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Comment & analysis

The 2015 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review: Aid, security and the national interest

18 December 2015 Shelagh Daley

As the dust begins to settle on the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and its related announcements, including an explicit redirection of UK aid towards the national interest, Saferworld’s Shelagh Daley reflects on the opportunities and potential pitfalls of a new UK approach to fragile states.

The UK Government’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, released earlier this month alongside a new Aid Strategy and just ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review, has firmly placed work on conflict and in fragile states at the forefront of the UK development and security agenda; most visibly in a commitment to spend at least 50% of the Department for International Development’s budget in fragile states and regions. This is significant; the SDSR is a statement of intent that will guide the principles and practice of the UK’s overseas engagement under this Government. For Saferworld, there are some welcome commitments in the SDSR, particularly the UK Government’s recognition of the need to prevent conflict and to increase efforts to improve the lives of the poorest in fragile states. However, there are some inconsistencies that should be questioned and ambiguities that require further interrogation if this renewed focus on fragile states is to contribute to longer-term stability effectively.

Much of the focus in the international development community will be on the aid review that accompanied the SDSR; there are significant concerns over the explicit repositioning of aid towards UK national interest. This framing may be at odds both with best practice in aid delivery and with attempts at promoting sustainable peace. If UK interests (whether these be economic, security or otherwise) are pursued through the aid strategy at the expense of the wellbeing of people elsewhere this risks undermining development and prospects for more stable societies. The UK government needs to develop a strong understanding of what works in addressing conflict and work to ensure aid meets the needs of those affected if it is going to contribute to more peaceful societies, which is ultimately in the UK’s long-term interest. The aid review’s commitment to ‘put international development at the heart of our national security and foreign policy’ and not the other way around, is essential.

It also matters where and how UK aid is spent in fragile contexts, which partnerships the UK pursues and how aid fits alongside wider UK diplomatic, defence or economic engagement overseas. For example, continuing to support a government that is a partner in counter-terror work that is simultaneously repressing its own people, such as in Egypt (mentioned as a target for a strengthened bilateral relationship in the SDSR) is demonstrably counter-productive in the long run. It also undermines the UK’s credibility and leadership on issues like human rights, good governance and promotion of a rules-based international order, all commitments in the SDSR.

The aid review is also unclear about how fragility is defined and therefore how much aid is expected to be dispersed in fragile contexts and to what purpose. When the government clarifies this it should give significant weight to the conflict sensitivity of aid delivery in fragile states. These are complex contexts where it is difficult to spend significant quantities of aid effectively in a way that contributes to more peaceful outcomes, as an assessment of DFID’s scale-up in fragile states highlighted. Departments outside of DFID spending more aid will also need to demonstrate effective management and transparency of this aid, in line with best development practice.

It also matters very much how stability, which is a key concept within the SDSR, is defined. It is positive that this review seeks to build on the 2011 Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS), which defines stability in terms of “political systems which are representative and legitimate, capable of managing conflict and change peacefully, and societies in which human rights and rule of law are respected, basic needs are met, security established and opportunities for social and economic development are open to all.” The SDSR sets out an aim to address conflict and instability through tackling corruption, promoting good governance, developing security and justice and creating jobs and economic opportunity – noting that this helps to support more peaceful and inclusive societies. It will be important to ensure that these work strands focus on responding to the needs of people affected by conflict as a route to fostering stability. This is especially true for highly sensitive work like that on security and justice that will be increasingly carried out by government departments outside of DFID.

As in 2010, the 2015 SDSR continues a focus on cross-departmental working. The SDSR announced increased funding for cross-departmental funds like the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), and an increase in the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) spent by government departments outside of DFID. Saferworld has consistently argued for this coordination in order to promote long-term stability. However, noting the role of the National Security Council in driving the UK’s strategy in fragile states, we are increasingly concerned about how the UK domestic political or security agenda is shaping work overseas. The evidence is very clear for example, that when aid is used to further narrowly-defined national security interests, it is likely to be not only less effective, but can also exacerbate the underlying conflict drivers that result in more, not less violence. The CSSF is an important mechanism to make sure that UK support for stability explicitly meets the interests of local people living in incredibly difficult circumstances. It is important to ensure that measures taken in the short-term to tackle immediate national security threats do not undermine commitments to long-term, structural change based on good governance, rule of law and human rights.

Notions of masculinity and femininity also have a complex relationship with violent conflict and the dynamics of peace. It is therefore useful to see continued commitment to the women, peace and security agenda in the SDSR. It is important that the UK remains at the forefront of efforts to understand and respond to gender norms and behaviours that perpetuate conflict, and to understand the gendered impacts of conflict. However, it is disappointing that women’s rights are only ‘taken into account’ in the SDSR. Experience has demonstrated that failure to analyse and address explicitly the gendered dimensions of peace and security in strategic planning and in the design and implementation of a broad range of interventions is likely to render them less effective as important gender dimensions are either under-played or missed entirely. We encourage the UK government to commit to ensuring that the gender dynamics of conflict are fully considered in the design and implementation of all strategic interventions in conflict affected contexts.

In addition, the SDSR makes a welcome mention of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first international regulatory framework on the transfer of conventional arms which was championed at the UN by the UK. However, the government could have used the SDSR to make a more ambitious statement of intent to strive for the highest possible standard for the ATT’s implementation. In addition to increasing the number of signatories to the Treaty, the UK should explicitly commit to promoting the strongest possible interpretation of the Treaty’s provisions to stop weapons proliferation and misuse. It is in the UK’s own interest to do so as inconsistency in this realm of policy making continues to be of serious concern and risks undermining the UK’s commitments to peace elsewhere and its claim to ‘sit at the heart of the rules-based international order’ . In relation, it is unclear how the prosperity agenda highlighted in the SDSR, which includes the promotion of defence exports, will be balanced in practice against considerations for international peace and security and respect for international law. A recent legal opinion on the illegality of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen highlights one of the inconsistencies between what the UK Government says and what the UK Government does, leaving it open to damaging accusations of hypocrisy.

Overall, the focus on working towards strategic coherence in the SDSR is encouraging – but a deeper examination of the SDSR shows that there is still much to consider when the UK’s approach in fragile states is taken as a whole. In practice the UK’s engagement in fragile states must work for the people affected by conflict if it is really to be in the UK’s long-term interests. This should be the focus of UK Government departments as they begin the more detailed work to implement the SDSR in relation to fragile states.

Shelagh Daley is UK Advocacy Coordinator.

Read Saferworld’s submission to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

“The evidence is very clear for example, that when aid is used to further narrowly-defined national security interests, it is likely to be not only less effective, but can also exacerbate the underlying conflict drivers that result in more, not less violence.”

Shelagh Daley