Development aid and tackling austerity: exploring new COIN strategies for the future

In this article, Sam Griffith argues that exploring the potential of effective development aid overseas and tackling anger over austerity policies in the UK, offer distinct opportunities for tackling terrorism, in a debate that, at times, overwhelmingly revolves around undermining civil liberties.

In June, days before the general election, Prime Minister May spoke out against terrorism, stating that there was too much tolerance in British society towards extremism, noting that things had to change. Her speech was given after three men drove a van into people on London Bridge and within the wider context of two earlier attacks on Britain in the previous three months. She highlighted the importance of measures designed to stop extremists from recruiting online, changes to sentences and a crackdown on safe spaces for extremist attitudes. The logic behind such strategies is clear, albeit concerning for what it means for civil liberties.

However, this is standard practice for counter-terrorism. Just look to the civil liberties impositions inflicted by the likes of the Patriot Act or the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. However, approaches to development arguably offer different and perhaps more efficient ways to tackle modern-day terrorism in ways that don’t undermine civil liberties. Yet, as May’s speech demonstrates, it isn’t a traditional approach to counter-terrorism, either abroad or at home. However, given the reality that the London Bridge attacker, for example, was a British national, alongside recent estimations reveal that 850 people from the UK have gone to fight for jihadist organisations, new approaches that focus on understanding how almost ten years of austerity policies have hurt and left behind the most vulnerable in society and look to address the grievances of people before distrust and hatred towards society takes hold, offers a different and perhaps more effective approach to tackling terrorism.

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The economic argument for investment in the form of development aid makes sense at an intuitive level. Hatred in societies often grows out of anger, which is born from frustration which develops most easily under conditions of poverty and deprivation. Despite UK foreign aid increasing from £12.1 billion to £13.3 billion, with the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon) receiving 40.8% of all of DFID’s region-specific bilateral ODA in 2016, it seems as though the ability for economic aid to combat foreign terrorism is limited.

There is a counter argument which revolves around the limitations of foreign aid provided by developed countries. Foreign aid doesn’t always get where it is needed most, as usually these societies are governed by corrupt dictatorships. This was the case in Turkey when widespread corruption meant humanitarian aid wasn’t getting into Syria. The problem seems to be that of governance rather than any inherent limitations to the logic of economic development aid.

However, a study by Brookings notes that the issue perhaps isn’t the role of aid at all. Economic development, while an important goal for countries struggling with poverty, can often increase inequality within a country. This role of inequality instead of poverty offers an initial explanation and suggestions for how to tackle terrorism not just abroad but at home.

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It is possible to criticise both May’s government and those that came before it for doing little to tackle the reasons why young people are radicalised. A situation over the last 7 years has occurred, shaped in part by the financial crisis and the implementation of austerity measures which has historically meant that young people particularly are worse off. This was the case in the UK when an analysis of official figures in 2015 found that young people (between 16-24) were three times more likely to be unemployed.

The Conservative strategy seems to echo that of the so-called American Dream, to tell young people they can achieve anything while simultaneously making it more difficult for them to get a university education or buy a house. This has led to mass disenfranchisement with the political system, which has been shown to be a factor that allows for extremism to take root. Problems regarding the integration of ethnic minorities into British society, notably demonstrated by the failings of the PREVENT programme which helped fuel distrust in Muslim communities.

While it’s impossible to say outright what the appeal is for those joining terrorist organisations, the relationship between economic inequality and the potential attraction of terrorist organisations seems more plausible when it is considered that the UK has a particularly high level of income inequality. The Equality Trust notes that the top 10% of the population have nine times that of the bottom 10% when it comes to disposable incomes.

Solutions for combating terrorism should be comprehensive and all avenues for tackling both foreign and home based terrorism should be explored. The debate about effective development aid should be discussed, not just because of what it means with regards to poverty reduction, but because investment in governance and civil society could be an effective tool at reducing the likelihood of extremism developing in the first place.

Feature Image: Tiocfaidh |Flickr


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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