• Review: Coyne’s “Doing Bad by Doing Good, Why Humanitarian Action Fails”

    December 14, 2013

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    (This review first appeared on the Huffington Post)

    If Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Failsneeded a subtitle, I’d be willing to offer up “We Meant Well, Too.”

    Coyne’s book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I’ll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.

    The Man

    Coyne’s book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?

    Central to Coyne’s explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of “the man of the humanitarian system.” An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith’s “man of the system,” the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can’t help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne’s theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq’s Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.

    The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne’s book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.

    Subtractive Harm

    With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money “spent” actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.

    Some more bad news: in today’s development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a “weapons system,” and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.

    Real Harm

    In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.’ need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren’t ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use “their” local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.

    (One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented online “I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.”)

    And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in “helpful” foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.

    Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, harm is often done under the guise of good.

    The End?

    Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.

    And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne’s book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.

    Author’s site: http://www.ccoyne.com/

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Quotes CC should have in his intro:

      “Oh what a tangled web we weave,
      When first we practice to deceive!”

      “We’re from the government. We’re here to help.”

      12/14/13 1:28 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Excellent book review Peter. Of course, you have the prerequisite sphere of knowledge to critique a book with the same subject matter.

      What bothers me about this whole “nation building” bullshit is…we can’t even get it fucking right here, let alone in another sovereign nation at the same time. sheeesh. Of course, we all know in reality, the “nation building” part is always after a war whereby we destroy the entire infrastructure first cause hell..we gotta keep the MIC in business..right?
      I’m of the belief now, the “nation building” part is just part of the cost of business…you know…the “war” business. After the MIC makes a few hundred BILLION dollars vaporizing a nation..hell, then they(MIC) gotta look like they care by “rebuilding”..when..in reality, the ONLY goddamned thing they care about is raking in another few BILLION dollars while fucking everything up. Meanwhile, the dudes like you are stuck with the problems while the MIC war crew are yukin it up with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other while makin BILLIONS doing it.

      Ya know…building an Empire is hard work. First ya gotta blow some poor country to smithereens, which cost billions and lots of suckers lives..and then ya gotta go in and pretend to clean the whole damn mess up, and then make excuses why you fucking failed! And then some schmuck writes a book about it makin ya look like a fool. You betcha. Hard work and no appreciation. geezus. Well..onward and upward..Empire building never stops.

      12/14/13 6:27 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      This is a bit off-topic, but I notice that you first published this article on HuffPo. I never would have seen it there since I won’t read the rag any more. However, I did notice, via another website (and later confirmed through HuffPo itself) that in order to comment on HuffPo, people are now required to have a Facebook account and use their real names. Without getting into the evil crap that is Facebook (which I also will not use), here is Arianna Huffington’s new policy explained:

      “The site’s new commenting system, explained by Tim McDonald, HuffPost’s director of community, requires users to have a Facebook account […]

      “How do you get your Facebook account verified? You have to enter a confirmation code sent to you by Facebook via text message. So to comment on Huffington Post, you need to give Facebook your phone number, and you need to give HuffPost access to your Facebook account, which, Facebook says, must list your real name. Then, you can choose to post HuffPost comments under your full name or just your first name and last initial. 

In August, Managing Editor Jimmy Soni announced the end of anonymous comments on the site and said: “The change will only affect users creating new accounts on HuffPost. Existing accounts will be grandfathered into the new system.” At the time, Soni was vague about how the site would internally verify new user accounts, but just a few months later all users are now subject to the Facebook requirement, causing no small amount of outrage in the comments. […]”


      Here is HuffPo’s announcement about the policy, which they call “the end of anonymity”:


      Just some side info if anyone is interested. As I said: off-topic.


      12/15/13 8:18 AM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”Just some side info if anyone is interested. As I said: off-topic.”unquote

      teri, I agree with you. Fuck Facebook. If I have to use it to comment, I won’t. In fact, other than this blog and a few others, I don’t bother commenting anymore. It all goes down the memory hole anyway. What amazes me though, is within 10 to 20 comments on ANY subject on any site..it devolves into a political party blame game. Although, some of the verbal fights are pretty funny.

      Hey, speaking of funny and O/T stuff, I ran across this yesterday in a comment section on the Chinese/American ship bullshit. Cracked me up…

      US Ship: Please divert your course 0.5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

      CND reply: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

      US Ship: This is the Captain of a US Navy Ship. I say again, divert your course.

      CND reply: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course!


      CND reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.


      12/15/13 2:19 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      ps. Fuck Huffpo too.

      12/15/13 2:23 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      “How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan? ”

      Were Iraq and Afghanistan expertly staffed? There were a fair amount of people who possessed ‘credentials’ yet hated the indigenous people or had no understanding of the cultures or socio-economic-political situation.

      Making key decisions from behind a fortified wall without being able to get beyond the wire much facilitated many important decisions being failed ones. Essentially, our governing bodies or so-called experts just threw money into the wind. No questions asked because at State questions = questioning someone personally and some officials take umbrance at any kind of questions asked.

      At one time the Bushies announced intention to hire former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Afghanistan. That went nowhere. The Bushies didnt want a bunch of questioning and presumed-liberals (though Peace Corps volunteers are a mixed bunch) interfering with corporate objectives in these two countries. It is easier to control staff if they have no clue of the realities on the ground. Less questions about policy feasibility, which gets messy for people back in Washington worried more about the next election cycle.

