Human Security Is National Security: Reflections From Liberia on Budget Battles and Saving Lives

I'm writing from the remote town of Saclapea in the tropical rainforest of northern Liberia, a four-hour drive from the national capital, Monrovia. The lush hills on the edge of town are breathtaking, but it isn't the raw and untapped beauty that brings me here.

This is a largely hidden place that has endured more than its share of sadness and depredations. Not far from where I now sit, the infamous Charles Taylor launched his rebel attack on Christmas Eve 1989, plunging Liberia and its neighbors into armed conflict and gruesome human rights violations that dragged on for more than a decade, killed an estimated 150,000 persons, and forced some two million Liberians to flee their homes before a credible peace was restored in 2003.
Diplomatic and financial support from the United States -- and from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) -- played a key role in providing the shelter, food, water, health care and other basic services that helped Liberian refugees survive for years in the refuge of neighboring countries. And today, Liberia's people are busy rebuilding after their country's long nightmare.

Liberian children and their families have benefited from the Shello Health Clinic since it was built in 2008 with U.S. government support provided through PRM. The clinic is located in Lofa County, the region that in recent years has seen the most refugee returns.

Photo by Nnenna Ofobike, PRM Program Officer

I am in Saclapea because Liberia, once one of the largest refugee-producing nations in Africa, has suddenly become a country of asylum. Political instability in neighboring Côte d'Ivoire has pushed more than 35,000 new Ivoirian refugees into Liberia and we are deeply concerned that those numbers could rapidly climb far higher. Saclapea has become the gateway into the world's newest refugee zone, where frightened Ivoirians have congregated in search of protection and assistance at locations not easily reached by the outside world.

It's clear that the resources of the U.S. government and other donor nations are needed here to ensure adequate protection, shelter, sanitation and other basic supplies for the Ivoirian refugees. And after a difficult start, humanitarian operations are well underway and aid providers are preparing for tens of thousands of additional people who might need to flee here if dangers in Côte d'Ivoire continue on their ominous path.
Although I am thousands of miles from Washington, the federal budget debates -- and current proposals to massively cut the kind of U.S. assistance that has helped save Liberians and is helping to sustain Ivorian refugees -- seem very close at hand. As I sit here after a day of visiting a new refugee camp under construction and talking with refugees, I find myself both inspired and reflective about the essential nature of the work that PRM and our implementing partners do to save lives and alleviate suffering. The work not only reflects a moral imperative, but helps to promote peace and security when despair and desperation threaten stability and U.S. national security interests.

UNHCR supports the reintegration of refugees from Burundi as they rebuild their lives after years of conflict and displacement.

Photo by Wendy Henning, PRM Program Officer

For these reasons, I also find myself deeply concerned -- even heartbroken -- by the prospect of proposed humanitarian aid reductions of historic and devastating proportions. 

During this month marking the centennial of the birth of President Ronald Reagan, it is fitting to remember that the former president lovingly referred to our country as "a shining city upon a hill," whose morals and values serve as a beacon to all the world and draw others to our leadership and our commitment to do what is right. His eloquent words expressed his core understanding that we serve our national interest best when we help to bring stability to others in their hour of need. More than 20 years later, President Obama made a similar point when he said that "the only way forward is through a common and persistent effort to combat fear and want wherever they exist. That is the challenge of our time, and we cannot fail to meet it."

Our civilian overseas assistance programs, at a cost of less than one percent of our nation's budget, are powerful instruments in our exercise of international leadership. They save lives and create conditions for stability. In short, civilian and humanitarian aid programs are remarkably effective and inexpensive investments, and it is not hard to find examples that reflect this basic reality.

Beyond Liberia, U.S. government aid to all corners of the African continent has been crucial to promoting peace and reconciliation, and averting the kind of large-scale violence that inevitably results in calls for costly and dangerous military intervention. U.S. assistance programmed through PRM has been critical to the peace process in Sudan, assisting the return of some 330,000 Sudanese refugees since the peace agreement was signed in 2005.

Last year, PRM also provided humanitarian aid to the 270,000 Darfur refugees in eastern Chad, addressed some of the enormous gaps in protection in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and helped combat xenophobia in South Africa. And over the past 10 years, the humanitarian aid programmed through PRM has been critical to the largely peaceful return of over two million African refugees to their countries of origin throughout the continent.

Working through PRM's NGO partners, U.S. assistance has long supported a variety of programs that teach displaced populations new livelihood skills. Here, a group of Afghan women insisted they be given the opportunity to learn, along with the men of their village, how to weave nets to hold rocks in place during the construction of retaining walls.

Photo courtesy of Shelter for Life.

In Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has shouldered the heaviest responsibilities and paid the highest price in lives lost, U.S. government civilian humanitarian aid providers have an essential complementary role of facilitating the largest peaceful repatriation of refugees in world history -- the voluntary return home of more than five million Afghans since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Some 100,000 additional Afghan refugees are expected to repatriate this year. PRM-managed support programs for Afghan refugees -- we programmed over $75 million last year alone -- have also helped to encourage Pakistani policies of tolerance and support to the roughly 1.6 million refugees who remain in that country. These wise investments help to promote the future stability in a region of critical national security importance to the United States.

As many of you know, we promote these humanitarian objectives in coordination with important international organization partners, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as many non-governmental organizations. From Colombia, where 10,000 displaced children now have a chance to be reintegrated into the national school system with UNHCR support, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ICRC is providing crucial assistance to victims of rape and other abuses, our generous support for these organizations enables us to drive international humanitarian policy and action around the world, while leveraging critically important funding from other donors. 

PRM's partners are frequently among the first organizations to respond to emergency situations. Here, International Relief and Development (IRD) works to distribute food, and hygiene and habitat kits to thousands of internally displaced Afro-Colombians in Tumaco.

Photo courtesy of IRD Colombia

To be sure, this is a time of deep concern about the federal budget and all programs -- foreign and domestic -- require close scrutiny. We welcome the scrutiny, as we know from decades of experience at PRM that the work we do makes a critical difference in the world's trouble-spots, and helps to avoid the need for far more costly interventions when prevention fails. Our work reinforces our nation's role as an international leader, a beacon to the rest of the world.

In closing, I suppose it is indeed fitting that I write these words from Saclapea of all places, because the experiences of this town and of Liberia underscore the importance of the work we do. Thanks to our humanitarian and diplomatic help during the past decade, the people of Liberia have returned to their homes, and are engaged in the challenging process of recovery and development as a friend of the United States. But as reflected in the new arrivals just down the road, progress in this region -- as in so many others -- is fragile. It requires that we sustain the engagement, commitment and leadership that have, for so many years, reflected not only our key interests, but our most noble values.