Aid and Conflict: Britain's approach

By Isobel Petersen:

UK aid bound for the Philipines after Typhoon Haiyan, November 2013. Photo: MoD, Sgt Ralph Merry (CC 2.0)
UK aid bound for the Philipines after Typhoon Haiyan, November 2013.
Photo: MoD, Sgt Ralph Merry (CC 2.0)

There is a trend across Western governments, and the UK is no exception, to consider the value of aid and conflict prevention as intertwined. The UK government has been a staunch supporter of the Security Sector Reform (SSR) framework since the 1990s (see Strife’s interview with Dylan Hendrickson). This concept advocates a holistic approach to human security that ties together the security and development sectors.

Prioritising reform and stabilising the security sector in a post-conflict situation to reduce the chances of repeated cycles is essential. But a country’s development is just as important when it comes to strengthening a government’s ability to provide for its people. Ultimately, SSR prioritises the individual’s sense of security in order to reduce the likelihood of future conflict. This framework is a good illustration of the wider plan for British overseas aid assistance and how it should be regarded.

It is normal for aid assistance, whether from states or Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs), to be considered by governments and the authorities as interrelated with, and an underpinning motivation for, conflict prevention. However, in the public sphere aid assistance is usually understood to mean ‘poverty reduction’. This is a convenient portrayal, but there is more to aid commitments than the Robin Hood intentions of Western governments. Does it matter if the authorities and the public have different conceptions of the meaning of ‘aid’?

At the beginning of March parliament passed a bill committing 0.7% of Britain’s Gross National Income to international aid spending. This makes the UK one of the leading nations in global development assistance. As well as bolstering the UK’s international reputation, it also ensures that the UK as a donor country is involved in the domestic affairs of the recipient country. This is a particularly powerful side-effect when it comes to post-conflict reconstruction and conflict prevention. The consequences of the actions taken by the World Bank in developing nations’ affairs are infamously divisive; nonetheless, their explicit declaration of a positive correlation between poverty and recurrent conflict is a persuasive one.

Contributing to effective conflict prevention by improving human security requires resources, time, expertise and financing, and it is worth this investment. Combating conflict recurrence should be considered a key objective of the UK government’s foreign policy, if only because security threats are far more likely than ever to arise as a result of overseas conflicts and fragile states.

The UK government has a commitment to spending 30% of UK aid in fragile states, which means that a large proportion of the new aid budget will be going directly to states in the midst of conflict and instability. This does not take into account countries at the focus of democratisation efforts after conflict or countries with counter-terrorism operations, which are usually afflicted by conflict to some extent.

Giving aid in an ethical, cost-effective and sustainable fashion consistently throws up challenges, particularly when aid is so often required in conflict-affected areas; but this is not a good enough reason to suspend aid programmes and commitments.

There is a mainstream approach within Western policy-making views a conflict as consisting of two opposing sides who are either ‘allies’ or ‘spoilers’. International involvement typically follows the same path: first the military presence, then the post-conflict reconstruction phase, where an influx of aid will be directed at the ‘allied’ forces.[i] The choice recipient is based upon a certain interpretation of the conflict by the donor country or organisation that is difficult to avoid. This is one serious difficulty when faced with the task of giving aid in a conflict environment.

Another challenge is counter-terrorism. This issue can confuse the conventional association of aid with poverty-alleviation. Pakistan was the highest recipient of UK aid in 2014, and yet between 2009-2013 they were rated the 47th poorest nation by GDP. Pakistan clearly faces numerous challenges worthy of assistance, but this comparison demonstrates what happens when UK national interest takes precedence over genuine human need. It has even been argued that giving aid to states which are the focus of counter-terrorism operations can alienate the population because it is likely to be diverted away from the people.[ii]

In the same vein, aid coming into a conflict area can alter the power balance and distribution of resources within a divided society. This may lead to a worsening of inter-group tensions, the proliferation in arms acquisition, and a reinforcement of inequalities. It therefore runs the risk of worsening the existing conflict rather than succeeding with conflict prevention.

