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Support For David Cameron’s Plans to Use the Aid Budget For Military Expenditure

Aid agencies doubts are misguided.

Jonathan Foreman has welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to consider shifting some of Britain’s ring-fenced aid budget to the military, as proposed in his book Aiding and Abetting (Civitas 2013 – below).

It represents a much-needed commitment to greater efficiency in the use of the aid budget at a time when the public is understandably less tolerant of waste. (As Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has pointed out, DfID has had difficulties in running its existing budget and monitoring its aid for “appalling waste” and corruption.) It also indicates a new, more realistic sense of what aid can and cannot achieve, and of the need for aid to be congruent with British national interests.

The shift of a percentage of the UK aid budget to Britain’s cash-strapped military will enable Britain’s forces to be far more effective in the humanitarian activities that they have a long history of carrying out – including mass evacuations and rescues. And it is hard to think of a more efficient use of public money than the purchase of “dual-use” heavy lift aircraft and helicopters that can be used for both peacetime humanitarian operations and military missions. Few humanitarian operations in recent years have been effective as the US Navy’s response to the Asian Tsunami of 2004.

Humanitarian and emergency aid is the kind of aid does the most good, offers the most value for money and is the least likely to do actual harm, as opposed to development aid. The latter, which takes up more than 9 tenths of the UK’s aid budget is the most prone to misuse and corruption on the part of recipient national and local governments.

The use of the military in humanitarian interventions to bring about peace and stability is also one of the most effective forms of aid, and one that, done properly, removes the causes of famine, disease and extreme poverty. This is because stability and peace are a vital precondition to development, good governance and public health – not the other way round. Few actions by a British government in recent years have done more to cure poverty, disease and underdevelopment as the UK’s intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000. It therefore makes sense for interventions like that in Mali, with a strong humanitarian component, to be funded in part by the UK’s aid budget.

Much aid industry opposition to such military humanitarian intervention seems to be ideologically based or to derive from the financial interest that aid agencies and workers have in un-ending and endemic crises. Those who instinctively condemn the shift proposed by David Cameron should ask themselves if they are merely defending their revenue stream rather than seeking the most effective ways to help the peoples they profess to care about.

Aid agencies would not be endangered

As for the reflexive claim that the use of the military to provide vital humanitarian and emergency aid will somehow endanger the lives of “neutral” aid workers, this has not been born out by experience. When US Navy helicopters brought life-saving food and supplies to isolated Indonesian villages wrecked by the Tsunami and Kashmiri villages wrecked by the 2005 earthquake, they won only gratitude.

And in places like Afghanistan, western aid workers are already under threat because they are foreigners, because they employ uncovered women, and because their projects often in support of ideals – like girls education and rights for children – that radically opposed by the Taliban side in the conflict. Most aid there and elsewhere is not in fact analogous to the very specific neutral work done by the International Red Cross, and few locals in places like Afghanistan are under any illusion that aid is “neutral”.

The notion that most aid projects are neutral is disingenuous. It has undermined the effectiveness of the Western aid industry. It is after all no secret that big aid agencies like Oxfam have on many occasions paid “taxes” to various rebel and bandit groups around the world in order to carry out their work, and therefore subsidized conflict and oppression, while the refugee camps they have run in places like Goma and Eastern Chad were allowed to become bases for refugee warriors and militia raids. Most aid is inherently political – Islamist extremists fund their own aid projects in many parts of the world as part of their battle to win hearts and minds – and it is the pretence that aid can avoid politics that often endangers aid workers.

Properly trained military personnel often do a better job

It is also worth noting that in many chaotic conflict zones, aid work can be so inherently dangerous that civilian aid workers are prevented by health and safety rules from carrying out tasks vital to vulnerable populations. (As pointed out in Aiding and Abetting DfID activities in Afghanistan have been severely compromised in this way.) It therefore can make more sense to have properly trained military personnel carry out certain humanitarian missions than civilian counterparts who cannot assure their own security.


Aiding and Abetting

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