DFID leaks about aid and security

As the UK government reviews its bilateral and multilateral aid programmes and moves towards reshaping aid policy, there have been a couple of leaks and a bit of background noise.  So what do they add up to and what do they tell us about how the wind blows? 


In mid-August the Left Foot Forward web-site reported that DFID officials were recommending “slashing 100 projects to help the world’s poor.”

Well, not exactly. The recommendation, which could be read in full because Left Foot Forward included the link in its article, was much less dramatic: the memo proposed commitments, not projects, against which DFID would no longer hold itself publicly accountable. There was no slashing of projects but, rather, a distancing of a government department from a raft of undertakings made by the previous government (which was, lest anyone has forgotten, the government of a different political party).

So there’s much less here than first meets the eye, which is why there wasn’t much of a media fuss about it. It’s hardly unreasonable, after all, that a new government undertakes this kind of review and clear-out. And since the Labour government had a habit of governing by initiatives, it left behind a pretty big pile of commitments for its successor to take a vinegary look at.

At the same, the memo was far from vacuous. It warns that DFID Directors will be asked to review commitments that are not retained and “where work is not in line with new Ministerial policy priorities or not providing value for money, it should go.”

Nothing unreasonable about this either – new governments are supposed to take up new and drop old. But it does mean that a discussion is going on, decisions will be taken, and it is likely that some projects and policies will be dropped, and this will probably lead to some good old-fashioned political debate about aid priorities. So Left Foot Forward did well to publish even if it got carried away with the headline.

Put another way, the memo shows which way the wind may blow – but it’s far too soon for a gale warning yet.

a BIT MORE (second leak)

The second leak came a couple of weeks later when the Observer picked up another internal DFID document. The article led with the claim that the government is planning “a wholesale change to Britain’s overseas aid budget,” in which “the new national security council, which oversees all aspects of foreign policy, is requiring that national security considerations are placed at the heart of aid projects.”

Again, not exactly. The full text wasn’t put up on line but the article hinges its report on the following gobbet from the DFID document: “The national security council has said the ODA budget should make the maximum possible contribution national security consistent with ODA rules. Although the NSC will not in most cases direct DfID spend in country, we need to be able to make the case for how our work contributes to national security.”

Though the article huffs and puffs a bit, it’s hard to see how these two sentences – with the exception of the references to the NSC – are very different from what an internal DFID document might have said under Labour. There are acres of common ground between this DFID and the last one as another sentence quoted from the memo makes even plainer: “We need to explain how DfID’s work in fragile states contributes to national security through ‘upstream’ prevention that helps to stop potential threats to the UK developing (including work to improve health and education, provide water, build roads, improve governance and security).” This is standard DFID vocabulary, strikes a widely used balance between national and universal interest and makes a common linkage between development and human security.

The most important bits of these two quotations are not the word “security,” upon which the big development NGOs might well leap with shock and horror to complain about the imminent “securitisation” of aid. The most important bits are the words “make the case” and “explain”.

The document – or, at least, those parts quoted by the Observer – is primarily concerned with the narrative about development aid and about the need to learn how to use security terms to cast a narrative that supports traditional development projects (health, education, roads, water) along with new kinds (governance and security).

The public’s willingness to provide overseas development aid (ODA) is going to come under increasingly stressful tests from the twin pressures of big cuts in public spending and growing discomfort that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met. There is, therefore, an urgent need for a new narrative to support ODA, by reconsidering what development is and how to support it. This in turn, in my view, entails moving away from the single-minded focus on the MDGs. International Alert has a new report out this week that explores the flaws in the MDG-led approach and argues for a different vision of the goal and means of development.

The coalition government, however, remains wholly focused on the MDGs as the way to guide and measure development. It has yet to bring the critique it developed of target-driven policy on health, for example, into the field of ODA. It has nonetheless seen the need for a new narrative. If that new narrative includes improved UK security as one of the benefits of ODA, I see no problem.

On the other hand, there could be a difficulty if the policy narrative emphasises UK security to the exclusion of other benefits for the UK, other security benefits not confined to the UK (e.g., in those countries receiving ODA) and other larger benefits in general. If the narrative then wags the policy around, it could be that the worst fears of the development NGOs would be realised and that ODA would directed to meeting narrowly defined UK interests rather than promoting the well-being of people in developing countries.

As far as policy narrative is concerned, it’s hardly deniable that this is a risk . Calling security in aid of ODA has, in the current government’s hands, thus far foregrounded the case of Afghanistan, where the coalition government like its Labour predecessor, justified UK military intervention on the basis of the need to strike at source against a present threat to UK security. The broader, more subtle and less directly military components of security – while, interestingly enough, comfortably accepted in national security discourse in the UK – have not been so prominently recognised in recent government discussion of the relationship between security and ODA. 

