UK’s role overseas: Building stability, one brick at a time

Earlier this year a new guidance document was finalised outlining five building blocks and five shifts for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and its work on building stability in fragile states and societies.

The document, titled the Building Stability Framework, on which International Alert has played an advisory role, has not yet received much publicity - but we think it should: it has much to commend it, and we hope the new UK government to be formed after the June general election makes more of it.

It could also be useful for other governments and organisations - not least in this year when the UN is reviewing how it can improve its performance in building and sustaining peace.


In 2011, the then UK government published its Building stability overseas strategy (BSOS). This was much heralded, and was welcomed by International Alert and other peacebuilding organisations. We liked that it was cross-governmental, developed jointly by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID.

It was based on the premise that addressing instability and conflict overseas was both morally right and in the UK’s interest. It was holistic, in that it linked prevention, early warning and crisis response. And it was premised on a long-term notion of stability, or ‘positive peace’:

The stability we are seeking to support can be characterised in terms of political systems which are representative and legitimate, capable of managing conflict and change peacefully, and societies in which human rights and rule of law are respected, basic needs are met, security established and opportunities for social and economic development are open to all. This type of “structural stability”, which is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes.

It therefore clearly marked out its territory as that of progressive change: not the kind of stability which the UK had so long supported in places like Egypt under repressive autocrats, but the kind of stability more typical of liberal democracies.

Essentially, it supported what political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls “getting to Denmark”, or creating stable, peaceful, and inclusive societies. It might almost have been written by an NGO like ours, such was its ambition for the transformation of fragile societies. And therein, unfortunately, lay the seeds of its own fragility.

BSOS is still government policy, and was integrated into the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. But look a little closer and it is hard to see where the strategy is genuinely being implemented as it was written. There are two main reasons for this.

First, Whitehall - at the political level, at least - still interprets ‘stability’ in the old-fashioned way, as the lack of upheaval and violence, rather than in the way quoted above. And since “getting to Denmark” involves an immense amount of change, and thus a risk of upheaval and instability, at least in many policy-makers’ minds, BSOS is internally contradictory. Because transformation and their kind of stability are more frequently to be found on opposite ends of the spectrum, than nestled together.

And the second reason is that it was too difficult for most practitioners in the civil service to figure out how to support progress towards stability in practice. It is all very well to agree that Denmark is more stable than Somalia, but how does one navigate from the latter to former? And as we know only too well, it’s a journey that’s fundamentally non-linear and hard to plan or predict, especially within the short-term planning cycles with which the UK is cursed by its electoral cycle and bureaucratic habits.

Good news, therefore, that DFID, recognising this challenge, has been quietly developing new guidance over the past couple of years, which was approved by ministers earlier this year.

Five building blocks

The key difference between the BSF and BSOS, it seems to me, is that the former is less prescriptive, and written with a more practical application in mind - a short, easy to read document which offers a variety of examples where civil servants have opportunities to support improvements in stability, through instruments already to hand.

It thus tries to make building stability more practical, tangible and real, and crucially it recognises that progress is likely to be incremental at the best of times, and that there are always going to be setbacks along the way.

BSF sets out five building blocks - one might rather call them ‘colours’ that can be applied to enhance the picture of stability on the canvas before them. These are:

  • Fairer power structures;
  • More inclusive economic development;
  • Better mechanisms for resolving conflict;
  • More effective and legitimate institutions; and
  • A more supportive regional environment.

No wonder we like this at International Alert, as these are all areas on which we also work. And rather than seeing these as norms to be achieved come what may (though in a short-term project cycle), they are simply areas in which to try and make an incremental difference, where possible.

We feel the document might have gone further in some respects: we think ‘power distribution’ a more accurate label for the first building block; that global factors - including some on which the UK is quite influential, such as money laundering and climate change policy - could be more evident; that although this is much more down to earth than BSOS and other earlier policies, it still risks being misinterpreted as implying that DFID has more power to address ‘root causes’ of instability than it really has; and that limiting this policy to DFID, leaving out other departments, is a big gap.

But we also know that this enterprise of figuring out how a small island nation in western Europe can help increase stability elsewhere remains - quite rightly - a work in progress, and this document is a very useful step along the way.

Five shifts for DFID

With this same perspective in mind, the BSF ends with five pieces of advice for DFID - and by implication other UK government departments, and other international actors, we can assume - with which we wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, they form part of the advice Alert and others have been giving the UK government for years:

  • Put politics first: Make sure what you do is grounded in an understanding of politics and power.
  • Think and act beyond the state: Stability is influenced as much by society, and by external factors, as by the state.
  • Integrate stability throughout the DFID portfolio: Look for where you can have an impact on the five building blocks through any and all aid programmes - in humanitarian, health, education, livelihoods, infrastructure, business development, etc. - not only in the more obvious governance and peacebuilding programmes, important as those are.
  • Be flexible in your choice of instruments and approaches, and be explicit about the need to recognise a high level of investment risk in pursuing critical, yet hard-to-achieve and hard-to-predict results.
  • Pay more attention to staffing - get the right people in the right places, with the right partners and networks, don’t rotate staff so often, and thus base programming on a granular understanding of the realities on the ground.

The BSF does not make the mistake of providing a prescription: it is broad level guidance which aims for a balance of theory and practice.

We recommend it to other UK departments and other international agencies, as a good starting point for understanding how, humbly, to make gradual changes to the peaceful co-existence and development progress of people living in fragile societies.

> Download the Building Stability Framework 2016

Homepage photo: Nick Cunard/DFID (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)