Five takeaways on the UK government’s national security review

by 02nd Dec 2015
A girl leaving a CARE-constructed latrine at the UN Protection of Civilians site at Malakal, South Sudan A girl leaving a CARE-constructed latrine at the UN Protection of Civilians site at Malakal, South Sudan

You spend half the year waiting for the government’s strategy on aid and conflict, and then two come along at once. On Monday 23 November, the government released both the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and its Aid Review, which together laid out the strategic aims of UK hard and soft power (including development) as well as how funding would be allocated among priority areas. CARE has released a statement on the Aid review, but here are some thoughts on the SDSR, its strengths and areas for further inquiry.

50% of aid going to fragile states

One of the eye-catching headlines was the decision to focus 50% of all DFID’s aid spending on fragile states. This is in keeping with the framing of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as vital to both the UK’s national security and as a force for building stability and peace overseas – which is seen as an easier sell to a sceptical and austerity-fatigued UK public than arguments based on moral worth.

But the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. 1.5 billion people live in in countries marked by fragility or violent conflict, often in extreme poverty, and the UK’s efforts to transform their circumstances is both a win for the UK’s influence and soft power, as well as the morally right thing to do to address suffering.  

The SDSR notes that “security and prosperity suffer when violations and abuses of human rights go unchecked”. True stability is only ever achieved when states grant full social and economic rights to their people backed up by an end to violence and the strong rule of law. This is Galtung’s highly influential vision of ‘positive peace’ first laid out in the 1960s and it remains the longer term strategy to addressing drivers of instability.

Spending, but spending wisely

Raising the levels of investment in fragile states is welcome for recognising the nexus of poverty and conflict. However, as the ICAI (Independent Commission for Aid Impact) report on fragile states noted early this year, spending that money effectively can be very challenging. Building effective governance, promoting values around non-violence, and building peace are long-term efforts and require more flexibility and attention to conflict dynamics than has been the case so far. There is a risk that a focus on the level of spending rather than the quality of how that money is spent could lead to harmful outcomes – and critical headlines of wasted tax-payers money.

Committed to humanitarian principles

In terms of life-saving humanitarian aid, the most important line in the SDSR is: “We are committed to the independence, neutrality and impartiality of our humanitarian assistance, delivered on the basis of need.” This commitment is absolutely vital for humanitarian agencies, like CARE, to work safely and effectively in war zones. Without respect for aid being delivered on a neutral, impartial and independent basis, then millions of people risk being cut off from life-saving assistance in contexts like Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The position of donors is an important part of the picture in enabling this. Where donors have wavered on principled humanitarian aid, it has been hugely damaging. Of equal importance is the SDSR’s reference to the support for a “rules-based international order” and the UK “upholding international humanitarian law”.

Despite expectations, the SDSR does not discuss how the UK’s use of drones, for example, will abide by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This remains a contested issue both amongst IHL experts at the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as amongst human rights activists in countries subject to drone strikes.

Nonetheless, with ongoing complex crises in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the commitment in the SDSR to principled humanitarian action and IHL is an important one that should not go unrecognised. The same must now be applied to new instruments for engagement in emergencies such as the Crisis Reserve Fund proposed in the Aid Review.

Gender equality is central to peace

The work that former Foreign Secretary William Hague started on Preventing Sexual Violence is given a brief mention, setting the aim for the widespread implementation of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. CARE has previously written about how this initiative needs to work beyond just focusing on prosecutions. It great to see therefore a mention for the needs of survivors. However, less is said on tackling the destructive attitudes and social norms that help to justify violence based on gender, particularly against women and girls.

Women’s rights are listed as central to greater peace and stability, which is consistent with recent research that shows that gender equality, and in particular the physical security of women, has been shown to be the best predictor of state stability. In particular, the higher the numbers of people who approve gender equality in a country, the less likely it is that there will be an armed conflict.

Economic development is now a peace issue

One area that is covered in great detail for the first time is the focus on economic opportunities as a force for building long-term stability. International Finance Institutions and the World Bank are both name-checked as important actors delivering increased investment in fragile states.

But one of CARE’s lessons from its work in areas of instability is how much growth is delivered from micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses, often in the absence of effective financial infrastructure.  Access to markets is important, and this includes investment in infrastructure and a rules-based system of trade. However, equally important are the basic building blocks of business, including access to credit, basic financial literary, and for women to have the freedom to start a small business without fear of violence from partners, community members or the authorities. The new Prosperity Fund’s commitment to help partner countries tackle corruption is therefore welcome, but it should also look to foster the right economic climate for the smallest businesses, not focus solely on the largest.

Co-authored with Howard Mollett

Paul-André Wilton

Paul-André was formerly Senior Policy Advisor (Conflict and Humanitarian) for CARE International UK. He led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around resilient markets, livelihoods and jobs within the overall humanitarian advocacy area. He also shared responsibility for delivering gender, peace and security humanitarian advocacy on emergencies.

Before CARE he worked for peacebuilding and democratisation organisations, and lived in West and East Africa. Previously he worked in the education sector teaching English for five years to students of all ages in Spain and the UK. He holds an Msc in Global Politics from Birkbeck, University of London.

One good thing I’ve read

I really enjoyed Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson for the fascinating discussion and examples of how fragility and institutions interact over time. I would also recommend The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith as an excellent and necessary sweep through the history since decolonisation and independence on the continent. In one of my first jobs we used to give it to each intern on their departure, as invariably it filled huge gaps in their knowledge, as it had done for me

Twitter: @PA_Wilton