Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Hospitals, not helicopter gunships

Patricia d'Ardenne, recently returned from working with an NGO in Rwanda, suggests why Cameron's recent proposal to spend money from the aid budget on military intervention isn't such a good idea.

The PM went on tour recently, to promote 'democracy', photographed with representatives of eight UK arms manufacturers. Cameron often finds time for foreign visits with an arms exports agenda. He has been to India, Egypt and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. His salesmanship is unashamed. ‘Defence', 'Security' and 'Peace keeping' are his favourite mantras. 'Ministry for War,' 'Armaments Deals', or 'Gun running', perhaps, might not have the same cachet.

The UK spends £6.7bn per annum on overseas Aid - a figure that 70% of the public- and many more Tories, believe should be cut. Set against that, Britain remains the fourth-biggest military spender in the world– currently £34bn a year. But the very scale of that spending – makes it a target for austerity measures.

So the Coalition has dreamt up a brilliant plan to appear to be boosting military spending and cutting Aid. It proposes Aid money be used for military purposes, i.e. millions of pounds diverted to 'peacekeeping defence operations' (military activity).

If Defence is under threat, what better way of rescuing it than ennobling it as a contribution to Aid? Implicit is the idea that the UK has 'security responsibilities' for 'mending' conflict states around the world. This formula placates bellicose Tories who never want to cut defence (however large, opaque and ineffective) nor increase Aid, (however modest, transparent or successful).

How did this proposal, opposed by almost every UK Aid Agency and others, come about? This Government wants the Department for International Development (DFID) on a tighter rein. To quote Cameron, "What is very healthy about this government is that DFID is no longer seen as... a sort of giant NGO. It is very much part of the government on the national security council. DFID, the Foreign Office and the defence secretaries work incredibly closely together. If you are asking can they work even more closely together to make sure that the funds we have at our disposal are used to provide basic levels of security in deeply broken and fragile states, then yes, we should."

Working closely together, eh? Aid and Defence - become as one, allowing the culture, values, activities and spending style of one to be contaminated by the other. The definition of security responsibility is not made. The Coalition at this stage proposes only three areas of military intervention sanctioned within the Aid budget - security, demobilisation and peace keeping. Other, less salubrious activities continue unnoticed or hidden beneath the wider umbrella of national security.

Aid Budgets have completely transparent and accountable funding processes. Their budgets and governance are strictly regulated, and their activities apolitical, based on Human Rights' ethics and observed by global monitors. They have different goals and priorities, and joint working with Defence would obfuscate their mission.

The British Red Cross, said: ‘Agencies working in conflict need to be able to distance themselves from military objectives in order to be seen to be neutral'. All Aid workers in the field would be placed at even greater risk than they currently endure, if they were perceived by the host country as part of UK Defence policy. The chief executive of World Vision UK, said: “The British Government leads the way on good aid spending – and diverting more money to peacekeeping operations could put that in jeopardy.” The alleviation of poverty, the building of sustainable infrastructure, education and health promotion are distinct from military objectives.

CAFOD reported 'It is essential that the government sticks to the internationally-agreed definitions of what counts as overseas development assistance and the direction that is given by the International Development Act of 2002'. ...Any approach to supporting stability and security using aid money must be driven by development and poverty reduction not by national interests or politics, and abide by the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.'

Compare this to the traditions of defence, which are not visible, not accountable, and certainly not about humanity, impartiality or independence. This new approach means Aid cash could be used to pay for troop training in Mali, demobilisation in Afghanistan and providing assistance to rebel fighters in Syria. Under the guise of 'security' UK Defence policy has recently been accused of complicity in covert operations involving extreme rendition (torture) and training others to interrogate (torture). Defence policy has engaged the UK with many minor conflicts to justify our huge arms industry, which enjoys unparalleled access to Government, as a debatable 'creator of jobs'.

Let's keep these agendas separate, please.

*Max Lawson, Head of Policy, OXFAM, February 2013 BBC Radio 4