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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

DOUG SAUNDERS

Is our aid being wasted on ‘fragile states’? Add to ...

It sounds so simple: You only help those who are in serious trouble. That money and assistance should only go to those in danger of falling apart completely and doing serious harm to everyone around them.

As an approach to dealing with, say, a friend who has fallen off the wagon and is asking for a few hundred bucks to pay the rent, this turns out not to be so simple. But in relations between countries, it has become the dominant, and sometimes only, philosophy. Since 2001, Canada and other Western countries have adopted what’s known as a “fragile states” approach to aid and military assistance.

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It seemed to make sense: The old “poor” countries no longer needed aid, and the fragility of Afghanistan had led it to harbour international terrorism.

To understand why the new approach has failed so badly, look at what’s happened in Uganda recently.

First, the world denounced Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President since 1986, for his “jail the gays” bill, which created one of the world’s most brutal anti-homosexual laws. The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark cut aid (aid makes up 20 per cent of the Ugandan budget), the United States threatened sanctions and the European Union parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for them. The World Bank postponed a $90-million loan.

Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo fired back on Twitter: “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos, we shall still develop without it.”

Then, this week, Mr. Museveni got a whole load of military aid, including advanced weapons, from the West. The United States gave Uganda several high-tech Osprey aircraft and the use of 150 elite Air Force Special Operations troops, ostensibly to help Uganda’s hunt for fugitive guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army terrorized northern Uganda and horrified the world a decade ago.

Why are our allies helping a country they’re meant to be censuring? Because Uganda has managed to get itself classified as a fragile state, its demagogic leader a force of stability compared to the monsters who preceded him and the menaces on his frontier. Despite provoking an Internet meme, Mr. Kony hasn’t been a major threat in Uganda for some time, but Mr. Museveni has been able to use his spectre to attract big donations.

“Regime officials have sought to maintain the salience of peripheral Ugandan state fragility in their dialogue with donors by consistently characterizing provincial regions as war-torn and under constant threat from rebels,” writes Jonathan Fisher of the University of Birmingham in a new research paper titled When It Pays To Be A ‘Fragile State’: Uganda’s Use And Abuse Of A Dubious Concept.

In the 1990s, when Mr. Museveni had been in power a mere decade, he garnered large sums of aid by portraying his country’s frontier as plagued with “criminals,” “lawbreakers” and “bandits,” Dr. Fisher wrote.

Beginning in 2001, however, he began referring to these threats exclusively as “terrorists,” in a bid to gain the coveted “fragile state” status Canada and other countries require for aid entitlement – despite the fact that Uganda had by then become, by sub-Saharan standards, not fragile or threatened in a significant way by anyone but its own government.

Mr. Museveni’s officials have spent the past decade flying foreign donors on state-managed “briefing trips” into districts said to have been recently hit by LRA attacks. Officials who tried to visit these regions independently had their travel permits revoked.

After examining the evidence, Dr. Fisher concluded that “Kampala’s motivation for this image management is primarily based on concerns of regime maintenance – seeking to justify Museveni’s extensive and increasingly authoritarian tenure in office and to encourage greater international provision of military training and weaponry to the regime’s security forces, while also reinforcing and augmenting its image as a central ‘front-line state’ in the fight against global disorder and international terrorism.”

Sound familiar? It’s a tactic employed by less-than-palatable leaders in many countries. The most successful, almost certainly, has been Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, whose entirely aid-financed government has kept up its Western backing by portraying any opposition forces (including democratic ones) as threats to “stability,” and becoming increasingly less democratic in the process.

Because the opposite of “fragile state” is, of course, “strongman.” And it is increasingly clear that that’s who the “fragile states” policy has returned us to propping up with aid.

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