Picking up the pieces of the UK’s conflict and development policy

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Oliver Walton and Andrew Johnstone discuss how UK conflict and development policy since 2015 has become more fragmented and explore the wider implications of this case for the security-development nexus.

International development policy in UK, long seen as a relatively stable area of cross-party consensus, has grown more contested since Brexit. The last 7 years have been marked by deep cuts to the aid budget, a concerted effort to repurpose aid to bolster the UK’s national interests, and the loss of a standalone Department for International Development.

The International Development White paper, signed off by the new Foreign Secretary David Cameron last month, showed signs of a return to the pre-Brexit consensus: poverty reduction was once again at the forefront of UK policy and there was renewed support for working through multilateral institutions.

The White paper also signalled an effort to rehabilitate the UK’s status as a global leader in providing aid to fragile and conflict states. The need to tackle conflict and fragility were restored to key development priorities, albeit in a crowded agenda that also highlighted mobilising private capital, reforming the international system, human rights, digital innovation, and working with civil society.

In new research, published in Peacebuilding (read the full Open access article here), we examine what has happened to UK conflict, security, and development policy between 2015 and 2022.

From the late 1990s, security became central to the development strategy of the UK and other western donors. This close relationship (which became known as the security-development nexus) was articulated in broad terms – development depended on security, while security (both of those in the Global South and in the UK) was not possible without development.

This approach continued into the years of coalition government (2010 and 2015) and became even more firmly embedded in the pre-Brexit days of Conservative rule when David Cameron committed to spending 50% of the UK’s aid budget on fragile and conflict-affected states.

There have been three key changes since Brexit. First, the links between security and development became less prominent and less central to the UK’s overarching development rationale. Whereas tackling conflict was a headline goal of previous aid strategies, after 2016, it became subsumed under a range of other goals such as responding to humanitarian crises or promoting open societies.

Second, where these links were made, they became more fragmented and scattered and tied to a growing range of ‘new generation’ security threats including digital technologies, climate change, and pandemics.

Third, a declining proportion of aid was spent in fragile and conflict-affected states (down from 27% in 2016 to 16% in 2021), and a diminishing share allocated to ‘conflict, peace and security’ activities (down 22% between 2016 and 2020). Within this conflict and peace spending, there was a shift away from softer civilian peacebuilding activities towards harder security management work. Over a similar period, the proportion of UK aid spent on humanitarian aid in fragile and conflict-affected contexts has increased from 14% to 35%. The biggest growth sector in UK aid spending has been support for refugees in the UK (mostly in response to the Ukraine crisis). In 2022 this sector increased from 9% to 29% of total UK aid spending, which saw a sharp rise in the proportion of aid spent by non-FCDO departments (from 28% in 2021 to 40% in 2022).

What explains these changes? In part, the more fragmented approach is an outcome of the volatility of UK politics over this period. Brexit then COVID sucked attention. High political turbulence undermined efforts to build coherent strategy, with new ministers tearing up previous strategies or introducing new areas of focus without any clear re-ordering of priorities or rationalisation. Government commitment to development also nosedived during this period - Boris Johnson characterised development aid as a ‘giant cashpoint in the sky’, abandoned the 0.7% of GDP commitment, and folded DFID into a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office.

While changes in security and development policy after Brexit reflect the unusual turbulence of UK policy, they are not purely a UK phenomenon. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all merged their development offices with foreign affairs, and the securitisation of foreign aid has been a consistent feature of western aid approaches since 2001. A focus on resilience and a more complex interpretation of the connections between security and development has also become more apparent in key international policy documents over recent years, as exemplified by the UNDP’s 2022 Special Report on Human Security.

Do these shifts signal the end of the security-development nexus as some have argued? We see the picture as more mixed and argue that the nexus has experienced a process of fragmentation rather than collapse. Our findings resonate with the wider literature on the nexus, which has emphasised its adaptability and tendency to track wider geopolitical trends.  We argue that the mechanistic version of the security-development nexus that emerged in the late 1990s and persisted until 2015 in UK policy is easier to maintain in a relatively stable global political terrain where there is strong and sustained domestic commitment to development issues. Conversely, a more fragmented version is likely to arise at times when the global security terrain becomes more crowded, competitive, and complex, and when domestic political or economic pressures undermine government commitment to development issues.

Although we describe a broad de-prioritisation of the nexus within UK policy, continued progress has been made since 2015 in areas such as atrocity prevention, driven by successful advocacy by specialist NGOs and alliances with individual politicians.  This highlights the contested nature of the security and development policy space and suggests that islands of effectiveness may be quickly revived under a more supportive future government.

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