From the UK gov’t, a good message on development and peace

The UK’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell made a speech in London on 16 September setting out his and DFID’s approach on development, security, conflict and peace issues. It was barely noticed by the press. That’s a shame because it was very important – far more so than what he and other members of the government are saying this week at (or about) the UN Millennium Summit in New York.

familiar sentiments in New York

In New York, not without good cause, Nick Clegg, Andrew Mitchell and a host of international politicians are saying things we’ve all heard before:

  • There is great need in the world;
  • MDGs are a rallying cry to support the poor;
  • They have led to unprecedented mobilisation of resources from rich countries for development aid;
  • But not enough;
  • Good progress has been made but more effort is needed;
  • We’re keeping our spending promises so let others follow;
  • Come on everybody – one final push and we can do it.

Yes, yes, but as I’ve been arguing (see my post of 20 Sept among many) and as a new International Alert report explains in more detail, while the MDGs are unarguable as individual goals they do not encompass development as a whole. For the most part, they focus on life-saving help for people, which is undeniably important but is not the same as development.

doubts and the need for a new narrative

There is a growing constituency that, probably having been concerned at the time about the simplicity of the approach to development that is reflected in the MDGs and was articulated in the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, but largely keeping those doubts quiet at the time, is now more willing and more confident about openly questioning some development tenets that previously went unchallenged. This was reflected at the Manchester conference on Ten Years of War on Poverty, well reported and summarised by Michael Edwards, and also in some of the media coverage and discussion of the issues at the New York UN Summit.

The old development consensus faces a scissor-blades attack that is not generated by those of us expressing reservations about the grail of the MDGs. One blade is the background of public spending cuts. The other blade is that for every MDG success anyone can show, there is a development failure on the other side of the scales. Having accepted a narrative that development just needs more money and more effort, generous charity-supporting and tax-paying publics may start to question whether that narrative works. And if it doesn’t work, why spend money over there when it’s badly needed up here?

Avoiding the scissors requires a new narrative. It entails accepting that good development projects and even meeting the MDGs do not necessarily and everywhere add up to development. That is the nettle that the development consensus has not managed to grasp. And the most straightforward way of grasping it is by focusing on the particular challenges of supporting development in conflict-affected countries with poor governance.

new thinking in London

Refreshingly, it seems to me that Andrew Mitchell has done so. So, to be fair, did his Labour predecessor Douglas Alexander. But Mitchell has gone further and while a single speech in Belgravia to the Royal College of Defence Studies does not have the policy weight or detail of a government white paper, he has set out an approach that offers a solid intellectual and practical framework for development aid.

In a blog post a couple of weeks back, I picked at the threads of previous coalition government policy statements and a couple of leaked DFID documents, and said that I had some concerns about how well grounded and rounded the government’s new approach to development in the shadow of conflict would turn out to be. A key issue was about the possibility of aid becoming an inappropriate add-on in situations such in Afghanistan where UK forces are engaged in combat. But I argued that it was too early to judge how serious these concerns would be and that Andrew Mitchell could put doubts to rest by a single speech.

And on 16 September, Mitchell made a speech.

the distraction of ‘securitisation’ …

Critics and sceptics voice the fear that the government, by focusing on supporting development in insecure, war-torn or -threatened places, would ‘securitise’ aid.

Over the years I have found many things to say about securitisation, which I think has degenerated into a boo-word to throw at development policies that do anything other than fund health, education and women’s empowerment. Among the things one can say is that the entire modern edifice of overseas development assistance has its foundation in US global security strategy in the Cold War and Harry Truman’s Point Four Declaration in his 1949 Presidential Inauguration (“Point Four” because he announced “a bold new program … for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas” as the fourth point of US foreign policy). In other words, there has always been – for better and/or worse – a bigger policy context to development aid.

There is one part of the securitisation concern, directed at the Conservatives in opposition and in government, that I have shared. This is that policy statements about the importance of addressing conflict problems in order to achieve development outcomes tended to focus on British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and left out all the other conflict-torn countries where British aid policy is engaged.

… and laying it to rest

Faced with the text of Mitchell’s speech of 16 September, therefore, I asked myself one single, simple question: what examples does he use to support and illustrate his case?

Answer: Afghanistan, Balkans and specifically Bosnia and Kosovo, Burma, Cyprus (his personal experience in peacekeeping), DRC, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, northern Uganda, Yemen.

Conclusion: government policy on development and security is not over-focused on the high profile and very particular cases of Afghanistan and Iraq.


Mitchell’s speech can, without damage (I hope he and his speech writers will agree), be expressed in the form of one single over-arching theme and nine propositions about development assistance, of which three express basic principles and six address the foundations of practice.

The over-arching theme is “putting development at the heart of an integrated approach that supports the world’s most vulnerable people and protects Britain from external threats.” Key words here:

  • At the heart of an integrated approach“: Critics may jump at this and say development policy is being buried in security policy. A more measured response is that the effect can work the other way: development thinking can be (a central part of) what shapes the overall approach. Only experience will show which way round the effect works.
  • The world’s most vulnerable people“: Because the most vulnerable are those living in impoverished and conflict-affected countries.
  • Protects Britain“: This is the core component of Mitchell’s argument – the link between international development and UK security against external threat.

Proposition 1 is that “The indirect consequences of overseas conflict represent a real and present danger,” with a sub-proposition, 1A, that it is “a danger that cannot be dealt with exclusively by counter-terrorist means.”

