Calculating the Worth of Cows

Stephen DeAngelis

January 12, 2009

Everyone knows that the economy is bad and it appears that it will stay that way at least for a while. The editors of Defense News, a publication that focuses on the defense industry, recently published an editorial that pointed to several new U.S. military capabilities and approaches that could enhance the effectiveness of American forces without breaking the bank [“Thinking Differently,” Defense News, 5 January 2009]. They wrote:

“For several years now, U.S. military leaders have wondered when the defense budget, sent into the stratosphere by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, might start returning to Earth. Time will tell whether President-elect Barack Obama views various big-ticket defense programs as too expensive for a nation in economic recession, or as valuable jobs programs amid rising unemployment. But either way, a few developments of the year just past ought to signal to military and defense planners that it is possible to add capabilities in a down market. The best solutions need not come with the highest price tags.”

This reminds me of the New Zealand-born physicist, Ernest Rutherford, who once remarked, “We have no money. Therefore, we must think.” The old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” was probably coined by someone without any money and, therefore, in great need. With money tight, even for defense, the editorial discusses one such “cheap” capability that should be pursued:

“Exhibit A is the February [2008] downing of a disabled spy satellite by the cruiser Lake Erie, which used a modified Standard-3 missile to take out the orbiting camera platform about 133 miles overhead. The missile, which was originally designed to bring down other missiles, was modified for its new mission in just three weeks by engineers with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the U.S. Navy, defense officials said at the time. The officials insisted the mission was undertaken for public safety — better to blow up the hydrazine tank deliberately than have it come down on its own — but the introduction of a capability that might be used to take out an enemy’s satellites was lost on no one. Yet neither should this lesson be lost: Look for new ways to use existing arms and gear before beginning a costly new effort.”

Although finding multiple uses for existing capabilities is a good strategy, missiles remain relatively expensive. The editorial also mentions an innovative approach taken by the Marines in Iraq that is much less costly:

“If missiles are the high end of this principle, the cows of Anbar are definitely on the opposite end of the scale. U.S. Marines in Iraq have given 50 dairy animals to widows in and around Fallujah in hopes of boosting incomes and reducing desperation in that war-torn area. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the cows were provided to women who agreed not to slaughter or sell them. The animals thus become a means of production for individual families and a way to start rebuilding a shattered dairy industry in a country that imports some 95 percent of its milk, cheese and related products. Moreover, the idea came from an Iraqi women’s group and thus has the kind of local support the lack of which has undermined so much of the U.S. rebuilding effort. If the scale seems small — 50 cows, 50 families — well, so is the price tag of $58,000, at least in comparison to the countless billions of dollars that have been wasted or stolen in more grandiose reconstruction projects.”

Readers of this blog know that I believe security and development go hand-in-hand. The Marine cow give-away is an excellent example if this principle on a small scale. Neither the Marines nor the women who suggested the program came up with the idea on their own. The notion that a single cow could make a huge difference in a family’s life has been around for a while. Heifer International has been promoting that idea for years. The NGO’s web site says this about its work:

“Today, millions of people who were once hungry will be nourished by milk, eggs and fresh vegetables. Families who for generations knew only poverty will be building new homes and starting businesses. Children who once headed out to the fields to do backbreaking work will be heading into schoolrooms to learn to read. And people who never thought they’d be in a position to help someone else will be experiencing the joy of charitable giving. How is this possible? With Heifer’s proven approach – almost 60 years in the making – to helping people obtain a sustainable source of food and income.”

On Heifer International’s web site, you can donate money to buy everything from a flock of chicks (for $US 20) to a cow (for $US 500). The point is that the Marines were smart enough to recognize a plan with a record of success and adapt it to the situation in which they found themselves — creatively marrying security and development. Although this is a slightly different approach than Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ offering, the underlying principles are the same. The editorial concludes that the time has come to embrace both hard- and soft-power capabilities to meet today’s security challenges.

“It is, of course, as yet unclear how the Pentagon will change under Obama. But it will be interesting to watch U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who began signaling his desire for more soft power in the hawkish George W. Bush administration. We’re not suggesting bovine diplomacy for all the world’s trouble spots, but may the Pentagon’s leader take heed of it in the new year, when creativity, not to mention cost savings, will be at a premium.”

I’m fairly sanguine that the Pentagon under SECDEF Gates will remain creative. The reason that Enterra Solutions began its work in Iraq is because far-sighted people in the Business Transformation Agency understood that the best way to win in Iraq was to reinvigorate its economy. During each new trip I make to Iraq, I see the benefits of this enlightened thinking. Most people there want to move ahead. They long for a stable and prosperous nation in which they can raise their families and pursue their dreams.