News & CommentaryArchive
Aug 01, 2008
The Costs and Benefits of Intervention
Endorsements of martial law and military intervention as a humanitarian or development tool are hard to come by these days. Economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (see Philanthropy Action’s overview here), is perhaps the most outspoken supporter of the concept. Recently, though, Australia’s strategy of humanitarian military intervention has received endorsements from the most unlikely of places—the communities where the Australian military has intervened.
One of Collier’s core suggestions for helping the bottom billion is military intervention for “restoration of order, maintaining post-conflict peace, and preventing coups.“ Collier notes that many of the countries where the “Bottom Billion” live are highly unstable and vulnerable to, or suffering from, guerrilla wars, insurgencies or other forms of organized violence. He suggests that the cost to the international community of military intervention would be quite small in relation to the human toll of instability and mass violence, or the financial cost of attempting to rebuild a country after a long insurgency or civil war. While in theory this makes sense, there are plenty of reasons to believe it won’t work in practice. And as Collier admits, it’s quite difficult to persuade anyone to try military intervention since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Except the Australians that is.
Since 2002 Australia has sent troops or police to restore order or maintain peace in seven different Pacific island nations, including East Timor, Tonga and Samoa. An article this week in the Wall Street Journal details the ups and downs of Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands. As expected, many Islanders oppose Australia’s presence on nationalistic grounds. However, it seems the majority (though this is hard to judge) prefer the safety provided by Australian troops to the alternative—a return to widespread ethnic and factional violence. When a nationalist prime minister began laying the ground work to send Australian troops home the Solomon Islands’ parliament replaced him with a more pro-intervention, pro-Australia government.
Australia has also been intervening militarily on its own soil, specifically in 72 aboriginal communities in remote areas of the Northern Territory. Spurred by a report that detailed very high rates of violence against women and sexual abuse of children, the government ordered the army and police to take control of the communities to enforce order. For all intents and purposes it imposed martial law in these indigenous communities. Measures were put in place to ensure children received regular health checkups and to limit spending of government welfare payments to food and clothing. This was a highly charged step for the government to take because of Australia’s long history of racism and discrimination against the aboriginal community, including a decades-long policy of forcibly taking aboriginal children from their families “for their own good”, which in some parts of Australia lasted until the 1970’s. Many activists decried the intervention in indigenous communities as a return to the bad old days. In June, a government-commissioned but independent study led by a prominent member of the aboriginal community—who was among those taken from her family in the 1940’s—issued a report on the intervention and its effects. The report was strikingly positive—violence and sexual abuse have declined, school enrollment is up, women report feeling safer. As a result, the intervention has been extended.
Of course, a true test of such interventions is impossible since we can’t be sure what would have happened without Australia’s troops and police. It’s also too early to tell the long-term impact—particularly whether intervention is in fact allowing for local institutions to build capacity to eventually displace the troops. But given the horrors we’ve seen play out in places like Northern Uganda and Eastern Congo, it’s reassuring to see that there may be something that can be done to help in such situations.