Is Humanitarian Aid Strengthening ISIS?

Recent reports on U.S. efforts to confront the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq revealed something disturbing. As U.S. forces launch attacks against ISIS, a vast array of U.S. and other western aid has been flowing into the region...and directly to the jihadist fighters.

Reports state that in order for aid to travel through certain areas, groups like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have paid ISIS leaders (in some cases as much as $10,000) “transportation costs” (i.e., bribes) in order to move their cargo through ISIS-controlled areas. This provides the group a steady source of income, in addition to many supplies. In some cases ISIS insists on distributing the aid, withholding the supplies from civilians and instead using the materials to supplement their efforts.

While this story is timely, it is certainly not the first case of foreign aid gone wrong. In the summer 2009 issue of The Independent Review, Christopher J. Coyne and Matt E. Ryan explore the U.S.’s extensive history of questionable aid decisions in their article, “With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies? Aiding the World’s Worst Dictators.” 

In the piece, they explain how the U.S. has provided millions in assistance to the some of the world’s most brutal regimes. Those who have received aid include Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, among a variety of others.

We can now add ISIS to the list.

When discussing my skepticism of foreign aid, I am frequently confronted with looks of confusion, disapproval, and—dare I say—utter horror? These looks are typically followed by a variety of questions: How can anyone be against sending aid to those desperately in need? Don’t you want to save the people under control of some brutal tyrant? Certainly you can’t suggest we do nothing?! Some aid has to be better than no aid, right? Wouldn’t you have to agree that if one needy person gets the aid we send, then it’s worth it?

In my last post, I pointed out a very important concept in economic analysis, the idea of “means and ends.” If we take our ends, or goals, as given, do the means (proposed solution) solve the problem? In the current conflict, the goal is to destroy ISIS and assist civilians living in the conflict zone.

Undoubtedly, innocent people are being harmed and killed by ISIS. This is absolutely abhorrent. But as the above points out, the aid the U.S. and others are supplying may not in fact be helping to achieve either of the U.S.’s supposed goals. In fact, these efforts are likely making matters worse. Instead of relieving the suffering of the innocent, the massive influx of aid prolongs their plight by propping up the very group that threatens their well-being. The aid intended for civilians may never reach them, but instead provides ISIS with the physical and monetary resources to further sustain their campaign. As Coyne and Ryan pointed out, this is only one of many times this scenario has played out across the globe.

When discussing foreign aid, when confronted with the looks of confusion and disapproval, I come back to the concept of means and ends. I explain that I am skeptical of foreign aid because I care very much about people. Images of starving children, refugees displaced by war, and people living in unsafe environments invoke feelings of discomfort and genuine concern. But I refuse to blindly advocate policies because they make me feel good. I would argue such actions can be downright dangerous.

People often advocate counterproductive policies because they appeal to our sense of morality. We have done something and, therefore, have fulfilled our obligation to our fellow man. To do nothing is simply unfathomable and makes us terrible people. Allow me to argue that, in some cases, doing nothing is better than doing something. If our aim is truly to help those in need, we should first ensure that our efforts are in fact helping or, at the very least, are not making a situation worse. To do otherwise is irresponsible and, I would argue, truly immoral.

(Note: Coyne has written extensively on the topic of humanitarian aid failure. I highly recommend his most recent book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. You can also find a link of Coyne discussing his book with the Independent Institute here.)

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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