Sri Lanka is a good example of this. After the tsunami there was such vast pressure to give large amounts of aid to the country as quickly as possible that time was not spent considering facts other than the tsunami. The aid was undoubtedly life-saving but it did not take into account the concurrent conflict; there was a failure to ensure even distribution between government-controlled areas and those of the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebel movement. This only exacerbated political tensions and the ongoing conflict.

It is not just the practical hurdles that the UK faces when giving aid assistance, it also faces the criticism from the public and media at home. This is just as damaging to aid assistance as errors on the ground. Conservative MP Philip Davies declared the recent legislation as pandering to do-gooders with a “mis-guided guilt complex”. This is shockingly patronising and selfish. It is all too easy to argue that our lives in the UK would be simpler and better by keeping all we have for ourselves, but that is willfully ignorant of the difficult reality for so many beyond our borders. Furthermore, is it not contrary to the universal value of sharing with and caring for others that is taught to us all as children growing up?

There are a few key flaws in the criticism of the bill protecting the size of the UK aid budget. First, the announcement in early March simply enshrined in law a commitment that every UN member state made in 1970, so really this should have happened years ago. Second, the target was reached for the first time in 2013 with 0.72% of national income given,[iii] meaning that no extra spending would be required and it is compatible with the continued functioning of the UK. Finally, for those concerned that the wellbeing of British citizens would be excessively jeopardised, welfare spending was at 23.8% of GDP in 2013, leagues ahead of other EU member states, and vastly overshadows the aid commitment. The urgency of financial assistance and conflict prevention is higher than ever and as Justine Greening, the UK International Development Secretary, said last year to the World Bank spring meetings in Washington, “the humanitarian system is already stretched to breaking point”.

The MP who introduced the legislation, Michael Moore, argued that “the problems of other parts of the world do not stay local for long”.[iv] This has never been truer; conflict prevention and post-conflict assistance deserves attention, and one way of achieving this is through financial assistance. One aspect of financial assistance is the Government and Civil Society sector, which in 2013 received £835 million, 12.4% of the overall UK Bilateral aid spend. This sector includes activities carried out by the Conflict Pool, which is a cross-departmental UK team seeking to reduce the impact of conflict by holding rule of law projects and training peacekeepers for example.[v] The UK are in the luxurious position of being politically, socially and economically stable enough to contribute financially on a significant scale; it would be shameful not to do so.

Perhaps then, ‘aid’ is a term that can easily be misrepresented. It does not matter that UK aid is directed to conflict prevention as well as poverty assistance; but it does matter if their relationship is not widely understood by the British taxpayer. If the motivation for aid is to deliver reform, to protect national security, and to reduce the chances of recurrent conflict, then presenting the figures as solely to combat international poverty is misleading. The public perceive security and aid as separate entities, which means that those with the power of decision-making and implementation need to consider it their responsibility not to politicise an issue of international human security and well-being, but to express clearly how the aid commitment is relevant to both security and development, and furthermore how the two are related.

State failure and human insecurity as a result of conflict are both unacceptable. Responsible aid assistance is a start to building a country’s capacity to prevent future conflict. Providing funding and expertise to train the security forces in how to separate the roles of the police forces and military of a post-conflict state to increase their trustworthiness and efficiency is one example of how aid can increase capacity to prevent future conflict.

Conflict prevention and aid assistance are inextricably linked and the UK government legislation guaranteeing the nation’s role in this is a positive decision. However, there must be an awareness of the complexity of blindly trusting an aid package to solve everything. Monitoring, training, direct application to civilians, and accountability measures are all ways that such an aid commitment can reach its full potential. Importantly, raising awareness about the specificities about what UK aid assistance really means gives the British public the opportunity to ensure that whichever government comes next continues to live up these standards.

Isobel Petersen studied International Relations at the University of Exeter and is currently reading for an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Her particular interest is post-conflict resolution with a specific focus on the Arab-Israeli crisis. 


[i] D.Keen with L.Attree Dilemmas of Counter-terror, Stabilisation and Statebuilding in Saferworld (January 2015)

[ii] ibid

[iii] L. Booth “The 0.7% aid target” House of Commons Library (28 July 2014)

[iv] R. Mason “MPs back law committing 0.7% of national income to foreign aid” in Guardian foreign policy (12 September 2014)

[v] Statistics on International Development by DFID (October 2014)

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