'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death by COIN 

Last weekend, British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed in Afghanistan during a rescue attempt after she had been abducted by insurgents in the mountainous eastern part of the country. It was initially reported that she had been killed by her abductors, but it now appears that she was killed by a Navy SEAL after she had gotten away from the insurgents and lay in a foetal position to avoid harm.

But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the propriety and execution of the rescue mission. There is an ongoing discussion of this subject in the British media. Instead, I am curious about what the death of Norgrove reveals about the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Peter Beaumont of The Guardian described Norgrove as an aid worker associated with Developmental Alternatives, Inc. She was specifically working on a DAI project funded by the United States Agency for International Develoment, commonly known as USAID, in eastern Afghanistan, a project described as the Incentives Driving Economic Alternatives for the North, East and West Program.

According to DAI:

Afghan farmers cultivate opium poppy because they need to feed their families. For many poor rural Afghans, poppy is the only reliable source of cash, credit, and access to cropland to supplement subsistence farming. Sometimes, coercion is also a factor. IDEA-NEW is designed to dissuade Afghans from growing poppy by increasing access to licit, commercially viable, alternative sources of income.

In alliance with Mercy Corps and ACDI/VOCA, DAI adopts a technical approach that DAI used with tangible success in USAID/Afghanistan’s Alternative Development Program–Eastern Region. This approach defines program interventions with reference to customers, uses value chain techniques to reveal customer needs, and then provides tailored, customer-specific incentives to help meet those needs.

The IDEA-NEW project builds on DAI's successful work in the eastern part of the country and extends it into the north. Its primary customers are the communities where poppy is (or is likely to be) cultivated. Infrastructure is our point of entry to a community because the immediate needs of farmers and villagers typically consist of building or repairing basic infrastructure—including roads from farm to market, irrigation, electricity, and cold storage. We offer technical expertise and cash-for-labor.

DAI’s value chain analysis reveals opportunities and high-priority needs, prioritizes subsectors, targets markets, reveals comparative advantages and weak links, and indicates how best to improve value chain functioning and increase community participation in viable value chains. Our diverse program interventions—including efforts to expand private sector activity—then address identified needs by exploiting the opportunities in collaboration with community leaders, government ministries and agencies, and the private sector.

DAI identifies USAID as the client for the project, and Beaumont concisely explains the purpose of the program as follows: A large part of the effort was focused on rebuilding local infrastructure, part of a programme seen as key to denying the Taliban its support among the Afghan population. In other words, Norgrove was a participant in the US military counterinsurgency program there that goes under the acronym COIN.

Accordingly, it is no wonder that the insurgents considered her an adversary. Given her involvement in a pacification project that the US military openly promotes as a part of the war effort, media characterizations of her as merely an aid worker don't fully capture the true nature of her activity in Afghanistan. For example, consider this excerpt from Beaumont's article:

DAI's president, James Boomgard, said: This is devastating news. We are saddened beyond words by the death of a wonderful woman whose sole purpose in Afghanistan was to do good – to help the Afghan people achieve a measure of prosperity and stability in their everyday lives as they set about rebuilding their country. Linda loved Afghanistan and cared deeply for its people, and she was deeply committed to her development mission. She was an inspiration to many of us here at DAI and she will be deeply missed.

At least Beaumont acknowledged that USAID funded Norgrove's project. David Harrison couldn't find any space to mention it in an obituary published in the London Telegraph.

Beyond this mystification, there are also the perils associated with her efforts to facilitate a modernization project in a region where much of the populace remains hostile to centralized state authority. Perhaps, it is impolite to say it at this sad time, but there is hint of what Edward Said described as orientalism in the accounts of her enthusiasm for her work, such as, in addition to the ones of Beaumont and Harrison, this one in the New York Times, although the reporters themselves may be responsible for it.

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