Handle with care

Rethinking defence, diplomacy and development offers opportunities and challenges for a humanitarian

Efforts to tackle poverty and promote human rights in developing countries face few greater challenges than those to end violent conflict and political instability. As well as bringing death, injury and displacement, war destroys economies and creates political and social tensions that take generations to heal. Not surprisingly, most of the countries lagging behind in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals in the areas of health, education and hunger are affected by conflict. So it is right and proper that the British government places conflict at the heart of its foreign policy and aid budget. But what should this look like?

Aid agencies such as Care International, with the generous support of individuals, foundations, the private sector and government in Britain, work to save lives in times of war and support livelihoods, reconciliation, human rights and development in countries emerging from conflict. More can be done to foster synergies between diplomacy, security and aid. But such reforms must be sensitive to the risks involved for humanitarian agencies on the ground.

Strategic reviews

Welcome opportunities to address the challenges of humanitarian agen­cies are being provided in the forthcoming "Building Stability Over­seas" strategy, to be published next spring, and UK aid­reviews, as the government conducts major studies of British defence, diplomacy and development policy. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was recently published, and reviews of UK aid are ongoing.

While more detail will be determined in the strategy, a significant emphasis of the SDSR lies in promoting the concept of "stabilisation" and seeking ways to strengthen coordination across government departments, in particular the Ministry of Def­ence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID). This includes bolstering the government's "Stabilisation Unit" and ­­dev­eloping new integrated str­a­tegies for specific countries. Coherence of gov­ernment policy is an obvious and legitimate goal. But, of course, coherence of policy is not an end in itself.

Defence and diplomacy

Care International works in more than 70 countries around the world, and our staff witness the problems that can arise when coordination is weak. For example, efforts to prevent or respond to sexual violence in conflict have long been hampered by disconnects between humanitarians, peacekeepers, dip­lomats and justice experts. The UK is playing a leading role in securing UN reforms to fix these gaps. Recent steps include the establishment of new UN leadership to tackle rape in war and efforts to create a new UN monitoring and reporting mechanism on sexual violence.

Aid agencies are often the main international presence in conflict-affected ­regions of countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Without their engagement, early warning and preventative action by diplomats and peacekeepers is impossible. Likewise, longer-term efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of such violence cannot happen without sustained assistance for survivors of rape. Yet strengthening information-sharing between aid agencies, the military and diplomats is also sensitive. There are risks of repercussions for both our staff and the local communities who provide such information. So coordination is important, but it must be ­organised cautiously.

Better co-ordination can also help countries emerging from war. International attention often centres on the peacekeeping dimension and negotiation of a peace settlement at the highest levels. Agencies such as Care International do not dispute the fact that peace deals obviously require the assent of the fighting parties. However, peace processes require a political settlement, typically negotiated at the level of elites, to be gradually extended outwards. Too often, opportunities are missed to connect reconcil­iation efforts by communities and civil ­society organisations in the most conflict-affected parts of the country to political processes at the national level. Donor support to central government and security forces can be complemented by support for democratic checks and ­balances, including a healthy involvement of community representatives in holding those institutions to account. The British government has led critical thinking here, and this can be built on in the UK aid reviews.

Military-aid nexus

Military forces can make important contributions to disaster relief, for example, the assistance provided in Haiti for route clearance and airlift of goods. However, aid agencies need to adopt a cautious approach as perceptions that aid is "militarised" or partial can undermine the safety of our staff and beneficiaries. Some suggest that aid should be integrated into a so-called "comprehensive approach" to counterinsurgency. In Afghanistan, Nato and coalition forces have sought to use aid to "win hearts and minds" in their campaign against the Taliban. The idea is that aid can win allegiance, or at least buy short-term force protection and intelligence from local populations.

Yet recent studies point to an increasing scepticism over the efficacy of aid as a tool for counterinsurgency. Research by Care International and the World Bank found that, in areas experiencing ongoing violence, schools built or funded by military operations are at heightened risk of being ­targeted by ­insurgents. Nato increasingly acknowledges these challenges and seeks to address them. Many in the armed forces also recognise the need for better dialogue between the military and aid agencies, respecting their distinct comparative advantages and mitigating against the risks involved. The government can draw on these lessons in the "Building Stability Overseas" strategy.

Clear lessons for UK aid

Especially in situations of violent conflict, delivering aid is an immensely complex and sensitive task. Any perception that aid is manipulated by outside security ­interests can compromise the safety of implementing agencies, such as Care, our national partner organisations and the ­intended beneficiaries.

There are clear ­lessons here for UK aid. The civilian character and development specialisation of DfID and its staff play important roles in the safe and effective management of UK aid. Co-ordination between DfID, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Def­ence can be framed in ways that are sensitive to its implications for how UK aid is perceived on the ground. The "Building Stability Overseas" strategy and UK aid reviews are ­opportunities to invest in more effective dialogue and co-ordination between the military, diplomats and aid agencies, recognising the risks involved. And British policy needs to balance the short-term imperatives of "stabilisation" with longer-term and sustainable efforts in order to consolidate peace. l

Geoffrey Dennis is chief executive of Care International UK; Howard Mollett is Care International UK's conflict adviser

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle