Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails

By Christopher J. Coyne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Solving the Puzzle

THE ECONOMICS OF STATE – LED humanitarianism developed in previous chapters provides the solution to the puzzle that opened this book. Recall that the experience in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan over the past century was meant to serve as an example of the failures of state-led humanitarian action more broadly. How is it, I wondered, that efforts starting in the 1900s to transform and improve the Helmand Province have failed so badly? And how is it that current efforts have resulted in the same outcome despite the fact that the Helmand Valley Project is one of the most infamous failures in state-led development? More generally, I wondered, how it is possible that well-funded, expertly staffed, and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially as in Afghanistan, to achieve their desired outcomes? The answer to these questions can be found in the dominance of the man-of-the-humanitarian-system mentality, which results in the continued failure to appreciate the constraints and limits on human reason discussed throughout this book.


THE STORY REMAINS THE SAME

Both the initial (The Helmand Valley Project) and current (post-2001 U.S. occupation) efforts in the Helmand Province attempted to deliver immediate relief while transforming Afghan society in order to foster economic development through planning by supposed experts who sought to transplant Western economic success to Afghanistan. Writing in 1960, the historian Arnold Toynbee noted, “American-mindedness is the characteristic mark of the whole band of Afghan technicians and administrators who are imposing Man’s will on the Helmand River.”1 In other words, the assumption was that the U.S. experience could be studied, transported, and replicated in Afghanistan according to the wishes of technocrats. Similarly, the historian Nick Cullather writes, “The planners

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