get. The results are encouraging. PAL studies have shown, for example, that spending $100 on chlorine treatment for water sources in Kenya can prevent hundreds of potentially deadly diarrheal incidents. Meanwhile, $100 spent informing families in Madagascar about the benefits of education results in students attending school for a total of 40 additional years.

The takeaway is that there are very cost-effective ways to help a lot of people in the developing world. Obviously, scaling this up would take work, but spending $600 million and knowing that one is producing 240 million more years of school attendance in Africa seems like a better choice than spending it to get whatever the results of the Libya intervention will be.

More to the point, existing, large-scale government foreign aid programs are showing results. To give just one example, AIDS research groups have noted that the GOP’s proposed $1 billion in global health cuts could stop AIDS treatment for a half million people, eliminate education and housing for 300,000 orphans, and keep 3.9 million people from receiving malaria treatments.

And there’s the rub. While a $600 million intervention in Libya can be launched without a hitch, the White House and Congressional Democrats will have to fight tooth and nail to preserve a similar level of funding for global health programs. The American political climate, it would appear, only allows humanitarian assistance when it’s pursued at gunpoint.

This cycle is self-perpetuating. The Libya intervention has reversed momentum within Congress for defense cuts, meaning that debt reduction efforts will likely focus on programs for the poor at home and abroad rather than on waste at the Pentagon. So next time a choice like the one presented by Libya arises, we will have a well-financed Pentagon and emaciated aid programs, and once again the military option will look more attractive.

The U.S. government should start taking the welfare of people abroad more seriously across the board. The fact that the world’s richest country spends so little of its resources preventing people abroad from sickness and death is a moral travesty of the first order. But taking the interests of people abroad seriously means investing in humanitarian endeavors that we know will work. We just do not know that about the Libya war.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is currently studying abroad at the University of Cambridge. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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