Contrary to the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof’s conclusion that the most development-enhancing thing to be done with militaries is to disband them, domestic militaries actually serve many positive roles for development once good civil-military relations are present. For example, they minimize violent conflict, provide security so that civilians can carry out productive activities, reduce insecurity and instability risks to increase foreign investment, create demand for domestic industries and R&D, and provide discipline and employment to a significant proportion of the population. Each of these military-development connections is inherent in the military’s very existence, regardless of function.
However, to hasten socioeconomic development, the missions of militaries can also be modified from a traditional war-fighting focus to a focus on both war-fighting and development-implementing, especially when few external conflict threats exist. Militaries can thus serve as direct development project/program implementers to enhance state service delivery capacity and to modernize the population. In Senegal, for instance, the Senegalese Armed Forces have an ‘Army-Nation’ component that conducts activities in public health care, infrastructure provision, and re-integration for demobilizing soldiers. Each of these is seen as directly contributing to security so that the military operates within its realm, and each clearly impacts the broader development of the country. According to the Gallup World Poll, the Senegalese Armed Forces are indeed the country’s most trusted institution among the populace.
Militaries should be strongly considered for complementing civilian development organizations, both private and public, due to several comparative advantages in state capacity enhancement that most militaries have: (1) culture of expedience and order-taking; (2) vast resource availability for money, manpower, infrastructure, and technology; (3) partnership possibilities for technology transfer and support from international powers and for regional coordination on transnational issues with regional partnerships; (4) human capital in a variety of skill sets since militaries are societies within societies; (5) direct line to the country’s head of state for ease of coordination and funding; and (6) few limits on areas of operation since militaries have security training and weaponry for insecure places along with adequate transportation vehicles for remote locations.
Along with these advantages, militaries are significant sources of modernization in the following ways: (1) source of hope and social-climbing for lower classes through a meritocracy; (2) social solidarity effects of forging a national identity; (3) international exposure for soldiers that increases idea-sharing; and (4) source of education and skills-training, especially when military skills relate to the socioeconomic realm so that soldiers find related work after demobilization.
However, the importance of strong civil-military relations cannot be overlooked before any of these comparative advantages can be realized, especially considering the coups d’état so prevalent in the recent history of many developing countries. Civil-military relations based in norms of military subordination to civilian authority is the only sustainable means of any policy regarding the military’s function. Especially for this recommended policy that could be considered outside the traditional role and operations of militaries, strong civil-military relations are a prerequisite, with a professionalized armed forces and a civilian leader who respects the military and does not abuse his or her authority by using the military for inappropriate means.
Certainly leaders of countries with a history of political involvement of the military will rightfully be wary to utilize the military for anything other than war-fighting. However, with many developing countries still struggling with basic service and infrastructure provision, among a host of other development problems, leaders cannot ignore the vast potential contributions an organization like the military can make. If civil-military relations are properly controlled, militaries can be a domestic source of capital that can catalyze socioeconomic development.