How Not to Spend $75 Billion

Humanitarian motives are given as the justification for a whole series of foreign policy endeavours nowadays, from the most peaceful forms of foreign aid through to full-scale military invasion and occupation of foreign countries. How is that working out?  Two books published this week provide some answers.

The first book, titled How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, is edited by the ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg, who presented its findings in Ottawa and Montreal on June 6. The book is the latest in a succession of products by a panel of economists (working under the title of the ‘Copenhagen Consensus’) who have analyzed the costs and benefits of various policies to determine which ones produced the greatest value for money. Their latest results are in line with what they have found before. As Lomborg wrote in a recent newspaper article, “the single most important investment, according to the panel, would be to step up the fight against malnutrition … including micronutrient provision, complementary foods, treatment for worms and diarrheal diseases, and behaviour-change programs.” Also useful would be further investment in fighting diseases such as malaria, and in research and development aimed at improving agricultural output. “If spent smartly,” concludes Lomborg, “$75 billion could go a long way to solving many of the world’s challenges.”

The huge investment of resources into military operations such as those in Afghanistan also has opportunity costs: it prevents us from spending those resources on other projects, such as those listed by Lomborg, which might actually do some good.

The second book, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, by British author Frank Ledwidge, shows another way to spend $75 billion. In his book, Ledwidge analyzes the full cost of Britain’s military operations in Afghanistan over the past decade, including not merely the immediate costs of weapons, transport, soldiers’ salaries, and the like, but also the longer-term costs which Britain will have to bear in supporting injured veterans. He does for Britain’s Afghan war what Joseph Stiglitz did for America’s war in Iraq in his book The Three Trillion Dollar War.

Ledwidge is worth listening to, having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan first as a military officer and then a civilian advisor. Having analyzed the available data, he concludes that the war in Afghanistan has so far cost Britain around £40 billion (which, given the current weakness of the pound, comes to around $65 billion—but at historic exchange rates comes to almost exactly Lomborg’s $75 billion). What has Britain achieved with this money? The answer, according to Ledwidge, is nothing. As he told the Guardian newspaper, “Helmand is no more stable now than when thousands of British troops were deployed there in 2006…. The real beneficiaries of the war … are development consultants, Afghan drug lords, and international arms companies.” When the British leave, Ledwidge says, “Helmand – to which Britain claimed it would bring ‘good governance’ – will be a fractious narco-state occasionally fought over by opium barons and their cronies.”

This is not merely a vast waste of money and lives. The huge investment of resources into military operations such as those in Afghanistan also has opportunity costs: it prevents us from spending those resources on other projects, such as those listed by Lomborg, which might actually do some good. The military operations further crowd out other options by absorbing the time and attention of those in authority and of the general public. The hundreds of thousands of words in newspapers, the thousands of hours of television time, the thousands more hours spent by politicians, civil servants, and others on thinking about, discussing, and enacting military operations, are all effort which is not being devoted to something else.

Simply put, the lesson from these two books is that if you really want to make the world a better place, and you have $75 billion with which to do it, invest in micronutrients, vaccines, and agricultural research, but don’t invade other countries and wage foreign wars.

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