DFID: the department for conflict prevention?

Time was when any suggestion that conflict prevention might be central to development would be met by blank (if not outright hostile) stares at DFID’s headquarters – but DFID’s latest White Paper, published yesterday, certainly puts that attitude to rest for good.

Fully half of new UK bilateral aid will focus on conflict-affected and fragile states; there will be an intensive focus on job creation in five at-risk countries (Yemen, Nepal, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan); security is for the first time defined as an essential service, like health or education; there’s lots of additional focus on SSAJ (safety, security and access to justice); and there’s plenty more besides.

Now, sharp-eyed conflict watchers among you will already be wondering: does all this mean that the cuts to UK conflict prevention spending announced by David Miliband in March this year are effectively reversed?

(The problem, readers will recall, was that while peacekeeping missions were mushrooming – MONUC, UNMIS and the AU mission in Somalia in particular – the pound was collapsing against the dollar and the euro, the currencies in which peacekeeping bills are denominated. This was driving a coach and horses through the planned cross-governmental conflict prevention budget of £556 billion – comprised of £109m for the Conflict Prevention Pool, £73m for the Stabilisation Aid Fund and £374m for peacekeeping missions. The peacekeeping bit would now have to rise £456 million. So even after DFID and MOD had lobbed in an extra £71 million, it was clear that tough cuts would have to be made – a point made with anguish in a letter to the FT in March from foreign policy luminaries including Lords Ashdown, Hannay, Howe, Jay, Kerr, Robertson and Wallace. Now read on..)

Well, now that DFID’s Secretary of State Douglas Alexander is promising that the UK will spend £1 billion a year in post-conflict countries, it’s clear that much of the money that was cut in March will effectively be available again – though you’ll have a fight on your hands to get DFID to admit this to be the case, since it’s shy of creating any impression that it’s there to bail out other departments when the full, epic sweep of spending cuts becomes clear after the election.

But we’re nonetheless in a new situation, rather than back to the status quo ante, in at least three important ways.

First, there will be significant changes to the list of countries in which conflict prevention funds will be spent.  Because DFID’s cash must go to poor countries, less of the money will go to Europe, and more to Africa and Asia.  Cutting funding to the never-ending peace support operation in Cyprus might not seem like a big deal – but on the other hand, you might ask whether this is really such a good moment to be reducing spending on preventing conflict in the Balkans.

Second, it’s important not to lose sight of the point that funding isn’t the only thing that’s needed in order to do conflict prevention work: there’s also the small matter of skills and staffing levels. DFID’s seen savage cuts in its headcount over the last few years, as indeed has FCO – the legacy of the “Efficiency Review” that Gordon Brown presided over at the last election.  Working in fragile states and post-conflict contexts, though, is as much about influence as it’s about spending (as International Alert put it pithily, it’s about ‘how’, not ‘how much’) – which means that DFID and FCO need more people if they’re to avoid closing country offices and embassies (as they’re both now having to do).

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, there’s a big question mark over what the new financial balance of power will mean for the future of joint work on conflict prevention across the government. The new DFID White Paper certainly says the right things about joint work with the FCO – for instance:

To put this new approach into practice,the UK will increasingly put politics at the heart of its action. We need to understand who holds power in society, so we can forge new alliances for peace and prosperity. This requires close co-operation between FCO and DFID.

Absolutely right. But the elephant in the room question here is: as the FCO’s budget gets stripped to the bone, will it be able to play that role?

This is not meant as a criticism pf DFID, which deserves nothing but praise for saying that conflict prevention is crucial for development and that its funding decisions will reflect that.  Instead, it puts the question at the doors of Number 10 and the Treasury – who after all set departments’ funding envelopes. If DFID is now saying that conflict is crucial for development, and that a joint, cross-HMG approach is crucial for conflict prevention, then it follows that FCO must be funded for the job.  Right now, it isn’t – and things look set to get much, much worse as cuts start to bite.

Gordon Brown’s speech on climate change a week ago was significant because it took a genuinely strategic perspective across different areas of governmental work, and arrived at a truly integrated sense of how to join up the dots between development aid and financing for climate mitigation and adaptation – making the UK one of the first governments in the world to tackle the issue head-on.

Now, he needs to do the same on conflict and fragile states. But it’s unclear whether he and the Treasury are yet committed to leading the change we need. While the credit crunch showed that we’re willing to devote practically limitless funds to firefighting crises that have already begun, we don’t yet seem willing to invest seriously in systems that could prevent crises from erupting in the first place.

If the past few years of food, energy, credit and other crunches teach us anything, it’s that the world is heading into a period of sustained turbulence – a time of ‘shooting the rapids‘, as David and I have termed it – in which the challenge is to find ways of managing globalisation’s “shadow sides”. (As Robert Cooper puts it, “we may not be interested in chaos, but chaos is interested in us”.)

For the UK to contribute fully to this task, it certainly needs a well-resourced aid budget – and all power to Brown and Darling for maintaining the UK’s commitment to 0.7. But it needs more than that. It needs integration of all our foreign policy levers – development, defence and diplomacy – and for each of these areas to be properly resourced. To think that funding only one of them properly (i.e. development, but not defence or diplomacy) is enough is fundamentally to misunderstand the extent to which global challenges – poverty, climate, state failure and the rest – are all interconnected.

Obama gets it. Douglas Alexander showed yesterday that he does too. Do Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling?