In one ill-judged briefing last week, the Prime Minister may have set back years of progress towards a joined-up, long term, approach to conflict, development and peacebuilding. And he or his aides may have jeopardised international progress towards agreement on reflecting conflict and security challenges in the new Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
While the bureaucratic obstacles to joined-up working on defence, development and diplomacy are deeply frustrating – in the UK, the EU and the UN – the biggest obstacle internationally is mistrust. And any hint by the US, the UK or other key donors that the objectives are less than principled will deepen that mistrust. And that will cost lives.
The second terms for Obama in the White House and for Ban Ki-Moon at the UN, all party UK support for increased funding, the establishment of the External Advisory Service in the EU, and the direction of travel on the review of the MDG’s all created an optimistic environment for real progress on development in conflict-affected and fragile states.
When the Prime Minister stated that he was ‘very open’ to the prospect of pooling departmental resources further in order to meet the UK’s strategic priorities, we should all have been able to cheer. But, as media outlets announced that the government is to consider spending money from the UK’s aid budget on peacekeeping and other defence-related projects, the response has been understandably suspicious. Yet the policy to which David Cameron hints holds considerable opportunity, but only if executed for the right reasons and in the right way.
Over one billion people live in countries affected by repeated cycles of political and criminal violence, and no fragile or conflict-affected state is set to achieve a single Millennium Development Goal. Enabling such states to do so requires significant structural change, such as the capacity-building of state institutions, a transformation of the security and justice sectors, including demobilisation and reconciliation, and action to breathe life into weak economies. Through these types of reforms, post-conflict reconstruction can begin in earnest and a new relationship between the citizen and the state can be established.
The UK rightly plans to increase its focus on these issues, allocating 30% of the UK aid budget to fragile and conflict-affected states. By 2015, Official Development Assistance to such states is likely to amount to £3.4 million. There has been a growing recognition in recent years that addressing the complexities of fragile and conflict situations lies beyond the remit of a single government department. The Conflict Pool was created in 2009 to prevent and manage international conflict, funding programmes that help to reform security sectors, establish and maintain the rule of law, train local peacekeepers and support political settlements. This, together with the UK’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy, acknowledged that effectiveness in conflict environments can be improved when the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development work together, sharing expertise while co-ordinating policy and strategy.
The Conflict Pool and BSOS are not without their weaknesses and challenges, but, in principle, a more joined-up way of working and an expanded pool of resources is not a bad thing. We should strive to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate combatants. We should strive to inject international norms and standards into security services. We should strive to bolster free and fair elections for the orderly succession of accountable governments. Ultimately, it is these building blocks that create a foundation for long-lasting, positive peace.
But David Cameron has to ensure that any integration of aid and defence budgets comes with stringent checks and balances in place, with absolute transparency and accountability. There must be no covert operations and funds must not be used for combat operations or combat equipment. Peacebuilding programmes must have the backing of the international community, ideally carried out under the auspices of the EU, UN or regional bodies like the African Union.
This is too serious to play politics. There is an urgent need for clarification from our government. We need an acceptance that the mistrust created by last week’s briefing cannot be allowed to linger. And we need assurances. If we get them this could be the start of something good. If we don’t, we will regret this for years to come.