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Conflict and insecurity: opportunities and risks in UK policy changes

The last two weeks have seen significant developments in relation to the UK government’s response to conflict and insecurity across the world.

As the Bond Conflict Policy Group (CPG), we want to share some responses to these developments, as well as identify opportunities, risks and key issues that require further attention.

The UK has for some time championed addressing the challenges facing conflict-affected and fragile states, having committed to spend 50% of the aid budget on such countries. The recently published National Security Capability Review (NSCR), and Penny Mordaunt’s recent speech setting out her vision for UK aid, suggest that tackling these challenges is a growing priority for the UK government.

A cross-governmental approach

A “whole-of-government” approach, involving drawing on the capabilities of all departments and other UK institutions is very much the central slogan for this effort, as expressed by the NSCR’s “fusion” doctrine and Penny Mordaunt’s emphasis on “partnerships”. This approach isn’t new, but it seems that the government is preparing to deepen its emphasis on it.

It is also clear that international development has managed to elbow its way onto the national security community’s agenda. The NSCR included a chapter on development, which emphasised that DFID programmes “will be targeted more acutely on the underlying drivers of fragility, conflict and instability” and signals that DFID is likely to come increasingly under the direction of the National Security Council (NSC) in the future.

Entrenching a whole-of-government approach to conflict and insecurity, and DFID’s closer engagement with the NSC, together pose both challenges and opportunities. The opportunities are that development concerns may achieve more purchase in securing the cross-government action to tackle conflict across the world. For example, it may help to avoid the emergence of damaging and counter-productive policies, such as the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia to support its military efforts in Yemen.

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However, there are risks in this agenda as well. As a group, we have been prominent in calling for the government to ensure that the UK aid budget is not diverted towards delivering narrow and short-term national security interests, but instead promotes human security and tackles the dynamics of conflict sensitively and sustainably.

Conflict Stability and Security Fund

The recently published independent review of the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) Рwith an annual budget of £1.2 billion overseen by the NSC – provides a valuable test of the degree to which some of these risks may be emerging. From a positive perspective, the review found that the CSSF is a flexible and responsive instrument, its programmes are well-informed on conflict dynamics, and its programming is able to adapt and stay relevant in volatile contexts.

However, four of its findings also suggest that this fund is not yet adequately serving development goals.

  1. The review highlighted that the CSSF is yet to develop clear and robust theories of change for how its programmes will tackle conflict. Monitoring and evaluation systems to test its efforts to promote stability and peace are not yet in place.
  2. It highlighted risk assessments intended to protect human rights (e.g. when working with security services overseas) were found to have limited influence over programme design.
  3. It reported that the CSSF is funding ineffective quick impact projects and being used to leverage diplomatic access – a questionable focus from the perspective of eligibility for reporting as aid.
  4. It found that the CSSF is doing little to address marginalisation and exclusion, which are known to be key drivers of conflict.

It is welcome that the government’s own review of the governance and management of the NSC’s aid funds (CSSF and Prosperity Fund), which accompanied the NSCR, commits the government to steps that may help to address some of these issues. It stated, amongst other things, that the government will “build frontline programme management and advisory capability within departments, including maximising the use of DFID expertise”.

Such action could help to address the CSSF’s core challenges, as would addressing Independent Commission for Aid Impact recommendations related to deal with gaps in results management, strengthening theories of change and ensuring programmes “do no harm”.

However, the NSCR and Penny Mordaunt’s speech also raised additional concerns relating to the closer alignment between development aid and domestic security interests (the so-called ‘securitisation’ of aid). In addressing the development agenda, the NSCR failed to mention DFID’s Building Stability Framework and the UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security 2018-2022, both of which are vital to pursuing a development-oriented approach.

Also, Penny Mordaunt stated that DFID will “create new country-level programming targeted at specific communities and locations vulnerable to extremism and organised crime”, which may lead to a range of long term problems including poor but stable communities and regions losing support from UK aid.

As a group of agencies working together to reduce conflict and promote development and peace-building, we recognise that securing sustainable progress in these areas is a major challenge. We are eager to work with the government to develop more effective responses. Such collaboration requires however considerably more transparency in the operations of the NSC and the CSSF, as well as flexibility in working outside of government with partners.

Analyse, debate and share experiences of UK policy on conflict and security by joining the Bond Conflict Policy Group.