Those of us who fight global poverty share a guilty secret: our cause got more attention and resources after September 11, 2001. It soon became clear that there would be an alliance between the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Terror.”
But this boost for the cause of the world’s poor came at a price for the values of global humanitarian efforts—the loose alliance of private charities, international organizations, and government aid agencies that give aid to poor countries. The connection between the wars on poverty and terror had two unintentional negative consequences that are becoming more evident as time passes. First, it deepened negative stereotypes about the poor that contribute to the current wave of xenophobia against refugees and immigrants in the US and Europe—attitudes suggested by the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump and other far-right leaders. Second, in justifying support for dictatorial regimes, the connection discredited Western advocacy of the ideals of democracy worldwide. We have Trump expressing admiration for authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin and in some ways aspiring to be an autocrat himself.
….. As a result the US and UK governments have increased foreign aid to fight the poverty that was allegedly the root of terrorism. The same aid cemented alliances of the US and UK with frontline states in the War on Terror. The unintentional effect was to encourage a stereotype of poor people as terrorists. One well-known economist advising US and UK policy was Paul Collier, whose book The Bottom Billion (2007) conveyed what has become typical of the image of poor countries: “The countries at the bottom coexist with the twenty-first century, but their reality is the fourteenth century: civil war, plague, ignorance.”
The release of the report neither absolves America of the deeds highlighted therein, nor does it mean that such gross violations of the rights of non-Americans have ended. As Mother Jones reported back in 2012, President Obama may have ended officially sanctioned torture, but as it continued to wage the global war on terror America merely “outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere” through rendition programs. In addition, CFR has calculated that over the course of 500 drone strikes under both the Bush and Obama administrations 41 men were targeted, but 1147 people were killed. Dangerous terrorists should be taken out, by all means. But at some point we must begin to ask questions about what ought to constitute an upper limit of tolerable collateral damage. Especially in relation to the lives of innocent non-combatants.
By outsourcing illegal practices to governments in the developing world America is contributing to the weakening of institutions of accountability in those countries and the radicalization of potential jihadists. Six months ago I argued for caution in the ongoing militarization of US-Africa relations. My worry is that many American security arrangements with African governments are designed to bypass normal democratic channels (like direct military to military cooperation) and risk creating unaccountable militaries and governments. In Kenya, for instance, it is increasingly unclear whether the military or the elected civilian administration is in charge of national security policy (especially with regard to the mission in Somalia). Nairobi has also recently been on the spotlight accused of engaging in extra-judicial killings of suspected terrorists with foreign assistance. In addition, many governments in the region that cooperate with the US have enacted sweeping anti-terror laws, many designed to also silence domestic political dissent. If it is not yet abundantly clear, it is high time American policymakers realized that unaccountable and highly securitized governments play into the hands of jihadist recruiters.
The release of the report is certainly commendable. It is a shining example of the virtues of separation of powers, something that America, more than any other nation in history, has perfected. But it is not an end in and of itself. It ought to be a first step in acknowledging that human rights do not end at the water’s edge, and putting pressure on elected officials to devise national security and foreign relations policies that respect this fact. Despite what some Americans may say, respecting the rights of non-Americans and their desire for accountable political and military institutions will not weaken America. On the contrary it will make it stronger by bolstering its soft power, and safer.