Doing extraordinary good on the world stage?

On 1 February, the Myanmar military overthrew the elected government. By 1 May, the British government had cut millions of pounds of already committed aid, ending live programmes, including projects supporting people in Myanmar to resolve conflicts without violence and achieve peaceful change. 

In its much heralded, and much delayed, Civil Society Partnership Review published in November 2016 then Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, stated that, ‘Britain’s civil society organisations (CSOs) do extraordinary good around the world. From delivering life-saving assistance when disaster strikes, to addressing the underlying causes of deprivation, our CSOs are on the front line of the battle against extreme poverty. The Government will give them our strongest support.’ Patel declared that ‘together we will build a post-Brexit Britain that is generous, outward-looking and fully engaged on the world stage’. 

The Review put the final nail in the coffin of unrestricted funding, that is, funding that charities can spend on whatever they need to spend money on. Instead, Patel launched four new flagship funds: UK Aid Match (matching private donations), UK Aid Direct (grants for small and medium CSOs), UK Aid Connect (supporting innovative collaborative approaches to challenges in development) and UK Aid Volunteers (supporting global volunteering). Last week, the UK government cut rounds four and five of its UK Aid Direct and all of its UK Aid Connect funding. In the middle of implementation, of programmes that have taken months and years to develop. 

These cuts have come just weeks after the launch of the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in which the Prime Minister sets out his vision for how the UK will continue to be a ‘a force for good’ in the world. They also come at a time of increased violent conflict, a global pandemic that is pushing healthcare systems in poor, fragile and conflict-affected countries to the brink, mass global displacement, closing civil society space and a return to nationalism and authoritarian regimes. 

The Myanmar coup is a very worrying example of this return to authoritarian dictatorship, in a country that had been edging, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, towards a more open, democratic, and potentially peaceful relationship between citizens and the state. The reaction to the coup from a huge swathe of the Myanmar population – civil servants, bankers, nurses, teachers, transport workers and tax collectors – was remarkable, creative, and primarily peaceful. Young people, particularly, who had seen their lives transformed over the last decade, have shown incredible tenacity in desperately fighting – mostly non-violently – to keep hold of that transformation.

They have lamented that the Myanmar military has ‘stolen their futures’. Yet the Myanmar military is not the only government taking away hope.

The recent cuts to UK Aid have included cuts to UK organisations supporting peacebuilding in Myanmar. Peacebuilding mostly involves talking to people. I worry sometimes that as an approach it can appear a bit mysterious. But at its core, it’s about helping people recognise that their ends are not going to be achieved by killing other people, and helping them to start – and continue – talking. It’s slow. It’s messy. It often doesn’t work immediately, or not in a linear fashion. But it does work. By ‘work’, I mean it leads to shifts of power, and an end to violence. A lot of peacebuilding – most perhaps – is done quietly by people in places where conflict rages, taking their own initiative to make talking happen. But some peacebuilding needs organised support, external expertise, to move from aspirations to a handshake, to people meeting others who have killed their relatives and friends. And that takes people, time and money.  

At International Alert we not only support dialogue between people in times of crisis in order to achieve stability and the absence of violence, but also support communities to create the conditions for what we call ‘positive peace’: addressing the causes of conflict which led to the eruption of violence in the first place. This means working for improvements in, and fair access to, jobs, justice, health, education and ‘governance’: making sure people have a say in the decisions that affect them. In Myanmar in recent years, we have worked with local people and those in power to reduce conflict over how natural resources are managed (forest, land, water) and how the wealth from these resources is shared, seeking to end the financing of armed violence through weapons purchases or funding the operations of armed actors. Even now, as the people of Myanmar adjust to the drastic political changes, we are working with people to explore how social expectations of men can be used and manipulated to encouraged them to take violent action – and how to reframe those expectations, and reduce violence as a result. 

The UK government’s devastating cut to funding for conflict reduction comes only six weeks after the Integrated Review commitment to support conflict resolution and focus on addressing the drivers of conflict and instability, and work to reduce poverty. This is incredibly worrying for our sector. But that, combined with the decimation of funding for health, for free media, for girls’ education, bodes very ill for positive peace in the world. On Thursday, the BBC shared the news that two thirds of CARE International’s funding for food, job training and protection for people inside Syria has been cut. People inside Syria. Inside Syria. At International Alert, our Syria programme works with Syrians from outside the country because it’s not viable – the peace is too fragile – for us to operate inside. And now some of the few organisations who have been able to support Syrians, in Syria, with aid have had that stripped away. People will lose their livelihoods, and some (many?) their lives, as a result. 

And we know, don’t we, that no-one is safe until we’re all safe? That’s not only a pro-vaccine slogan (and I wear my badge with pride); it’s a fundamental tenet of world peace.  

As Biden prepares to mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, by withdrawing troops from fighting a war in the country that hosted the architects of 9/11, we should remember this. We should recognise that this 20-year war has not brought positive peace to Afghanistan, it has not addressed or resolved the underpinning reasons that people have been fighting. I do not feel safer for that 20-year war. I feel a lot less safe knowing that people who are most hard hit by the events of 2020 and 2021 – the pandemic, the Myanmar coup – have just lost some of the fluttering remnants of hope, of international connections, of solidarity, of commitment to work collectively to stop people killing each other. 

Dominic Raab has committed Great Britain to being a force for good in the world. The cuts revealed in the last week of April were one large step back in the journey towards that aim. But the British government, and its G7 peers, have a chance to take two steps forwards, as they meet this summer, mask-to-mask, for the first time in two years. We hope that they will take steps towards assuring the futures of people living in Myanmar, Syria and Afghanistan, perhaps by reinforcing conflict prevention funding, or at the very least ensuring that the aid that remains, after the cuts, fuels peace rather than increases conflict. That would be extraordinarily good.