Ebola and the Militarization of Disaster Response

At this point, the Ebola frenzy in the U.S. seems be fading a bit, given the lack of a massive outbreak. And that is excellent news. But the disease remains a serious threat in other parts of the world: despite the lack of impact on the most industrialized countries, this remains the worst outbreak on record. (If you’re interested in how prepared the U.S. is for a larger Ebola outbreak here, Rachel Maddow has done some good coverage on that.)

The U.S. and other countries have been delivering medical aid in various forms to the West African countries most affected by Ebola, although experts say the aid currently being delivered is not sufficient, and has been marked by poor organization.

The U.S. response in particular has also depended on the military. The common rationale for this is simple: the military is the best-prepared tool the government has, and is able to respond the most quickly.

And that’s kind of the problem. In recent years, other branches of government, including State and USAID, have been starved of funds while funding for the military has grown. The military is the organization best able to respond to disasters because it is the only organization we fund properly. And as the old saying goes, when your own tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail, even if that problem is a public health crisis, not a war, an insurgency, or a terrorist cell.

So, the military gets the lion’s share of funding, and when crises rear their ugly heads, the military is the one we then have to count on to lead the response.

The problems with this approach are twofold. One, they overstretch the military. There is a reason governments have separate departments or ministries of defense, state, foreign aid, etc. One department, no matter how good, cannot be expected to excel at all of these myriad tasks. Expecting one to take on the tasks of the others risks overstretching it and ultimately making it less efficient at achieving all of its objectives.

The other is that we have found, time and time again, that military intervention tends to fail at politically restructuring and reforming a country. So while we undervalue and underfund the work of diplomats and development specialists, we make crises more likely. Rather than addressing the underlying political and infrastructure problems that make disease more likely to spread in a place like Guinea than in the U.S., we perpetuate a situation where we can only respond to crises, not prevent them.

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