After 9/11: How the global humanitarian agenda was changed, or not

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day after 9/11.

We’ve seen a torrent of amazing, compelling and painful stories of the terrorist attack over the past week or so. The narrative of that tragic event has become a touchstone for many of us, a way of explaining our sense of ourselves and of why we do what we do — here and overseas.

I’m interested in what has happened since.

Specifically, I wondered what has happened to our sense of ourselves as global citizens and how Sept. 11, 2001, may have altered matters of global health, foreign aid, development — basically, the global humanitarian agenda.

The short answer: It’s a mixed bag of good and bad, some clear signs of what many see as progress but also some disturbing lessons not learned.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001. The world, for a while, rallied around us — including, it should be emphasized, many groups like the Muslim Brotherhood we nevertheless continue to eye with suspicion — as nearly everyone condemned this stunning crime against humanity.

We went to war, in Afghanistan and then Iraq (which turned out to have little to do with the attack or al-Qaeda).

U.S. Army in Afghanistan

As the New York Times noted in its extensive special anniversary report The Reckoning, the largely military and national security response to this act of terrorism has so far cost us $3.3 trillion — not to mention the cost of lives of some 6,000 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi citizens.

It’s hard to imagine not retaliating to such an assault, but as The Economist noted, “America has precious little to show for this sacrifice apart from the disruption of al-Qaeda.” The editors add that Osama bin Laden, were he alive, “would have cause to feel satisfied” at the toll the attack has taken on the U.S. … and then suggests, unhelpfully perhaps, that we still need to keep our guard up.

So where are we with the global humanitarian agenda? Did 9/11 change anything in the efforts being made to make the world a better place? Some views:

Another economist, Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, said recently that he believes the U.S. has lost ground on the international humanitarian front:

“What 9/11 did was distract the United States significantly, causing it to put focus on things that were not in America’s long-term interest,” Sachs said in an interview. “This very militarized approach … cost trillions of dollars and, I believe, weakened the United States.”

I asked Nils Daulaire, director of the Office of Global Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for his perspective as well. Daulaire thinks the events of Sept. 11 actually prompted, in parallel to the military response, a huge new political interest in some aspects of humanitarianism:

“I think 9-11 had a huge and profound impact on the field of global health,” he said. “Many initiatives were launched as a direct consequence of this increased attention to international affairs and a recognition that we needed to do more.”

Daulaire noted that President George W. Bush, besides taking military action, also launched several massive programs to fight disease in poor countries such as Pepfar (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the President’s Malaria Initiative, increased U.S. support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and so on.

Overall, he said, federal funding for global health went from about a billion dollars a year to more than $8 billion today. That commitment, Daulaire added, continues under the Obama Administration with an added emphasis on coordination through efforts like the Global Health Initiative.

Other leaders in global health and development, while acknowledging the positive trajectory in funding over the past decade, still see evidence of regress — a slowdown in what had seemed like a surging humanitarian movement and more isolationist sentiments expressed in the public and political dialogues.

“What strikes me most is how transient, in terms of changing our mindset, was the impact of Sept. 11,” said Bill Foege, the man who beat smallpox and an adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As evidence, Foege said, Congress is looking to slash the foreign aid budget even though it represents less than one percent of the federal budget and it clearly helps improve our national security if other nations view the U.S. as a force for good in terms of foods and medicine — not just weaponry.

Helene Gayle, CEO of Care USA, agreed with Foege that the impact on our ways of thinking — about the rest of the world — didn’t last. “I think it helped for a while, people became more global in their thinking,” said Gayle, adding that this mindset has persisted in some pockets (like Seattle) but in general America has again become more inward-looking.

The Seattle area, many of these folks noted, represents an aberration. This city and the region, along with other places like Boston, Atlanta, New York City and D.C., have always had a strong global mindset and are increasingly focused outward.

Here are a few other perspectives on how 9/11 changed, or didn’t change, our approach to aid and development:

The Guardian: Somalia was a sideshow in the War on Terror and is now paying a colossal price 

The Nation (Pakistan): There is no quick cure for terrorism

 

Share.

About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.