Stop the Wars!

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Does Haiti (or Chile) need a Marshall Plan to help recover from the ruins of natural disasters? How has the War on Poverty progressed in the United States? What about the Gates Foundation's War on Malaria?

Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim has a simple suggestion to each of these questions: It's time for a new analogy. Social policy doesn't need new wars and Marshall Plans:

In fact, no imitation of the Marshall Plan has ever worked, and no war on a big social problem has ever ended in defeat for the enemy (save, perhaps, cigarettes). But the allure of these spurious comparisons remains as strong as ever. Without any apparent effect, Marshall Plans have been proposed to help Africa, the Middle East, New Orleans, Iraq, and even Wallonia, Belgium's least prosperous region. Bill Gates wants a Marshall Plan to broaden access to technology, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urges one for his country's poor suburbs, and the AFL-CIO thinks the U.S. auto industry deserves its own Marshall Plan.

Why do some still insist on "declaring war" on political, economic and social challenges? It comes down to money and support:

There are many good reasons why declaring war on a social problem or launching a Marshall Plan to help a country or region are such attractive metaphors for politicians. Wars unite countries and stifle internal dissent. Wag the Dog is not just the title of a movie in which a war is manufactured to rally support for a government, but also an age-old political tactic. The war metaphor is also attractive because real wars — those between nation-states as opposed to those against concepts or bad socioeconomic trends — are finite.

University of Notre Dame scholar Daniel Lindley has found that the average length of a war is 308 days when the country that starts it wins and 660 days when initiators lose. No surprise, then, that the war metaphor keeps getting deployed: It boosts expectations that in a few years a major scourge — cancer, terrorism, poverty — will be eliminated. "War" also holds the seductive promise of an open checkbook for the politicians who so liberally apply the term; after all, budgetary constraints tend to disappear during war along with all those pesky rules. Wars are for heroes, not for accountants who limit the resources needed for victory. 

Moises Naim will be speaking tomorrow at the World Bank's Financial and Private Sector Development Forum. The theme of this year's forum is crisis recovery. Naim will address the topic, "Is the new normal the old normal?" His presentation will be available online later this week.

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