Development in a conflicted world

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell at the Royal College of Defence Studies on 16 September 2010.

Thank you Admiral Style. It is a real pleasure to speak at the Royal College of Defence Studies and to engage the class of 2011 in debate.

Countless statesmen from the four corners of the world have walked these corridors and I am sure that among this year’s intake there are many future leaders.  It is therefore a great privilege to be able to speak to you today.


Today, I want to talk about the causes and the cost of conflict, about the new security challenges that threaten Britain and trap millions in poverty, disease and injustice overseas.

I will argue that as part of the government’s Strategic Defence Security Review (SDSR) we must reassess our response to overseas conflict - putting development at the heart of an integrated approach that supports the world’s most vulnerable people and protects Britain from external threats.

As you know, the SDSR is still work in progress. I therefore cannot lay out the detail of our plans. But I will set the stage by suggesting that our policy must first and foremost be based on an integrated approach that involves the Foreign Office, DFID and the MoD; that it must look “upstream” to prevent conflicts as much as “downstream” to help countries after war; and that it must be informed by a rigorous assessment of lessons from past interventions.

Three things distinguishes this SDSR from recent reviews: first, that it is a cross-departmental exercise where DFID is for the first time fully involved; secondly, that it is being undertaken by a coalition government; and thirdly, and most importantly, that it is being conducted during a major military operation.

As I speak, courageous and committed men and women of our Armed Forces are risking their lives in Afghanistan. Their dedication, alongside that of civilian staff, places a special responsibility on us here in London - in the Cabinet and across Whitehall - to do everything within our power to shape and support an integrated effort.

Cost of conflict for the UK

There are those who suggest that giving aid to countries in conflict is pointless. They want money to be spent only on those developing countries that have a stable government and a well-established rule of law. Then there are those who deride the idea of stabilisation, of conflict- prevention - call it what you will - as busy-bodied do-gooderism.  They want the military to quell threats, but see no hope to affect the future of other people’s societies and to mitigate conflicts.

More than most, this audience knows the folly of these arguments. You know that the direct and indirect consequences of conflict in the developing world spread far and wide. You have seen with your own eyes how conflict impacts on the most vulnerable people overseas, making long-term development impossible.

The Coalition Government is proud of its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income in development aid from 2013. Helping to address conflicts in the developing world, fighting poverty among those caught in wars and violence, must be central to our aid policy if we are to help end global poverty. 

I will say more about this shortly but let me begin by looking at the impact closer to home. Because conflict abroad also threatens our security and well-being here in Britain. 

Conflict can create under-governed spaces overseas where terrorists are able to recruit and to plan attacks in the UK or on UK targets abroad. Terrorists can be based anywhere, including here in Britain, but they seek – and benefit from – turmoil and chaos overseas. 

The fact that weak and under-developed states are often powerless to prevent organised crime from flourishing may seem irrelevant to British interests. But only at first glance. Many countries in West Africa and the Western Balkans, for example, act as hubs for illicit trade. Drugs and guns pass through these countries and end up on British streets.

Conflict in the developing world also generates population change. Increasingly, those escaping persecution and violence in their own country, turn to protection elsewhere. And for many, the UK is the preferred destination.

More than 80 per cent of asylum seekers in the UK come from conflict-affected countries. Those choosing to stay closer to their homes may still flee in their thousands internally or to neighbouring states - creating new conflicts over limited resources or between different groups of peoples.

Finally, conflict overseas poses a threat to Britain’s future prosperity and potential for long-term growth. To take just one example: chaos in Somalia created the conditions for the piracy that preys on global shipping routes through the Red Sea, routes upon which the UK economy relies.

In short, when it comes to conflict in the developing world, a philosophy of “out of sight out of mind” is simply naive. The indirect consequences of overseas conflict represent a real and present danger, a danger that cannot be dealt with exclusively by counter-terrorist means. A danger that we cannot hope to address by staying at home, bolting the door and drawing down the shutters.

Cost of conflict for development

Tackling conflict overseas is therefore 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.

Nor is it a coincidence that 22 of the 34 countries furthest from reaching the MDGs are in the midst of - or emerging from - violent conflict. The challenges faced by these countries are immense:

  • On average, one in three people living in fragile states is undernourished; this proportion is twice as high as in other developing countries
  • Child mortality is five times that of middle income countries, and almost twice that of low income countries

I spoke earlier about migration and its impact on Britain. But this is not only a global and regional problem; it is a developmental one. For when those migrants include the brightest and the best - as they often do - what hope is there for those they leave behind?  Their flight, from conflict-affected countries, which already lack human capital, to more developed countries, is one of the biggest barriers to development.

Take Zimbabwe where, in recent times, only around a fifth of university graduates took up employment in their own country. In other words, conflicts are driving away the very people who can advance the cause of peace and promote development

Non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, Saferworld, International Alert, War Child and Save the Children have long known that the Millennium Development Goals cannot be met until we deal with overseas conflict.

In its submission to the SDSR, Oxfam argued for using, and I quote, ”development resources where there is a real threat of escalating violence”, recognising that the “UK’s long-term interest depends on supporting stability in many parts of the world.”

