Do they think we’re stupid? Local perceptions of US ‘hearts and minds’ activities in Kenya

by Mark Bradbury, an independent analyst and Director of the Rift Valley Institute Horn of Africa Course
20 July 2010

This blog is taken from the article ‘Local perceptions of US hearts and minds in Kenya’ featured in our June edition of the Humanitarian Exchange Magazine on Humanitarian Security Management.

“Why does the most powerful country in the world come all the way here to repair – not even build – a public latrine?”, he asked me incredulously. “Do they think we are stupid?”

We were interviewing religious leaders in Garissa town in north eastern Kenya about development projects supported by the US military when the Sheikh asked us this question. The answer is probably “yes”. The assumption that small-scale aid projects like repairing toilets, can win the “hearts and minds” of people, help to stabilise a region, prevent the radicalisation of populations and work to counter terrorism, suggests at best a simplistic – if not patronising – view of the assisted communities.

But our study – part of a larger study by the Feinstein International Centre of Tufts University on aid effectiveness in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa – set out to examine whether humanitarian and development aid can be effective tools for stabilisation, conflict prevention and counterterrorism.

Channeling aid through armies

Since 9/11, an increasing proportion of US foreign aid has been channeled through the US military. In Iraq and Afghanistan, humanitarian and development assistance has become an important part of the ‘soft power’ counter-insurgency strategy of the US military and its allies in the communities where they are fighting.

In Africa, over 20% of US assistance is reportedly controlled by the military, justified on the grounds that so-called “weak” and “fragile” African states and “ungoverned” territory pose a threat to the security of the US and its allies. In the Horn of Africa that threat is seen to emanate from Somalia, a country that has been without a central government for two decades. As an ungoverned territory Somalia appears to fit the profile of a ‘breeding ground’ or ‘haven’ for terrorism.

Claims by the Somali-based Islamist militant group al-Shabaab of responsibility for recent bombings in Kampala would appear to justify that fear. Al-Shabaab emerged in Somalia in 2006. Four years earlier, in 2002, the US government had sought to prevent such a threat by establishing the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in nearby Djibouti.”

What’s unique about the hearts and minds activities of the Joint Task Force in Kenya’s North Eastern and Coast provinces (and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa) however is that they take place in an area where the US is not actually engaged in combat operations.

Mistaken about hearts and minds

At the time of our research in 2009, the US military had not evaluated the impact of its hearts and minds activities. From the US perspective, the activities were probably seen as a tactical success – they were able to integrate with Muslim communities that have historically been considered a threat by the Kenyan state and a current risk to the US.

But our interviews with communities receiving the aid illustrated the limitations of using foreign assistance as a tool for countering insurgency, terrorism, or violent extremism.

Underlying the hearts and minds strategy is a simple – and mistaken – assumption that aid projects will generate goodwill towards the US and reduce local support for terrorists and militant Islamist ideology. However, in our conversations we found no evidence that the US has been winning hearts and minds. Communities and their leaders were skeptical about the ulterior motives of the Joint Task Force’s mission and dubious about assistance provided.

We found that attitudes were influenced by factors that went beyond the scope of aid projects- faith, the relationship between target populations and the Kenyan state, US foreign policy, and events in Somalia- were all much more important.

And in a context where US foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East is perceived as an attack on Islam, a strategy that aims to win both “hearts” and “minds” appeared to people locally as an attempt to directly influence a Muslim community’s faith and beliefs.

As one person we spoke with said: “My thinking is shaped by the Somali ulema (or scholars) and cannot be changed by American aid.”

Declining security along the border

The US military’s aid projects have also had no discernible impact on overall security. The projects are too small-scale, discrete, and poorly targeted to have such a major impact. In fact, security in Kenya’s northern borderlands has deteriorated since 2006.

Some communities I spoke with even feared that the Joint Task Force’s presence may itself attract extremist violence. The trouble is that the US military and the communities in northern and coastal Kenya view insecurity through a very different lens. While the Joint Task Force was concerned with threats to state security, local people were much more concerned with threats from within their own country such as crime, drugs, environmental change, and inter-tribal or inter-clan violence.

A piecemeal approach

One of the most widely-voiced criticisms by people of the hearts and minds activities was their limited scale. While it is true that some of the US military’s projects have filled a gap in assistance in northern Kenya, particularly in the education sector, they have contributed only marginally to economic development and done nothing to tackle the underlying conditions that may give rise to radicalisation and violent extremism.

Even if a military force could be transformed into an agent of development, the goodwill of people and the legitimacy of the Kenyan state cannot simply be won through more aid. In the words of one religious leader we spoke with in Lamu: “The projects are useful, but if their purpose is to win the hearts of the people this has not been achieved. They build faith on one side and destroy it on the other. What they are doing to our brothers in Afghanistan and Israel affects all of us.”

The study ‘Winning Hearts and Minds: Examining the Relationship Between Aid and Security in Kenya’ by Mark Bradbury and Michael Kleinman, can be found at https://wikis.uit.tufts.edu/confluence/display/FIC/Feinstein+International+Center.


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