Editorial: A poorly disguised raid on Britain's aid budget

If David Cameron wants to up military spending he should have the courage to say so

Much has been made of the Coalition’s commitment to international development. Amid the welter of spending cuts, overseas aid has ranked with schools and the NHS as the only areas to be shielded from the Chancellor’s axe. Thus has Britain stuck to its UN-inspired pledge to commit nearly 1 per cent of GDP to alleviating poverty beyond our borders. The cynical might dismiss such promises as the fig leaf of an otherwise nakedly heartless Government; but the reality of a marked increase in the aid budget was indisputable.

Now, however, the Prime Minister is suggesting that hundreds of millions of pounds earmarked for international development might be used to bankroll military activities such as stabilisation and peace-keeping. Despite assurances that no diverted funds will be used for combat operations, charities were quick to cry “schools, not soldiers”.

In fairness, the demarcation between reconstruction and military activities is no simple matter. Poverty and instability are such common bed-fellows that aid workers and troops are often in close proximity. In fact, in many places, charities run considerable security risks if there is not a military presence. Yet any overlap – perceived or otherwise – is fraught with difficulties.

On the military side, the concern is exemplified by Condoleezza Rice’s famous remark that the 82nd Airborne should not be walking kids to school. Meanwhile, aid agencies are reluctant to either ask for, or be seen to accept, the protection of the armed forces. As the recent attacks on health workers in Pakistan make appallingly clear, anxieties about the loss of local trust are far from academic.

With so delicate a balance to strike, Mr Cameron’s plan for shared funding is so unwise as to be almost unworkable. Not only is the blurring of responsibilities and accountabilities between military and non-military dangerous in itself. The proposal is also far from the best use of scarce resources. As international development experts were quick to point out, efforts to impose stability by force have a patchy record in terms of both efficacy and value for money.

Finally, Mr Cameron’s plan takes the politicisation of the overseas development budget to a whole new level, ending any pretence at separation between Britain’s humanitarian agenda and the realpolitik that has the armed forces at its sharp end. Indeed, the very first question – what aid projects will now be cut and what peace-keeping funded as a result? – throws such difficulties into immediate relief. And hints that the non-combat troops left in Afghanistan after 2014 might even be funded from the pot supposedly reserved for aid appear almost to court controversy.

There are, then, any number of practical reasons to look askance at Mr Cameron’s plan. But it is his disingenuousness that is truly striking. Faced with Tory right-wingers’ outrage at a rising international development budget and shrinking military spend – and keen to insure himself against a defeat at next week’s all-important Eastleigh by-election – the opportunity to slide funds from one to the other behind the scenes no doubt seemed appealing. How much better to have been honest, though.

If the Prime Minister wants to cut overseas aid in favour of the military, then he should have the courage to say so. Instead, he has devised a complicated scheme that fools no one and might endanger many. All the talk of flexibility and a shift in priorities is of no consequence; the plan is nothing but a cheap sleight of hand. Shame on you, Mr Cameron. ˜Š.È—ˆ