Conservative proposals on post-conflict reconstruction
David Cameron walked into a hail of NGO opposition today when he argued that his commitment to match Labour’s pledge to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid could be partly fulfilled by spending on a new stabilisation and reconstruction force capable of working in “high risk environments” such as conflict zones. The force, which would include military personnel as well as officials from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DFID), would take on tasks such as repairing infrastructure and restoring local governance. The NGOs who reacted so strongly are not given to intervening in politics, so their concern is genuine and important. But why are they so worried about what could be considered just joined-up government? Is this a return to Conservative policies that, notoriously, once included expenditure on paying British companies to build the environment-destroying the Pergau Dam in the overseas aid figures?
The TImes reports that the plans were criticised by various NGO spokespeople. David Mepham, Save the Children’s Director of Policy said: “Save the Children is very concerned that the Conservatives’ security spokesperson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, left open the possibility of significant aid funds being diverted into stabilisation units. This dangerously muddles up security and development goals, increasing the risks facing development and humanitarian workers in conflict situations.” Meanwhile Kirsty Hughes, Oxfam Head of Policy, said: “Removing aid from the poorest people and using it for military goals rather than tackling poverty would be a big step backwards and would undermine the UK’s leadership role on international development.” Care International’s Howard Mollett told the BBC’s World at One that the trend towards the “militarisation of aid” was proving “very damaging” to the work of the agencies in countries like Afghanistan. “The perception of a blurred line between the aid programmes and what is a contested military presence involved in combat operations on the ground fighting a war compromises the safety of the aid work,” he said.
Clearly DFID has an important role to play in post-conflict reconstruction (and even more importantly in pre-conflict prevention). Schools need to be re-opened, health servicves re-created, and most importantly, jobs for local people are needed. The TUC argued that case in our submission ahead of the DFID white paper last year (and in our response to it). But ‘clearing up’ after military interventions needs to be distinguished from reconstructing failed states and putting local people back on their own two feet.
The Conservative’s security policy which sparked this row blurs that distinction, and throws the Conservative strategy of protecting the aid budget (in order to demonstrate once again that they are no longer the ‘nasty party’ that cut aid in the last few years of its last period in Government) into doubt again. While seeking to project a cuddly image by maintaining the overall aid budget, the Conservatives have sought to attack Labour over the content – what that aid will buy. And this morning’s statement has backfired, precisely by making it look like the Conservatives will spend that aid money on things most people don’t think are appropriate.