Thursday, 28 January 2010

Shifting priorities of Aid

Traditionally, the focus of a lot of development and humanitarian work has been on women and children. This is not just Western chivalry or random discrimination. Children are obviously the most vulnerable group and the ones least able to take care of themselves. Women tend to be targeted for several reasons. In situations of emergency relief, especially in conflict situations, women tend to be the ones trying to take care of families while men are off being soldiers or helping deal with disasters, so it makes sense to focus aid distribution there. In longer-term development scenarios, there is plenty of evidence that investing in women tends to be more productive of long-term benefits because they are a more stable population, tending to remain in the poor or rural areas while men go off to look for jobs in other places, and also because they tend to be more tied to children and the elderly, so the investment in their future has a beneficial ripple-effect.

Aid and humanitarian work is always subject to the unpredictable forces of local and international politics, however, and it is fascinating to watch how the shifts in the security situation over the last few years and the changing nature of warfare have altered aid priorities. I was reading an article this morning about a proposed US programme that would link funds and assistance with fighting terrorist elements to a civilian development programme aimed very specifically at young men in impoverished, tribal and rural areas. This is a group that has very rarely been targeted for development programmes but, given that these are the people directly targeted for recruitment by Islamic Extremists, it makes security sense for the US to reduce the likelihood that they will join the 'jihad' by providing alternatives.

I don't think it's necessarily a bad move more generally either. I've seen a lot of frustration from young men excluded from development projects because of the focus on women. While there is a logical rationale for targeting women in certain situations, the principle has often been applied universally in development and assistance programmes and I'm not sure that is entirely valid. Particularly with regard to youth programmes. Young women often have the option of family support long after young men are expected to go out and be independent. Young men are also very often expected to be breadwinners from a much younger age. Given this, especially when the discussion is limited to exclude mothers, who are targeted by different programmes, it doesn't always make sense to target women, except for the not-all-that-logical purpose of using programmes to seem more politically correct.

Whatever the reasoning, it will be interesting to see whether the new US administrations seeming awareness of some of the underlying causes of extremism and their attempt to address these yields results. The number of factors that will affect the likelihood of success are huge but if this does work out then maybe, just maybe it will shift the focus of problem-solving world-wide a little further away from reacting to threats and towards address underlying problems of poverty and disenfranchisement.

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