The link between war and aid

Wednesday June 16 2021
War pic
By Jonathan Power

The biggest war at the moment is the civil war in Somalia, started in 1991. It has claimed over half a million lives. Second, is the civil war in Syria which has led to about 400,000 deaths. Third, is South Sudan where over 400,000 have been killed. Yemen is a younger conflict, with over 230,000 deaths. Human suffering is at its worse in Yemen – it is held in the pincers of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates. Food and medical supplies have often been squeezed to a dribble. The US and the UK contribute to relief in the Yemen via the UN’s World Food Program and Unicef, while supplying arms to the side of Saudi Arabia.

The civil war in Afghanistan with an estimated 50,000 deaths continues. There are also lesser civil wars in Mali, (2000 deaths) Nigeria (10,000), Mozambique (100s), and in the Philippines (6000), among others. In Crimea, despite the Russian invasion, hardly anybody died. In Ukraine fighting can be described as intermittent and low-level. Serious casualties are rare.

Interstate wars appear to have come to a standstill. There is no Iran versus Iraq or India versus Pakistan, for example (and there hasn’t been for many years). This is an encouraging development for mankind. It shows that, given the will, diplomatic initiatives and the work of UN peacekeeping operations, progress to dampen down wars can be made. Since the end of the Cold War UN peacekeeping has expanded at a rapid rate, resulting in the bringing of peace to many of the world’s conflicts. Even China contributes peacekeepers – it is ninth in the league table of givers.

Besides that, group terrorist attacks have decreased markedly, except in the Middle East. Since 9/11 the US has suffered no terrorist attacks. There is terrorism in the US but it comes from native white people.

One way to exacerbate the likelihood of civil war is to give foreign aid. Or is it the other way round? The former is argued in a book, Small Wars, Big Data, written by Eli Berman, Joseph Felter and Jacob Shapiro. They give the example of Afghanistan where the American USAID created the so-called Local and Governance and Community Development Program. It paid men to dig irrigation channels, build footbridges and shovel snow to clear paths to markets and health centres. The results were disappointing. The average district chosen was a bit more violent than non-selected districts before the programme began but after it was completed violence worsened faster. At the end in an honest report USAID confessed that their programme had “failed to foster stability”.

Food aid can be successful but there are a number of cases when it has been counterproductive. Forty years ago I wrote about the days of the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When they faced defeat from invading Vietnamese forces they retreated to the Thai border where Unicef set up facilities to feed hungry families. But much of it was skimmed off by the Khmer Rouge leadership to feed their troops. What should Unicef have done? If it had pulled out the children would have starved.


Ripping off the givers of aid is a well-known technique of revolutionaries – as in Liberia’s civil war, with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and with the Serbs during their war against Bosnia and Croatia. Aid meant for everyone is captured by one side and distributed to their supporters or is sold on the black market to buy weapons. The worst offenders have been the Taliban who have grabbed more than a third of humanitarian aid sent to Afghanistan. Indeed, all kinds of aid, not just food, have been misappropriated. Contractors, who are often warlords themselves, have colluded with insurgents to extort money from the development effort. It remains to be seen if Afghanis manage to use foreign aid more effectively and honestly when the American and Nato troops have departed.

In 1992, during the height of the Somali civil war, the US and the UN sent in soldiers to protect food aid shipments, but also aid meant to develop educational and health services. Much was sold on the black market and the money channelled to the warlords. Part of the reason the war intensified was that insurgents wanted to seize the keys to foreign aid. It appears that sometimes aid can prolong the duration of civil wars.