Health interventions, the positive face of geopolitical engagement

On June 14, Tom Paulson’s insightful blog, Humanosphere, put the spotlight on U.S. military initiatives underway in Africa as part of a grander strategic focus the U.S. Government is placing on Africa, through the U.S. Africa Command called Africom. He raised concerns about the dual efforts of the U.S. Government. On one hand, it was expanding its covert operations, purportedly to root out so-called terrorism networks and promote and training activities in Africa by building bases stretching from Djibouti to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, while at the same time trying to stomp out malaria, which kills about 600,000 Africans a year. According to a U.S. Department of Defense (U.S. DOD) press release, “Africom incorporates malaria prevention into much of its theater engagement, distributing mosquito nets and teaching new diagnostic techniques during training events throughout Africa.”

I think few could argue with the humanitarian goals of this type of health intervention, at least with some basic metrics. But in reality, health-related assistance usually has a broader function. Combining “hard” and “soft” power  is nothing new to geopolitics or the U.S. Government and its diplomatic, development, and military branches. The two often go hand in hand. Closer to home for most Americans, but still far away in the U.S. Arctic in communities along coastal Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard has spent four years expanding its training activities and capacities in the Arctic to prepare for offshore oil drilling by Shell Oil Co. Production is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2012 in the U.S. portions of the Beaufort Sea, just north of one of America’s largest oilfield, Prudhoe Bay. Oil would then be shipped down the aging and half-empty Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).

The Prudhoe Bay oildfield is one of United States richest oil producing areas, but its production is declining leading to offshore development.

The Coast Guard preceded its Arctic ramp-up with a much heralded health and logistics outreach, called Operation Arctic Crossroads, starting in 2009, to Alaska’s western coastal communities, such as Barrow and Kivalina. These were welcomed by the mostly Native residents and received high marks from nearly all quarters in Alaska. The Coast Guard is perhaps one of the most celebrated institutions in Alaska because of its humanitarian work saving countless lives and vessels, year after year, and because of the stellar reputation it has earned, demonstrated by its outstanding safety and rescue record. (I am a huge fan of the Coast Guard, if you cannot tell, having reported on their helicopter rescues numerous times as a reporter in Sitka, Ak., in 1993.) But the Coast Guard also has noted these outreach events in Alaska have been ultimately tied to the much larger issue of energy security and defense. The U.S. DOD reported “the Arctic has economic, energy and environmental implications for national security. Coast Guard missions there are increasing because Shell Oil Co. has permits to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas beginning this summer.” The U.S. DOD further notes, “Shell will move 33 ships and 500 people to Alaska’s North Slope, and will helicopter some 250 people a week to drilling platforms.”

Deadhorse is the main landing area for the North Slope oil and gas production facilities in Alaska.

The coast of the Beaufort Sea holds significant oil reserves that Shell Oil Co. will begin tapping in the summer of 2012.

All told, Shell spent some $2.2 billion for offshore leases alone, not to mention millions in legal wrangling, government relations, PR, advocacy in Alaska and in DC, and much more since the mid-2000s. The New York Times estimates Shell spent $4 billion in its quest for one of the biggest oil prizes in North America outside of the Athabascan oil sands of Alberta and shale oil finds in North Dakota. (Shell also is drilling for natural gas in the Chukchi Sea this summer also.) The issues framing a stronger U.S. commitment in the Arctic are natural gas and oil resources and a so-called “race for resources,” as it has been described by some, which concerns rights to those resources on the Arctic Ocean seabed floor.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency claims that nearly a quarter of untapped oil and natural gas resources are in the Arctic basin, which explains the significant interest by the major multinational oil exploration companies in the shallow Arctic waters off Alaska’s North Slope. Companies like Shell and ConocoPhillips and others have been staking out their claims for years by buying controversial offshore drilling leases that have been sharply contested in protracted legal fights with environmental groups and Native Alaskan residents of the North Slope Borough (the Inupiat). The Inupiat residents,  who, while mostly supporting onshore development, are concerned about the threat an oil spill or blowout in pristine Arctic waters, similar to BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Some Inupiat resident say that would harm their subsistence hunting of migratory bowhead whales, which have been hunted and eaten by these historic Arctic residents for thousands of years.

A whaling ship rests in the Arctic summer sun in Barrow, on the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

What is clear is that interventions premised on health care will likely be part of a larger strategic framework of  nations as powerful as the United States. Those actions, no matter how well-intentioned to improve health care from Kivalina to Kenya, must be understood in a much larger context of any nation’s political and economic interests. This is particularly true regarding access to and the development of natural resources, wherever those resources may be.

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