On the face of it makes sense. You are more likely to be able to reduce poverty in a country that isn’t at war than you are with bombs and bullets flying over your head, right? That’s the logic being applied by David Cameron who says he is "very open" to the idea of spending more of the money marked for reducing poverty on trying achieve security in fragile countries because, in the long run, this might very well help to reduce poverty more quickly.
It all sounds very sensible but by 9 o clock this morning some of the UK’s leading NGOs were on the radio insisting that we should be spending our aid on "schools not soldiers". So why do they think it is such a bad idea?
Let’s be clear. It’s not because David Cameron is about to start spending our aid money on soldiers, not schools. There are very clear rules, agreed by countries across the world about what you can and can’t call ‘aid' so in order for the Government to meet its commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of the UK’s Gross National Income on aid they won’t be able to get away with funding the army through DFID budgets.
Despite the fact that David Cameron hasn’t gotten too trigger happy with the aid budget it is still worth noting why the idea he set out today carries risks and a very uncertain reward.
We know that aid spending on stabilisation efforts is one of the least effective ways of spending aid. If we are looking for value for money and impact then we should focus on programming that has a proven track record of effectiveness.
One option on the table is increasing funding for the Conflict Pool, a joint MoD, DFID and FCO fund for stabilisation in fragile states with an annual budget of a quarter of a billion pounds. A recent evaluation of the Conflict Pool by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised serious concerns not only about the effectiveness of such programmes in creating peace, but also about the oversight and monitoring of funds.
We need to be very careful to avoid blurred objectives. The military exist for our national security, aid workers work to alleviate poverty. Just because one may benefit from the other doesn’t mean that we should be getting them to share their jobs, we should let professionals stick to what they are best at.
While development requires security, development alone cannot bring security. In Afghanistan, the vast influx of money to insecure parts of the country was often dangerous and ineffective. One side of the conflict building schools in a contested area means that they are likely to be attacked by the other side. This is exactly what the Taliban did and attacks on schools skyrocketed. Building roads through conflict areas often resulted in construction workers being attacked and the roads being mined anyway.
The army and DFID are both very good at what they do but they need to be seen to be independent. We should be proud of the fact that DFID is recognised as a world leader in reducing poverty and suffering, including providing humanitarian aid to victims of conflict
When armies fight too hard to win the hearts and minds of local populations, this taints aid workers by association and provides insurgents with highly visible - and in their eyes, legitimate - targets.
In interviews with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, many claimed to have attacked aid workers and cut off aid access to areas under their control after they came to believe that they were collaborating with western forces. In places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, the perception of being allied with the “other side” has resulted in increased attacks on aid workers: the number of violent attacks on them has more than doubled since 2003.
By blurring the lines of military work and poverty reduction efforts we risk aid to those who desperately need it no longer being seen by all sides as neutral. This is something we need to avoid, not encourage.