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Do No Harm: U.S. Aid to Africa and Civilian Security

May 08, 2023
Patricia Lynn Sullivan


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Patricia L. Sullivan, associate professor at the University of North Carolina, analyzes the relationship between U.S. security assistance and human rights violations in Africa, and which cases lessen the potential for civilian harm.

During her recent trip to Africa, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced a $100 million commitment over ten years to West African Nations to fend off the increasing threat of extremist groups. The announcement followed President Biden’s pledge of $55 billion to the continent for the next three years. While these promises reveal a U.S. commitment to greater engagement with African states, the often-dodged question is whether citizens of these states will benefit. Will U.S. security aid improve human security in fragile and conflict-affected African states? How is U.S. security assistance likely to affect governance and state repression for citizens that often suffer at the hands of both extremist groups and their own security forces?

The empirical record is mixed. Between 2002 and 2019, the U.S. spent almost $300 billion on security assistance and trained at least one million foreign military personnel. In some countries, such as Ukraine, these programs have improved both the capability and professionalism of the state’s armed forces. In others, they escalated human rights abuses and increased the risk of coups d’état. Take the example of Kenya—one of the largest recipients of U.S. military training and equipment in East Africa. The state’s security forces have been found to engage in torture, extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, and forced disappearances. Or the Philippines, where President Duterte employed the country’s military—armed and trained by U.S. aid programs—in a brutal war on drugs that took the lives of thousands of civilians.

Although some studies have found that security assistance can reduce civilian targeting by state security forces, there is mounting evidence that it often fuels human rights violations. Recent research suggests that the risk of civilian harm is greatest when donors transfer weapons to postconflict states or provide aid to states with fragmented, “coup-proofed” security forces. On the other hand, effective institutions to constrain executive power in recipient states, and the provision of some forms of “nonlethal” security assistance—like military education for officers and defense institution building—appear to mitigate the potential for civilian harm.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.