Is the UK securitising its development aid?

Samir Elhawary
Samir Elhawary
2 March 2011
Articles and blogs
There has been much discussion on whether Tuesday’s decision by the UK Government to focus more of its aid budget on ‘fragile’ states is putting Britain’s security interests ahead of those of the poor. Oxfam has recently argued that aid is increasingly being put towards countering terrorism, and other NGOs have expressed concern that this increases threats to aid workers by associating them with contested political projects.

Are these accusations well-founded? Well, linking development and security is certainly a priority for the UK Government. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review stressed the importance of tackling conflict and instability and emphasised the centrality of development assistance in this effort. Development, diplomacy, defence and intelligence resources are being integrated to ensure coherence across government. The Department for International Development (DFID) is now part of a new National Security Council, and the tri-departmental Stabilisation Unit (comprising DFID, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office) may have more prominence as this ‘integrated approach’ is rolled out. Prime Minister David Cameron has explicitly said that ‘development aid is a powerful instrument of our foreign policy’, and the countries selected for an increase in aid – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen – are all sites of actual or potential terrorist threats. This would all suggest that aid is being securitised. 

The government, however, has also said that any linking of development and security will be bound by the International Development Act of 2002, and that development aid will be used solely for poverty reduction. Furthermore, ministers have argued that the impact of conflict on development is hampering progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Linking development more explicitly to security means more attention on the needs of the poor in conflict-affected states.

So why aren’t NGOs satisfied? I put this down to the lack of considered policy-making on how security and development actually relate to each other in practice and whether aid is in fact an effective means to create stability.

Let’s take two examples: Afghanistan and Somalia. In Afghanistan, the UK Government has been pursuing an integrated approach as a means to enhance both development and security. Yet attempts to build and support an Afghan state willing to counter terrorist threats have done little to create a legitimate and accountable government or state apparatus. In fact, Cameron has insisted that the UK is not in Afghanistan to build a model society but rather to ‘ensure that al-Qaeda can never again pose a threat to us from Afghan soil’. In Somalia, attempts at countering terrorism have meant supporting the Transitional Federal Government, an undemocratic regime that lacks legitimacy and whose predatory behaviour is a significant cause of civilian insecurity. These two cases show that pursuing development and security are not necessarily mutually reinforcing, action in one area can have adverse effects in another, and when tensions emerge counter-terrorism objectives are prioritised.

Furthermore, there are doubts on whether development aid is an effective means to create security in these contexts. Aid interventions can even generate instability, particularly if they promote a version of development that some groups find hostile or reject. The quality of aid projects and the absorptive capacity of national institutions are also crucial. Recent research in Afghanistan suggests that competition and corruption generated by the influx of aid, disillusionment with its impact, and a lack of community engagement have heightened popular resentment of the government and international forces, while having little or no stabilising effect. 

As the UK Government tries to win over sceptics and emphasise value for money within the country’s aid programme, it must shift from simplistic rhetoric that assumes development and security are mutually reinforcing to more considered policy-making on whether aid can effectively create stability, and if so, whether this compromises development outcomes and principles.

Samir Elhawary