A welcome shift in international interventions

News of the Arab League’s sanctions against Syria brings to mind the Curate’s Egg – good in parts. That such sanctions are unprecedented shows a welcome increase once more in the Arab League’s willingness to stand up to dictators where mass violence against the population is involved. (Other dictators are another matter of course.) After the steps in Libya and now Syria, the Arab League is looking rather more like a body that does good rather than excuses evil.

That transformation only goes so far. For it has taken months and around 3,500 deaths to bring about sanctions which are of the sort that other countries have imposed already. Moreover, one of the most important countries, Syria’s second largest trading partner Iraq, abstained on the vote and is refusing to abide by the trade sanctions.

The wider picture of humanitarian intervention is also changing, with increasing support for the idea of a “responsibility to protect” civilians from war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing even where the abuses do not cross international borders. The legacy of Iraq hangs heavily over such discussions, but with more recent events in countries such as Ivory Coast and Libya, the increasing message to dictators is that keeping your violence simply within your own borders is no longer enough to make the international community pass by.

Just as I’ve written before about the problem with ‘the kinetic stuff’ getting the attention in news reports at the expense of reporting the wider military, economic, social and diplomatic issues, so too with international action there is a risk of over-concentrating on the dramatic ahead of the lower profile, more diffused but more effective steps.

In particular, if you view a major purpose of humanitarian intervention to be saving lives, then the most effective way is often to spend the money that fuels planes, pays for bombs and funds missiles on international aid instead.

Benjamin Valentino’s recent study argues:

Perhaps the most frequently ignored costs of humanitarian interventions … have been what economists call opportunity costs – the forgone opportunities to which the resources for a military mission might have been put. These costs are considerable, since military intervention is a particularly expensive way to save lives.

International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives abroad. The World Health Organization estimates that every year at least two million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases alone (millions more die from other easily treatable infectious diseases, such as malaria or infectious diarrhea). This is an annual toll more than twice as large as the Rwandan genocide and more than 200 times the number of civilians who died in Kosovo. Measles alone killed more than 160,000 people in 2008, almost all of them children. It costs less than $1 to immunize a child against measles, and since not every unvaccinated child would have died from measles, the cost per life saved comes out to an estimated $224. Even using the exceedingly generous estimates above of the number of lives saved by military intervention, this means that on a per-life basis, measles vaccination would be 3,000 times as cost-effective as the military intervention in Somalia and more than 500 times as cost-effective as the intervention in Bosnia. The provision of antimalarial bed nets may be more efficient still – costing only between $100 and $200 per life saved. The final bill may be even lower, since preventive public health expenditures such as these often more than pay for themselves in averted medical costs and increased productivity.

As Valentino acknowledges, there are both moral and practical limits to these sorts of calculations. In practice too it is often not an either/or choice as the money used on military intervention does not come out of international aid allocations.

Even so, his figures are a good reminder of the importance of the government’s welcome commitment international development spending over this Parliament.

The lives saved may not get the headlines, but they are still lives saved – which is what matters most.

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