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The Billion-Dollar World Bank Experiment in Afghanistan

A Checkered Past

Thanks to research and the minds behind it, a great deal of human progress is undeniable. Yet, equally undeniable is the fact that research has the potential to fuel awful social transgressions. Consider Amy Maxmen’s writing on genetics. She broaches a handful of research Frankensteins like human radiation experiments, Tuskegee, and Nuremburg. Although such reprehensible instances happened years ago, research’s checkered past is by no means distant.

In recent years, the World Bank funded a billion-dollar experiment in Afghanistan. Policy Research Working Paper 6129 details the bank’s findings and the efforts behind the hefty price tag. One of the experiment’s most important aspects was the so-called National Solidarity Programme (NSP)—“the largest single development program in Afghanistan.” Notwithstanding its ambitious scale and certain rigor, the experiment’s true purpose is painfully evident: The World Bank wanted to investigate the wartime utility of NSP-esque development programs in the war-torn corners of the world. More explicitly, the bank wanted to test whether development programs effectively supplement US counterinsurgency efforts in the wake of war.

The researchers responsible for the World Bank experiment tested many simple assumptions. Most likely, they sought to give their experiment an air of robustness. Nevertheless, by the time the World Bank got around to testing whether development programs make US counterinsurgency easier, the notion was already a fixture in American counterinsurgency doctrine (and calls to mind the failed or rejected development programs of at least the Vietnam era, beginning, perhaps, with President Johnson’s failed billion-dollar Mekong River development proposal).

Indeed, situated right within the pages of the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, development projects constitute one of the basic tenets. Beath, Christia and Enikolopov – the 6129 research paper’s authors – add that the US military increasingly uses such development projects as “strategic weapons” in counterinsurgency. This yet applies to sustained efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world.

Institutional Accountability and Transparency

Discerning the ethical side of the World Bank’s research in Afghanistan is not small potatoes. Sadly, we can rest assured that similar research praxis plays out everyday and on many scales, ruining many lives the world over. One crucial factor is that there is very limited empirical evidence apropos the counterinsurgency effectiveness of development projects like the one created by World Bank in Afghanistan. But we should seriously ask if a paucity in empiricisms (i.e., the seeming “need” to test such development projects) is enough to warrant experimentation in the first place.

Perhaps it is enough for people outside the ethics-in-research debate to condemn the US military for its violent and disruptive invasion of nations across the world. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally important to understand why the US military values World Bank experiment projects like NSP. After all, military interest is a large part of why such experiments even exist: they pose as legitimate and justifiable research, and they pretend the power necessary to uncover the “mechanisms by which development projects can potentially affect counterinsurgency outcomes.”

In fact, this research presupposes the potential for answering whether development projects “improve economic outcomes, build support for the government, and reduce violence as sympathies for the insurgency wanes”—or not. Hence, the World Bank handsomely funds researchers to implement development projects amongst unwitting research subjects like the peoples of Afghanistan. Researchers then observe and document what happens. And it goes without saying that powerful institutions like the US military use the resultant information to their advantage, especially when warring against groups who just so happen to participate in such experiments—and, it seems, without their informed consent!

A Call to Reflection

Without a doubt, “ethical research” is not merely predicated on available World Bank billions or the US military’s interest in answering questions of counterinsurgency. For this reason, research must at the very least be subject to public debate in order to ensure transparency. And if the public decides that the ethics of a given experiment are lacking, it is up to the public to dissent as vocally as necessary.

Ethical research does not happen by itself. Ideally speaking, it is the people responsible for producing research who must answer for the ethical side of their work. To be clear, institutions like the World Bank must answer for the ethics, or lack thereof, in their research. But if there is no accountability, then we become a party to institutions whose mission is to spread empire and further wars through successful accounts of counterinsurgency and “development” projects.

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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