'Militarising aid' vs. 'Running away from conflict': The future of aid

The battle lines are starting to be drawn over how development assistance and peacebuilding do or don’t support each other, or can or can’t be made to work together, and about whether bad governance and insecurity are the right targets for international development policy and assistance.

A defence of the pure poverty-reduction-equals-development position comes from the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting with a critique of what she and some of the big development NGOs call 'the militarisation of aid'.

Bunting makes some good points about the risk of our overseas development assistance effectively subsidising military spending. But even better and bigger points lie in the inability of traditional social projects to reduce inequality unless as much attention is given to assisting countries to build peace and develop stable and responsible governance.

All political parties are fundamentally revising the generally accepted approach to poverty alleviation. This is welcome. Bunting states that the resources that now get dedicated to tackling bad governance were "not quite what Make Poverty History campaigners in 2005 were trying to achieve". True. But what campaigners were trying to achieve was the ending of gross inequality. Where the campaigners went wrong was by not presenting the full picture of why that inequality persisted. They focused on trade and debt to the exclusion of peace and justice.

The debate now needed is how to deliver non-military assistance that reduces the threat of insecurity. The idea that the only way to respond to the threat of insecurity is by action within the security sphere is self-defeatingly narrow. But running away from the words 'security', 'conflict' and 'politics', as some NGOs were trying to do, is even less productive.

This is a debate about the fundamentals of an important component of international policy. It is not just about development and conflict but about development and politics. The UK Department for International Development is discussing it now and drawing up a new policy paper; Norway’s NORAD is working out how to put last year’s development white paper into practice; there will be a Wilton Park conference on it in March; western donors as a group are discussing it through the OECD’s International Network on Conflict and Fragility.

The UK is a surprisingly influential player in this field because the Department for International Development is not only relatively big, but is also very active in international debates. As the debate here warms up, it will be very worthwhile to monitor which way the policy winds are blowing in London.