WASHINGTON — In 2013, the Department of Defense requested a budget of $613.9 billion. In its budget request materials, it outlined the primary missions of the U.S. Armed Forces, one of which was to “conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and other operations.”
Historically, the DOD played a role in foreign aid in three main areas: humanitarian and basic needs, foreign military capacity building and state building. The benefits of the DOD being involved in foreign aid are found in diplomacy, image and capacity to respond quickly.
Because of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the DOD’s non-combat responsibilities have expanded in the region. Afghanistan, especially, has received humanitarian assistance from the DOD. According to the most recently available data on DOD foreign aid—from 2013—Afghanistan received almost $140 million in DOD foreign aid. The largest piece of this funding, for infrastructure, accounted for $106,170,111. Following this was water supply and sanitation with $18,629,086 and rule of law and human rights with $5,890,917. Other activities included agriculture, education and public health threats.
Criticisms of military participation in humanitarian relief have come into focus because of Afghanistan. While most in the non-profit community are supportive of DOD participation in quick-response disaster settings, many feel that NGO personnel neutrality can be jeopardized by military participation in relief efforts, especially in conflict areas. Because of this criticism, military personnel no longer wear civilian dress while participating in aid efforts to try to mitigate risk.
The DOD spent humanitarian dollars in almost every country in which it had a presence in 2013. In Belize, it spent $1.6 million on general humanitarian assistance, as well as additional money on disaster readiness and HIV/AIDS. Other countries that received general humanitarian assistance were Ukraine, Uganda, Senegal, Romania, Peru, Panama, Mongolia, Latvia, Kenya, El Salvador, Honduras, Croatia and Bangladesh, among others. The general humanitarian assistance spending from the DOD reached just over $7.3 million for the fiscal year.
Other sectors of assistance include agriculture, education, water sanitation, malaria, HIV/AIDS and other public health threats, disaster readiness, peace and security and counter-narcotics.
The military has a variety of programs and response capabilities that make it an effective tool in fighting public health threats. The DOD maintains a system of laboratories, medical expertise and technologies that can be mobilized quickly and efficiently. The U.S. military focuses much of its public health efforts on infectious disease, but some DOD personnel may be pushing for a more expanded role in areas such as malnutrition, non-communicable diseases and maternal health.
One area of public health in which the DOD excels is HIV/AIDS education and treatment. The Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program provides funds “to train and assist selected foreign militaries in establishing and implementing HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment programs.” In the last six years, the Naval Medical Center San Diego has trained providers in 50 militaries to help strengthen HIV-prevention programs in home countries.
In the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa, the U.S. military has stepped in to provide assistance in efforts led by the U.S. Agency for International Development. There are 2,367 DOD personnel, most based in Liberia. The role of the DOD is to provide support and training for health care workers and build up health infrastructure. This includes providing hospital and treatment facilities around the country. As of January 5, the DOD had contributed $384.9 million to the Ebola response.
While the lead authority for disaster relief from the United States is USAID, the DOD does regularly participate in relief efforts at the request of the President or the State Department. Because of the quick response capabilities of the military, the U.S. Armed Forces are generally the first responders to foreign disasters and other humanitarian crises.
The State Department has said it welcomes the DOD’s ability to provide assistance in foreign aid efforts, especially in situations where quick response is necessary. Humanitarian efforts by the U.S. military—such as school building or provisions of medical supplies—are often in underserved areas where funds may not otherwise be available. These efforts can help the U.S.’s image around the world and increase goodwill towards the U.S. Armed Forces.
– Caitlin Huber