Of Bombs and Diplomas

At a press conference in Kabul this morning, David Cameron stated that Afghanistan was his “number one priority” and pledged an additional £67m to fight improvised explosive devices, or  IEDs (roadside bombs, effectively). Mr. Cameron denied that any additional troops would be sent.

£67m on bombs. What else could that £67m have bought you in Afghanistan? Schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructure, a better police force? All that things that, arguably, might reduce support for the insurgents that plant IEDs, which is the number one killer of British troops in Afghanistan.

Obviously, you must supply bomb-defusal experts to these areas for the sake of saving lives – I’m not disputing that – but what about the “proper political settlement” that Mr. Cameron himself mentioned was vital? Where does that come into his funding scheme? While he has said that he is not interested in “cutting and running” from Afghanistan, it is arguably difficult to see how this would make a difference, with the British investment in bomb defusal apparently taking priority over schools and hospitals – things that matter to ordinary Afghan citizens.

Of course, it is possible that this should come as no surprise, considering that the same day that Mr. Cameron made this speech in Kabul, the Universities Minister, David Millet, alluded to rises in tuition fees (though he won’t confirm this), putting more pressure on already indebted students. One of his rationales? Reducing the strain on the taxpayer.

Does £67m of military spending not also constitute a strain on the taxpayer? Obviously there is a delicate balance that must be struck – whether or not you agree with the war, British troops are dying in Afghanistan, and yes, they need to be protected – however, we also need to invest in the future of people here. David Cameron may have been alluding to an ‘end game’ for Afghanistan today (which would bring troops back and arguably eliminate the need to fund IED removal all together), but it likely won’t come soon enough for that £67m to be funneled back into where it’s really needed – higher education.

Let me further illustrate this tension between military vs. education spending. According to several different indexes of happiness (laugh if you want, they’re real) Costa Rica ranks very high on the list of happiest countries. Why? One reason pointed to is its pristine environment and incredible beauty, and, looking at photos, I think I’d be pretty happy if I lived there as well. But the other, as Nicholas Kristof (NY Times columnist) puts it, is that:

“What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum gender gap index. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.”

Clearly this is not something that would happen over night in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter.  In Afghanistan, there are many complex issues that need dealt with. But it bears consideration.

As Kristof succinctly summed up, “I’m not anti-military. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.”

Researcher, youth worker, human rights-er.