So the first pillar of the argument is that we British citizens and tax-payers (and, by extension, of course, you citizens and tax-payers of other well off countries) have a basic interest in  preventing violent conflict (“upstream”) and aiding recovery from violent conflict (“downstream”) in order to improve our security. To this we add Proposition 2 – it “is also in the interests of the world’s poor.”

Those who have read other of Mitchell’s speeches or Conservative policy statements on development in the last several years know that the interest-based argument generally gets some philosophical moral support, so we can feel good about benefitting from doing good. This time is no exception. Proposition 3 is that “(O)ur commitment to help the vulnerable and persecuted endures.” That’s the underlying morality, though note the neat insertion of “persecuted” instead of “poor”, which more directly links the moral case to the need to focus on conflict and peace issues.

These three propositions of the interests and moral issues at stake are followed by six that set out the basis of the policy in practice:-

Proposition 4 is the importance of strong analysis and a strategic focus so as to “concentrate on those countries and regions that are at greatest risk; those that are of greatest interest to us; and those where the UK as a whole is likely to have greatest impact.”

This is another point where critics and sceptics might leap, or at least ask the DFID policy train to pause for thought. The question is whether these three points are criteria that all have to be satisfied. After all, not every country where need is great engages the UK’s interests, and not in all those will the UK have the greatest impact.

What happens if UK interests are not much engaged but the UK could do a lot of good? If the idea is that the UK “as a whole” must have impact, does that mean that when the UK military component would have little discernible impact, the government would say, well, don’t intervene there.

If need, UK interest and UK impact are three criteria, all of which have to be satisfied, then the number of countries that might be assisted will fall quite sharply. But if they are guidelines, the policy will as a result be more permissive, therefore capable of doing more good and, therefore, if Mitchell’s basic principles are on target, capable of making a greater contribution to UK security.

Proposition 5 puts “inclusive politics” at the heart of action by the UK because that is the way to build “an accountable state”. This chimes well with the approach that peacebuilding NGOs have brought to their work and to their critiques of state-building approaches that merely focus on building technically capable and efficient departments of state. The way states are built is ultimately through the relationship between ordinary citizens and the holders of power, and accountable states emerge when the people can constrain and hold the powerful to account.

Proposition 6 looks for partnerships in “a networked world” in which we former colonial powers have a limited role. Hearing this from a Conservative Cabinet member speaking at the Royal College of Defence Studies – yes, that is refreshing.

Proposition 7 reflects on the complexity of building peace – it takes time and requires long-term commitment. So that’s a welcome end to Treasury-imposed three year quantitative targets for UK policy on preventing violent conflict. Or at least, a peaceful shot across the Treasury’s busy bows.

Proposition 8 returns to the notion of an integrated approach “drawing together all the development, diplomatic and defence tools at the UK’s disposal.” There can surely be little argument with the idea of a government acting in concert with itself. And Mitchell went to pains to say that DFID’s programmes would not be coerced into meeting non-development objectives: “Our aid will stick to development principles and to the OECD-DAC definition of what constitutes aid.”

Finally Proposition 9 asserts the need for “flexible, bespoke solutions crafted in response to specific needs on the ground.” Again, it is hard to imagine any serious argument against this, which is, moreover, what peacebuilding organisations have been urging on donor governments, international organisations and development NGOs for most of the past decade.

And a few quick questions to finish off with

So it was an important and valuable speech, marking a point when the (still) new government has made considerable strides in drawing its policy together, coalescing the different elements into a single approach. The first big question, which cannot be answered now, is how it will turn out in practice. Implementation and results are the key test of any policy, however well framed and articulated. But there are a few other questions, short of that, which are worth asking now.

  1. Do all development priorities, even in conflict-affected countries with bad governance, require the concerted “whole of the UK” approach? Take building resilience so as to be able to adapt to face the consequences of climate change: if there is not a role for MoD or FCO, does that make it less important for DFID? Presumably not, so how do/will the mechanics of prioritisation work?
  2. Working on conflict and peace issues demands strong analysis (see above, Prop 4) and strategic focus, both of which need people. It is work that is knowledge-intensive and labour-intensive. Where will the knowledgeable people be if DFID has to go through with the staffing cuts apparently demanded of every government department? More generally, with DFID’s budget protected but its staffing levels not, how on earth do you think you are going to get the extra work done except by outsourcing it? Or is that the idea? And if so, how will you sustain the ability to ensure quality?
  3. Andrew Mitchell’s capacity to identify both interest-based and the moral arguments for aid suggests a talent for squaring the circle. I like it. But here’s another one. The 16 September speech delivered on the promise visible in earlier speeches and policy statements, to give a rounded view of development policy in conflict-affected countries, solidly asserting the importance of “upstream” conflict prevention as part of government priorities. Addressing conflict and engaging with politics, however, are not what the MDGs are about and Mitchell’s speech describes the MDGs as the UK’s development policy “lodestars”. The usual way to square this circle is by arguing that, in order to achieve the MDGs, it’s necessary to prevent and resolve violent conflict and to secure peace. But come on: isn’t there a better way? And isn’t the policy narrative going to need that better way as we move towards 2015 and a raft of MDGs not being met? And isn’t it a good idea to start developing it now?

NB Apologies to any early readers of this post. I pressed the wrong button at some point and the post uploaded itself while still in early draft form.

One thought on “From the UK gov’t, a good message on development and peace

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Millennium Development Goals « OECD Insights Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s