      The Bushies also filtered out people who obtained Middle Eastern studies degrees prior to 9/11 instead of allowing such people to go to Iraq. An associate who did receive his degree back in the ’90s joked it was probably because there was no database on American travel to the Arab countries back then that he got hired to do ‘analytical’ work.

      There were talented people sent to these countries, just too bad they had no understanding of these regions. Whoever orchestrated the Bank of Kabul program had zippo understanding for example. Look at the disastrous results. That problem is not unique to Afghanistan either but whoever got delegated that project at State probably has been promoted now. How sad is that?

      12/15/13 4:39 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      Good point. Iraq and Afghanistan were staffed by incompetents (me), carpetbaggers and fools. There was no possibility of success.

      Perhaps let’s rephrase: EVEN IF an effort is “well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned,” why will it inevitably fail?

      12/15/13 4:52 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote”Perhaps let’s rephrase: EVEN IF an effort is “well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned,” why will it inevitably fail?”unquote

      Maybe because THAT wasn’t their intent in the first place…ie..the P’sTB didn’t give a flying fuck about anything but raking in BILLIONS for the MIC.

      Nationbuilding afterwards? Bah..who cares.

      12/15/13 6:40 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Incompetent — “not having or showing the necessary skills to do something successfully.”

      In addition to you, there were talented people who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and your give-a-damn meters functioned properly.

      There was a serious problem in that a number of people who should never have even been sent were sent to these places. Incompetency can also mean a person has the skills to do something successfully, but abuses their skills, position and/or others. Ethics are a critical skill

      Opportunism reigned supreme in the conduct of these two wars, and accountability lacking. Our current administration promised ‘change’ and failed to act. Our economy has been wrecked due to the contracting fraud and banking scandals. Your book and situation have put this controversy on the table, from behind a curtain into raw light. People look at the wars, what political leadership is supposed to do, but fails, and how business is really conducted differently as a result

      “Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process.”

      This is a part of the problem, a collision of official objectives vs. unofficial objectives. Another issue is decisions are made with US election goals in mind or for the reading edification of American hearts and minds. Alot of decisions were made with the goal of influencing opinions back at home, not bridging relations with the average Iraqi or Afghani, and wound up useless or seriously detrimental to indigenous people. Ramifications were rarely factored into decision-making how Iraqis or Afghanis would be affected.

      Did we really go to Iraq and Afghanistan to make the lives of the locals better? Its a great recruitment campaign for a government work or army recruitment, and people do have good intentions.

      Its also why people can get jaded fast when they arrive. “But I’m the good guy-ism” sets in with the first crisis. That person is looking at the crisis from the view our officials have set up, and we all want to believe what our leadership tells us because of course, it has *everyone’s* best interests in mind, yes?

      Washington policy clashes with the alternate — and prevalent — reality of the indigenous people who have a totally different take on things actually roll because they live it day-in, day-out. They haven’t been projected into the situation; they live it. Priorities and insight are vastly different. This is a huge problem, rarely addressed, and the stuff revolts and uprisings are made of. Remember when Mr Rumsfeld predicted Iraqis would greet our armies with rose water?

      The reality is, long-term ventures, like these two wars, are focused on geo-economic-political interests of whichever political party is in at the time, and are utterly divorced from improving the lives of the locals. Remember the great utility grid scheme of Central Asia the Bush-Cheney administration wanted to implement? Sounded good, bringing electricity and heating to Afghanis and Central Asians — that these people would pay for. Reality problem no. 1 — people dont even know where their next meal is coming from.

      Sometimes, surveying is a good thing — except our politicians or people in the hierarchy, have a bad tendency to 1) shelve surveys that yield results they dont think will help them win the next US election or conflicts with their own expectations. Or 2) they dont even bother to read the surveys.

      There’s also the entrenchment of the “other” drone war that has occurred during these last two administrations. The tightening of a system that punishes critical thinkers, anyone who raises questions on a professional basis, and rewards employees focused on their advancement only. There’s a Nigerian proverb – to not know is bad, to not to want to know is worse.

      It’s hard for dedicated people with proper intentions to make a dent in these circumstances. Reform is really needed, but we’re not getting it. Then along comes some truly loyal civil servants, who roil a stuck system, being corrupted by hypocritical, self-serving people exploiting it. The danger you all have highlighted is the real enemy isn’t foreign, its at home. It’s complacency, it’s greed, it’s abuse of democratic processes, it’s monopolizing resources, it’s limiting access to a truly free market for all. We don’t look at these wars the same, or what official development efforts are supposed to achieve, or think that our politically processes are being best-served. They aren’t. And we arent as afraid to discuss this. The chicken factory project seems to have more consequences than the original proposal could have imagined would arise

      12/15/13 8:13 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”The danger you all have highlighted is the real enemy isn’t foreign, its at home. It’s complacency, it’s greed, it’s abuse of democratic processes, it’s monopolizing resources, it’s limiting access to a truly free market for all.”unquote

      Kyzl… dahyam!

      Well, take a break, have a glass of wine, and be glad you aren’t responsible for fixing it by yourself. Oh..and then bake me a pie. 🙂

      12/16/13 4:22 AM | Comment Link

    • john brown said...


      Peter — Haven’t read the book: Does he deal with the Marshall Plan? Best, john

      12/17/13 8:20 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      Marshall Plan only in passing; the focus is on “modern” interventions.

      12/17/13 8:41 PM | Comment Link

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