Co-ordinating defence and development is essential for conflict prevention

February 3, 2013 11:00 am

The most effective defence policy is not always a new piece of military hardware – it can be a world-class international development policy. Investment in education, democratic reform and viable economies can hinder the spread of conflict. The UK of course needs advanced Armed Forces to deter and defeat threats, but we must also base our defence posture on the knowledge that the careful prevention of development policy can be so much better than the painful cure of military action.

This is rooted in our experience that many of the drivers of the major threats we face are non-military.  Globalisation is fuelling a major re-distribution of economic and political influence. Demographic change is increasing pressure on, and possible conflict over, the world’s increasingly stretched natural resources. Weak and failing states outnumber strong states by two to one. The long-term security effects of climate change may range from exacerbated inter-state tensions and reinforced tendencies to state failure. In this context our security strategy must be comprehensive, encompassing developmental and diplomatic influence as much as defence.

The events of the Arab spring have shown us that political and economic factors can be drivers of conflict which could be abated through political and economic means prior to potential military action. Recent events in North and West Africa have also demonstrated the threat the international community – including British citizens and interests – faces from the region.  It is right that we take action to help defeat al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its associates, but lasting security will derive from political, administrative, civic and social development.  As long as the conditions that fuel militancy, such as tribalism, weak governance, poverty and lawlessness remain, so does the threat.

Consider that in North Africa unemployment rates are higher than almost anywhere else in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest number of people living on less than $1 a day. In Niger and Mali adult literacy is less than 30%.  If the ‘ark of instability’ across Africa is to become an ‘ark of prosperity’, it is these issues which will need to be confronted. None of this can ever be an excuse for terrorism but they do add to the sense of grievance.

There are four important principles which a comprehensive defence strategy, encompassing development and focusing on advanced conflict prevention, should follow.

First, for those countries with whom we have a working relationship, or whose failure threatens international security, we must be in the business of proactive capacity building, not in a way that leaves Western-created administrations dependent on overseas aid, but by enabling effective national and local governance, frameworks for civil justice, the functioning rule of law and a legitimate civil police. This is not nation building, but creating the conditions that will allow populations to build their own futures.

Second, the post conflict peace plan must be a core part of the pre-conflict battle plan. It is widely acknowledged that this was one of the flaws of the initial intervention in Iraq. In Afghanistan, there was much better integration at the level of planning, but the execution was still flawed. Stabilisation and support for the most basic state functions will continue to be an essential part any successful intervention, and this requires civilian and military to work better together – but both are essential. Stability will be based as much on the extent to which we support systems which empower people on a lasting basis as it will military action.

A third principle must be targeted funding. It is right that 30% of Overseas Development Assistance is directed to support fragile and conflict-afflicted states. It is important, however, to examine where funding from across government is focused. The IPPR, for example, identified in its Independent Commission on National Security an ‘Arc of Instability’ of 27 states, from Guinea to Pakistan, Somalia and Malawi, each of which had characteristics which put it at high risk of armed conflict, fragility or failure. It is worth considering the funding choices and strategies for these states and issues such as the distribution of the Conflict Pool, as well as ensuring we have the best possible methods of threat assessment so we can predict potential unrest.

Finally, as seen in Libya, Afghanistan and now Mali, regional engagement is a critical element to conflict resolution. Not only do all nations have a direct economic, security and cultural interest in stability within their area but they also have greater potential leverage and influence.  It is important, therefore, to examine how existing regional bodies such as the African Union can be strengthened and where new bodies could be beneficial.  We should also look at how governments can better support and learn from NGOs, whose on-the-ground knowledge and lived experience – whether understanding languages and customs or knowing where power lies in a particular community – would be invaluable in preventative defence policy.

Our recent history has taught us clearly that the use of the military instrument needs to be coupled with developmental and diplomatic tools, both in pre-conflict planning and to achieve any post-conflict settlement. Soft power tools can be hugely important in supporting Britain’s national interest overseas and are the basis of many vital and historic cultural ties.  Defence and development strategies play different and importantly distinct roles, and that must continue with the militarisation of aid avoided, but it is essential to explore how they can be coordinated and sit as part of wider, joined-up international policy.

Jim Murphy is the Shadow Defence Secretary. This post is part of International Development weekend on LabourList – you can join the debate on these issues at YourBritain

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