Military and security forces: the problems with the new international aid workers.

Recently changes have been made to what constitutes as foreign aid. In this article, Sam Wigglesworth questions if military and security spending should be incorporated within aid budgets.

The OECD has officially redefined what foreign aid means after the UK lobbied to be allowed to use overseas aid budgets to support the military and security forces in fragile countries “as long as this still promotes development goals.”

Additionally, the OECD has said that “tackling violent extremism [will be] formally recognized as a development activity”

This isn’t to say that tackling violent extremism shouldn’t be recognized as a development activity. Studies tell us that areas that suffer from poor social and economic development create an environment where violent extremism is more likely to flourish. The recent General Assembly meeting of the United Nations just echoed a similar opinion, hearing that “the deadly links between violent extremism and extreme poverty could be broken through the creation of jobs, a reduction in inequalities and by building just and inclusive societies.”  This all falls under the remit of development, or more officially, official development assistance (ODA) which is “government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of development”. However, the argument lies in whether the military and security forces are the most suitable institutions to be concerned with this goal.

Ultimately it’s a move that charities fear will lead to less cash being spent on directly alleviating poverty and instead give nation’s carte blanche use these funds to serve their own “domestic and foreign policies” reducing the capacity of development assistance to promote economic development. It is a reality that may fearfully come to pass, as the long history of foreign military involvement in a sovereign nation has rarely helped to promote any real economic or social development in a fragile state, arguably because this isn’t what a military is for. It serves a purpose, often one involving the protection of national interest which rarely serves the interest of another state, regardless of the somewhat aspirational names given to military interventions (Operation Uphold Democracy and Operation Peace for Galilee to name but two).

DFID - UK Department for International Development / Creative Commons License

DFID – UK Department for International Development / Creative Commons License


Additionally, there is the argument to be made that the increasing use of drone warfare and airstrikes in military operations, one of Obama’s lesser accomplishments, makes the institutions who partake in this type of warfare as wholly unsuitable to be aligned with any sort of realistic development goals. While the establishments justifying these operations argue that this new type of warfare is highly effective, with the ability to target select “individuals, automobiles and sections of structures such as rooms in a large house” with minimal harm to non-combatants, this evidence is optimistic at best, according to articles and data compiled by news organizations such as the Huffington Post and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Moreover, the CIA itself has acknowledged that drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of terrorist and insurgent leaders can in fact “strengthen extremist groups and be counterproductive.” Additionally, this type of warfare has made it increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups to operate, given the ambiguous status of armed drones under international law and the classified nature of their operations. By this logic, the military and security forces are barely the best solution to tackle the terrorist threat, let alone as the institutions most likely to promote economic development in a fragile state.

Furthermore, the problem of granting security forces and military of a foreign state by virtue of their sole presence in a sovereign nation can often undermine any confidence citizens have in their own government, yet again limiting their capacity for achieving economic growth. While often inefficiency and corruption plague fragile states government bodies, the reality is strong governance and institutions are vital to ensuring development aid. If these mechanisms were strengthened instead of undermined, overseas development assistance could be used more effectively. Additionally, in fragile states, a country is less likely to become a breeding ground for destabilizing terrorist activities. Should there be overt interference by a foreign military body, any possibility of achieving stronger governmental institutions is destabilized and legitimacy is lost. Either the more liberal factions were unable to stop the foreign forces entering their sovereign borders or it was implicitly allowed.

DFID - UK Department for International Development / Creative Commons License

DFID – UK Department for International Development / Creative Commons License


The probability of the military and security forces impacting a specific demographic also makes them unsuitable to be concerned with economic empowerment in fragile states. Women and girls are acknowledged to be “uniquely and disproportionately affected by armed conflict’ and this sentiment was echoed famously by Major General Patrick Cammaert who stated: “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars.” This reality makes post-conflict reconstruction and development in fragile states difficult and reduces the capacity for women to drive forward peace initiatives that can promote development, peace and security. The United Nations recently undertook three peace reviews which reflected the “indisputable” evidence of the impact of women’s participation and leadership on the “increased effectiveness of humanitarian assistance and likelihood of sustainable peace.” However, if we are diverting funds to the very institutions that can play a massive role in limiting the development of women’s work in post-conflict reconstruction, we undermine a sector of the population who can drive forward peace in fragile states and encourage economic investment and development.

Yet the establishment institutions fail to give any evidence contrary to their own the proper recognition, and yet again, as it always inevitably does, the focus shifts to more military and security minded resolutions to achieve development goals. Ultimately, this makes the reality of achieving any sort of real progress with regards to poverty reduction and economic growth minimal. Instead, it’s far more likely we are condemned to spend a few more years chasing our collective tails, trying to work out why, for all our resolutions and commitments, development progress remains static and foreign policy as intrusive as ever.


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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