A cursory search of the major media giants (e.g., The New York Times and The Washington Post) over the past two days reveals an interesting array of articles on the growing might of jihadists in Africa, and the U.S. and international responses to that threat. The responses run the gamut from the use of U.S. drones in combating extremists in Niger to Denmark partnering with Burkina Faso to root out jihadism before it blooms to Swiss experts in Nigeria training African nations to shut down money laundering schemes that aid Islamists. The Times describes the main focus of all these efforts as “border surveillance, enhanced intelligence and police cooperation, the rule of law, arms trafficking and undercutting terrorists’ financial networks”.
While those are undoubtedly important interventions, it continues to strike me as nothing less than absurd that there seem to be very few people arguing for more programs that will bring hope and a future to poor, desperate, frustrated people in these struggling nations. Programs like those implemented by Food for the Hungry (FH) in a number of African countries. Agricultural production and marketing programs that help poor farmers to triple and quadruple their crop yields and increase their household income through the sale of that extra produce. Maternal and child health and nutrition programs that produce healthy children who thrive in life. And most importantly, education programs that help more children to excel in school and graduate. It’s interventions like these that I believe will turn the tide in the regions of Africa that are threatened by extremism.
Take for example a large U.S. government-funded food security program called “Food for Peace.” This program positively impacts millions of poor households in some of the poorest and least developed nations in Africa—many of which are beginning to struggle with extremist elements. The entire program costs only $1.4 billion per year compared to the estimated $5 billion spent annually by the USG on drones. I have personally seen the lives of countless people changed for the better by our food security work. I know that money is well spent, and I believe it is helping to create an environment in those countries that is not conducive to the growth of extremism.
Even U.S. military officials recognize the importance of humanitarian work. Research published by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition shows that 83 percent of military leaders support humanitarian efforts such as food assistance, health and education. These leaders say economic development, along with diplomacy, are important to our national security. U.S. development and humanitarian programs save lives, cure diseases, provide life-saving treatment to those living with HIV/AIDS, promote democracy, and build the foundation of local economies. And while development work is rarely easy, laudable progress is being made. Deaths in children under age 5 have dropped 37 percent since 1990.
When the tide of jihadism rises in increasingly disparate places around the developing world, the question needs to be asked as to whether “guns” or ‘butter” will be brought to bear in response. I, for one, would argue for tangible assistance that helps families and communities to develop, progress and have a reason to build for tomorrow. Only then will we see the tide turn.