So there is a risk. But, first, the problem’s easily correctable with a speech and some quotable comments. Second, even if that doesn’t happen, it’s not inevitable that the narrative defines the policy. And third, it can take quite some time before policy changes play out in the actual practice of a major government department. So it’s not more than a risk – a possible outcome – and it’s really too early to say any more.

even less (to judge by the reaction)

That was probably only one of the reasons why media reaction was so muted. The Guardian, Observer (see above) and New Statesman online covered it and drummed up some reactions from here and there on the Labour benches and there was a Guardian online article by John Hilary of War on Want. Where the New Statesman article saw a possible silent softening of the commitment to increase ODA to 0.7 per cent of national income, Hilary attacked the government for a myopic approach to aid, fixated on “outputs”. But while both articles used the leaks as a news hook, it was difficult to make out a better than tenuous connection between their arguments and the substance of the leaks.


All in all the leaks and so forth added up to not quite a storm in something smaller than a teacup. But to my way of thinking, there are some important issues and questions here, which get partially occluded by the knee-jerk myopic-Tories-make-mean cuts response. This is understandable and even necessary as part of the cut and thrust of politics but it’s a distracting sideshow when it comes to thinking through the real impact of different kinds of changes in UK ODA. Here are three linked areas that need some thought:

1. Setting strategic priorities What’s the most important aid? And – different question – where is it the most important for the UK to put its ODA pounds?

The security dimension and potential of ODA could affect strategic decisions about allocation in a couple of ways. It might lead to a focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, because British forces have been / are in combat there and because what happens there is seen by policy-makers to have a direct impact on UK security.  By extension, it could also put emphasis on ODA to Pakistan, which both has its own tangled development and conflict issues and is inextricably part of Afghanistan’s development and conflict issues.

Or it might lead to a focus on a much broader range of conflict-affected countries (in violent conflict, threatened by it and/or trying to recover from it). These are the countries where all the development indicators – including the very limited set that have been blessed as Millennium Development Goals – are showing the worst results. These are the countries where development projects can be successfully delivered for years without it all adding up to development. These are the hard cases, the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable, and generally their chaotic and kleptocratic state apparatuses are part of the problem.

There is obviously a close connection between these two strategic directions and the larger – the second – need not exclude the cases to which the former is limited. But there is a big difference between them.

  • In the first, security is seen exclusively in UK terms and exclusively as the product of hard power; development projects should be in support.
  • In the second, security is seen in UK and broader terms and hard power is only one of the dimensions of the threats to human security and of the ways in which security can be sustained. 

The leaked documents from DFID basically have nothing revealing to say about this. What is needed – and soon, for preference – is a speech by UK Secretary for Development Andrew Mitchell setting out his priorities in the area in which development and security overlap and indicating which of these two broad paths his department will now take.

2. The aid add-on problem Depending on which strategic path is taken, the question that arises is whether ODA will be a relatively independent or a highly subordinated activity. This is a separate issue from the relationship between DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office but connected (see below).

If aid projects are subordinated to military activities in the field, there is a risk that ODA will be relegated to the hearts-and-minds category, echoes of Vietnam – first we bomb ’em, then we patch ’em up and send ’em home. Then we have to bomb them again. Kind-a puzzling.

Consider a parallel: big corporations extracting mega-profits from the poorest regions of struggling countries have long tried to buy off dissent and resentment by scattering largesse around – the odd kindergarten here or there, a clinic and nice road. While the companies claim these as expressions of Corporate Social Responsibility, they are simple add-ons – sops to conscience at best, shallow PR exercises at worst – and while they might sometimes fool people back home, they have zero impact in the field. Real responsibility is expressed not through add-ons but in changes to the core activity.

The same is true for ODA and military operations. If aid is an add-on, impact will be zero. DFID might get more credibility in some parts of Whitehall if its projects in Afghanistan were to be subordinated to military activities but there would be no steps forward in DFID’s own mission, nor would it contribute to the real security of ordinary Afghans or the development of their country.

For a department that under the new dispensation is focused on results, results, results – so focused that it gets accused being fixated – it would be a catastrophic irony if its main priority started to be aid add-ons in Afghanistan.

It has not happened but it would be foolish to deny the possibility. Again, a clear statement by Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell is much needed.

3. The inter-departmental sort-out Setting strategic priorities and the add-on risk both raise the question of DFID’s relationship with the rest of government and in particular with the FCO and the Ministry of Defence. In their green paper in 2009 (see my review 24 October 2009), the Conservatives identified a problem of DFID being too independent. I depicted this in terms of DFID being the uppity teenage off-spring of New Labour to whom the Conservatives would now give a bit of discipline. In their view, FCO should set the policy and DFID would do the implementation.

Yes, well – it’s not that simple, not least because of reductions in FCO capacity over the years, and also because the distinction between policy and implementation is not quite that crisp. On top of which, there’s another kid on the block – the Ministry of Defence – who is a particularly self-confident as well as powerful player on security issues.

The role of the National Security Council, which has been significantly strengthened by the coalition government, in relation to the three departments of state will be sorted out on this terrain of the relationship between security and development.

There are issues of control of policy and of budget at stake as well as departmental prestige, individual ambition and coalition politics. Taken together, all this may make it difficult for Andrew Mitchell to make the clear statement about his strategic path that I think is necessary. Yet it also makes it more important.

And he is not without allies both inside and outside government.

It is a fine line to walk, not impossible by any means, demanding political skill and nuance. That’s what politicians are for.

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