Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics
Review of Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails by Chris Coyne
Historians know that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empire; would-be conquerors dating all the way back to Alexander the Great have seen their imperial dreams dashed in the region for a variety of reasons. Less well known is the fact that Afghanistan, especially the Helmand River Valley, is also the graveyard of humanitarian intervention. German, Japanese, and American governments have all tried and failed to bring prosperity to the region via technical expertise and infrastructure projects. For example, a U.S.-backed project to construct dams and irrigation canals in the 1940s and 1950s eventually increased (after several false starts) the available water supply for agriculture in the region, but local farmers did not know how to handle the influx of water, and agricultural output actually decreased as fields flooded. After many similar setbacks the project was abandoned in the 1960s, but after 2001 the U.S. government was back again with remarkably similar plans that met with remarkably similar failure.
The repeated failures of humanitarian projects in the Helmand River Valley are Exhibit A for Chris Coyne’s case in Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. Over 204 pages, Coyne presents a devastating case against the dominant model of state-led humanitarian action worldwide. The implications of Coyne’s analysis, which draws heavily on the tradition of Austrian economic thought and is bolstered by thorough empirical research, are that this model is irredeemable and needs to be completely overhauled.
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Cite This Article
Jewell, Jason E. "Review of Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarianism Action Fails, by Chris Coyne," Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 18, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 562–567.