The Mud-Level Reason Our Nation-Building Fails

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, Poster US 3284, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, Poster US 3284, Hoover Institution Archives.

Our military leaders have just proclaimed a renewed, more-effective policy for Afghanistan, which they assure us will turn around the decaying situation.

We’ll see…

In the Hindu Kush, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, we’ve been assured that there will be no more nation-building.

We’ll see about that, too.

What’s striking is that, in the wake of hundreds of billions of dollars squandered on nation-building in support of our 21st-century interventions, little honest analysis has been done as to why our expensive efforts fail. Too many vested interests would lose their vests.

At best, we get platitudes, some of which are true—most notably, that we do not trouble ourselves to understand the local culture, local needs or even local maintenance capability. Some of us also have pointed out that our generosity is destructive in itself: By pouring what are enormous sums by local standards into underdeveloped economies and societies, we corrupt those we seek to help.

This isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. Our wealth created thriving black markets in 1940s Europe, but it really got underway in South Vietnam, where our largesse was economic napalm applied to our allies. We corrupted not only the Saigon government, but also undercut its military. We turned bureaucrats and officers into war profiteers, great and small. One of the reasons the North Vietnamese won was that they were too poor to be corrupt on a crippling scale: They may have been mass murderers, but they weren’t crooks (that came with time and progress).

By the time we reached Iraq, we had turned nation-building efforts into a shameless looting orgy for American and third-party contractors. In Afghanistan, we turned a nation of pickpockets into grand felons.

Yet, there’s another, street-level reason why our nation-building efforts amount to nothing. Call it the “sweat-equity effect,” as pioneered by Habitat for Humanity. HfH doesn’t simply hand over homes to the needy. The recipients-to-be must work on the new or renovated property with their own hands, doing manual labor that gives them an immediate stake in the home—and pride in having done something for themselves.

T.E. Lawrence was a grand exaggerator and, at times, an outright liar, but he did have insights that remain useful today. Of special relevance, Lawrence noted that it’s better for the locals to do something imperfectly for themselves than for us to do it perfectly for them. And paying a warlord or politician’s entrepreneurial cousin to do the work isn’t the same thing as having the locals do it themselves—not least, because as much as nine-tenths of the money never gets applied to the road-construction or water project but vanishes like a djinn done granting wishes.

The decisive fact is that human beings do not value what they do not pay for, whether in cash or sweat or risk. A recent Washington Post article noted that, since bread and water are heavily subsidized by the Egyptian government, Egyptians waste a great deal of water and bread. Nor is it only the poor of struggling countries to whom this applies. In the U.S. Army, the “tissue issue,” the dissemination of free circulars and manuals, achieved little in my time. Except for maintenance manuals, the troops just tossed them. But if a soldier spent a few dollars on a paperback book, he or she would read it and share it and keep it.

People cherish what they feel they’ve earned, while lavish gifts from strangers are humiliating. Sometimes our grandiose projects collapse because the locals cannot maintain them—or cannot afford to do so (few contractors are interested in designing projects the locals can service autonomously). But plenty of initiatives eventually came to naught because the locals had not “earned” them and took them for granted, neglecting or abusing them (the tragic story of our own inner-city high-rise public housing from the 1960s). God—and aid—helps those who help themselves.

Nor should we be confident that we’re done with nation-building, despite the “We won’t do that again” promises. Lucrative programs often survive by merely changing their names and re-working the rhetoric. So, with well-intentioned American generosity, we’re apt to continue corrupting poor societies to which we mean to offer a chance for improvement—because we’re impatient with self-improvement.

In the words of Jim Morrison of The Doors, “We want the world, and we want it…now!”

And the poor bugger down in the village waits us out.