(February 10, 2011) Images from the protests in Egypt have put the relationship between funding security and development in the spotlight
Over the last two weeks, images emerged from Egypt revealing foreign aid as a crucial protagonist in the ongoing protests. Egyptian riot police had been photographed in the streets of Cairo hurling teargas canisters labelled “Made in the USA” [PDF], and fighter jets were filmed flying above the protests in a dramatic show of force. The images have propelled the relationship between security and development to the forefront of policy debates.
What the development economist William Easterly had called “the dirty secret [PDF]” of the international aid system – the nonchalance of donors in the face of government repression in recipient countries – is now (nearly) frontpage news. To be sure, US aid in Egypt has gone to fund programmes focused on health, education and trade, but the vast majority of the multibillion-dollar US aid package to Egypt has been spent on military and domestic security initiatives [PDF]. Whether intentional or not, foreign aid to Mubarak’s regime is widely seen to have strengthened the government’s ability to confront popular movements.
While the images from Egypt are extreme, the role of US foreign assistance there fits the trend of aid programmes becoming increasingly involved in “state-building” – training police, raising taxes and helping governments to win and maintain legitimacy. With budgets on the chopping-block in the US and a commitment to rapid deficit reduction in the UK, these images are a thorn in the side of those who argue that stability and security are essential preconditions of development (and thus argue for aid programmes to strengthen a state’s “capacity” to maintain such stability and security).
Just last week, Britain’s shadow international development secretary, Harriet Harman, called on supporters of UK aid to remake the argument and relearn how to campaign for international development [PDF], arguing against those who say this is not the time to “grow the aid budget”. Development abroad “is in our national self-interest”, said Harman, as “poverty fosters conflict and drives global migration”.
Andrew Mitchell, the UK international development secretary, last week unveiled plans to triple aid efforts in Somalia along precisely the same lines. Amid warnings of severe drought and an escalating malnutrition crisis [PDF], Mitchell said: “This is not just aid from Britain, it is aid for Britain too. Our aid to Somalia is helping to make Britain safer [PDF], because conflict doesn’t just claim innocent lives in Somalia, it also leads to international problems like piracy, migration and terrorism. None of these will be solved without tackling their root causes – ongoing instability and extreme poverty.”
The increased focus on “fragile” and “conflict-affected” states – where the UK, for example, is set to increase spending from £1.8bn in 2010 to £3.8bn in 2014-15 – has renewed questions as to what exactly aid should be doing, and about what kind of relationship aid donors should have with recipients.
Today, Oxfam releases a report on the “politicisation” of aid in conflict zones, outlining the human cost of blurring security and development policies and projects. On the ground, Oxfam points to the increased risk posed to those who give and receive aid. Meanwhile, the report argues that the subordination of needs-based aid decisions to national security objectives means that “strategic” countries – and “strategic” areas within countries – get disproportionate amounts of aid to the neglect of other equally poor, and equally “conflict-affected”, neighbours.
Some would argue that there is nothing new about this, that aid has always been political, and that it would be unreasonable to expect states to ignore their own interests when signing off on budgets and overseas projects.
Writing in Foreign Policy last month [PDF] , Médecins Sans Frontières’ former country representative in Afghanistan, Michiel Hofman, said governments, along with private companies, “have made their choices and can claim neither neutrality nor independence” for themselves or for the aid projects they design and deliver.
Hofman instead takes aim at NGOs that claim neutrality on the one hand and implement what he calls “nation-building projects” for government agencies on the other. By working with governments in a conflict zone, NGOs effectively choose sides in the war, says Hofman. But unlike government agencies, he argues that NGOs can and should make the choice to work independently and must reorient themselves so that they focus their assistance solely on needs.
Others might reasonably point to forums like the UN, suggesting that the neutrality of aid could be better protected if funds flowed through multilateral organisations rather than through bilateral agreements between states. Though one could argue whether or not the UN could ever represent a truly even playing field, the hope of this argument is that the individual security interests of the wealthy and the powerful would at least be significantly diluted. Whether states would ever agree to send more of their aid through multilateral agencies is another question.
Of course, a myriad of other questions remain. Even if NGOs distanced themselves from the security interests of governments, and even if more money flowed through multilateral organisations – diluting the influence of these security interests – what’s to say that aid projects would be any more effective? Could a “de-politicisation” of aid avoid producing casualties of its own?
It’s clear that there are few other foreign policy debates as timely and as controversial as the relationship between security and development. Ongoing and intensifying scrutiny of government aid budgets offers an opportunity not (just) to “remake the argument for aid” or to “relearn how to campaign for aid”, but also to rethink what aid should do and reimagine relationships between aid donors and recipients. An opportunity not to be overlooked.
Claire Provost, Guardian.co.uk, February 10, 2011