Andrew Mitchell’s insight about aid

Having quickly blogged about UK development minister Andrew Mitchell’s speech about conflict and development earlier today, I’ve caught up on responses from NGOs and other bloggers.  Opinion divides on fairly predictable lines.  Spectator blogger James Forsyth likes the fact that Mitchell linked aid to national security.  Saferworld “strongly welcomes” the focus on conflict.  But Christian Aid is worried:

A particular danger of viewing aid as a means of furthering our national security is that the government might end up in a cul-de-sac, focusing on a small number of countries of immediate security concern at the expense of DFID’s highly-regarded and effective role of supporting genuine development progress in more than a hundred countries.

I think that this critique is mistaken for two reasons. The first is that it misrepresents Mitchell’s argument. The Secretary of State did link overseas aid to British security (it wasn’t the strongest part of his speech) but a lot of his comments were about how weak countries’ security problems affects their growth:

Tackling conflict overseas is very much in our national interests – even in a time of financial consolidation. But it is also in the interests of the world’s poor. In too many parts of the developing world prosperity will remain a distant dream unless and until we succeed in tackling many of the conflicts that block development. It is surely no coincidence that no fragile country has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal, the UN-agreed lodestars for UK development assistance.

More importantly, however, I think that Mitchell’s call to devote more aid to conflict-ridden countries reflects an insight into the future of development policy.

This is very simply that, even if there is still poverty to be tackled in one hundred countries worldwide, Western spending is less and less important in many of them. The long-term future of poverty alleviation lies with Chinese and Indian investors and local entrepreneurs, not to mention new donors like Brazil. Western aid agencies can still do a lot of good, but they will increasingly need to identify the niches in which they can make a real impact, rather than trying to give something to everyone.

So why not prioritize conflict-affected countries? Ignore them, and they will fall even further behind the curve of global development. Focus on them, and it may be possible to support the sorts of institutional and political developments that will put them on the path to growth. Focus on them properly – by ensuring that you have real insights into local political dynamics and a full array of contacts – and you can play an even more significant role. Really understanding and investing in a (relatively) small number of fragile states may have a greater impact than fighting poverty on every possible front.

By highlighting the conflict-development link, therefore, Andrew Mitchell is not just trying to show that aid money helps keep Britain safe. I think that’s he’s also tracing a strategic logic for British, and Western, development aid that will continue to make sense in spite current and future shifts in the global balance of economic power.