Military Strikes Are an Extremely Expensive Way to Help Foreigners

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 27 2013 9:56 AM

Military Strikes Are an Extremely Expensive Way to Help Foreigners

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Costs more than a bed net.

Photo by Lee A. Osberry Jr./U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

A few months back, I ran into one of the founders of GiveWell, the charity evaluation website, and he thanked me for having talked up GiveDirectly the charity based around helping to fight global poverty by directly transferring money to poor people. That's their No. 2 rated charity. But he asked why I never write about the Against Malaria Foundation, their No. 1 charity, and I said I would next time there was a good news hook.

Today that day has arrived in light of the increasing chatter that the United States government should drop a bunch of high-powered explosives in order to kill and maim a bunch of Syrian individuals while destroying some of Syria's physical infrastructure in order to help other Syrian individuals. One's thoughts naturally turn to NATO's 2011 military intervention in Libya, which proponents of killing-and-maiming as a humanitarian strategy like to point to as an effective kill-and-maim episode that debunked the concerns of skeptics. Ivo Daalder, America's ambassador to NATO at the time, and James Stavridis, NATO's top military officer at the time, bragged in Foreign Affairs about the extraordinary success of this operation:

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost—$1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall—that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
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That is extremely impressive. What about the Against Malaria Foundation? What they do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That's to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America's other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That's something to think about.

It's also worth noting that the successful military intervention in Libya has hardly brought an end to violent conflict or political repression there. Whether it's the assassination of a few dozen political activists here or the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians from their homes by rebel forces, it turns out that the new Powers That Be in Libya have their own range of bad behaviors. Bombs are just a bit of a crude instrument with which to shape the domestic politics of countries featuring significant social cleavages, a lack of trust, and a recent history of resolving disputes with military force.

Now, before the kill-and-maim-for-the-sake-of-humanity crowd shoots a Tomahawk missile at me, it's worth conceding up front that none of this amounts to a logically airtight case against blowing up some Syrian infrastructure and killing various Syrian bad guys. It is very possible for a given undertaken to be worth doing without being the optimal policy. But I do think it's worth interrogating the larger political and ideological construct that says that spending a few billions dollars to help foreigners is a thinkable undertaking if and only if the means of providing assistance is to kill some people and blow some stuff up. The explosives-heavy approach to humanitarianism has a lot of unpredictable side effects, sometimes backfires massively, and offers an extremely poor value proposition. So whatever you think about killing some Syrians this summer, please consider throwing a few dollars in the direction of a cost-effective charity of some kind.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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