This line of argument also has solid academic foundations. Paul Collier, the renowned Professor of Economics at Oxford University, put it well when he described war as “development in reverse”. He based his reasoning on the fact that, a civil war is estimated to cost a low income country an average of about 64 billion US dollars. In other words, the cost of a single conflict is more than half of the value of annual development aid worldwide.

Turn it around, and the same picture emerges: the higher a country’s GDP per capita, the lower the risk of internal war.  A typical post-conflict country with no economic growth has a 42% risk of returning to conflict within ten years. But with 10% growth, the risk declines to 29%. So, each additional percentage point of growth reduces the risk of conflict. Of course there are exceptions - rich countries can fall apart too – but development clearly begets peace.

And let us remember too, that poor people living in dysfunctional states lose out twice over. Once because they are poor and once because of the insecurity and conflict that define their every waking moment.

I have talked about the cost of conflict both for the UK and for the world’s poor. But I have left out one key argument; the moral one. In the post-Iraq context, it is commonplace to hear people reject any form of interventionism.

Nevertheless, Britain has a proud tradition of standing up for a more equal world where people live in dignity and where they are protected from those who would harm them. As the Foreign Secretary said some time ago:  “it is not in our character to have a foreign policy without a conscience: to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us”.

He developed that argument yesterday, saying:  “Our foreign policy should always have consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core.” I totally agree. We have to live up to that tradition and to be proud of our values, by supporting and protecting the most vulnerable. Future interventions - should they become necessary - will have to be what past ones were not - carefully considered, well-planned and properly resourced. But our commitment to help the vulnerable and persecuted endures. 

This leads to the more difficult question - how do we help those countries ravaged by warfare, where governments are not legitimate or where they neglect rather than serve their citizens? 

Five lessons for the future

Working in these countries is incredibly difficult, not least because it is often so dangerous. Many of you will know this better than I. When I served as a very junior UN peacekeeper in Cyprus in the 1970s, the situation and tasks we had to tackle were very different from those being faced today.

So, as we look to the future, I believe the SDSR must be informed by five lessons:

First, if we are to reap the ultimate reward, the reward of preventing wars before they start, we need to be better at identifying the potential for conflict.

Our ‘upstream’ offer on conflict prevention must be as good as the one we have honed for ‘downstream’ during and in the aftermath of war.

Spotting problems and knowing when to act on them is, of course, a notoriously difficult business. Even when warning signs have been clear, the international community has too often marshalled its resources and tools only after widespread violence has broken out - as in Kenya, Georgia and, earlier, in Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia.

The answer lies in making sure that warnings, however faint, are brought to the attention of senior officials and ministers. It means that instead of taking the easy option of sticking with outdated plans or preconceived notions, the SDSR must create cross-government systems and cultures that will compel us to re-examine our policies and programmes, when needed. Systems that help us to understand the often complex causes of conflicts. 

By ensuring that – through the SDSR – we create such systems, we will hopefully learn the lessons that previous governments failed to heed.

Working upstream does not, of course, mean treating every conflict the
same. Not all conflicts have equal resonance for the UK, nor do we  have the resources, historical ties or the ability to prevent them all.  So it is important that when we in the National Security Council look at the many conflicts that may arise, we concentrate on those countries and regions that are at greatest risk; those that are of greatest interest to us; and those where the UK as a whole is likely to have the greatest impact.

The second important lesson is that we must be willing to question important assumptions both in the military and in the development community.

Take, for example, the commonly-held assumption that strengthening states is an end in itself.

Now, I accept that no country has achieved lasting peace and development without a basic functioning state - that is, without a system to guarantee property rights, resolve disputes, and address inequalities.

However, in some countries the state may well be part of the problem - especially where those in power show no interest in being held to account by their citizens or in delivering basic services like healthcare or clean water, not to mention security and justice. The formal trappings of statehood can often benefit a small, self-serving elite, but do little for the poorest people. I think particularly of Burma in this connection. 

Building an accountable state means putting the development of inclusive politics at the very heart of our response. In this new politics, the poor and marginalised are not just “vote blocks” for powerful land-owners or local warlords.  They are present - as elected representatives, as ministers, and even as officials - in the corridors of power.  In Nepal, for example, where many challenges still remain, there has been huge progress in increasing representation of marginalised groups in the Constitutional Assembly.

I am not advocating old-style, externally-driven democracy promotion.  As the Foreign Secretary said in his speech yesterday, “elections alone do not create a free and democratic society”.  No, I am talking about the sensitive promotion of a political system that supports society and empowers citizens to hold their own leaders to account.  A political system that means citizens’ basic needs are met, a system that gives the poorest a stake in the way their country is run, and a say in their own development.

This leads me to my third lesson: we must be realistic about the role that we, as outsiders, former colonial powers, even as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, can achieve.

To an international audience like yourselves, international cooperation is logical, but it bears underlining that no single donor or international player can hope to rebuild a country or address a long-simmering conflict. One supremely powerful nation or a small group acting in concert can win a war. But winning the peace takes many nations, working with international agencies, NGOs and others.

In Kenya, we saw the unique pressure that regional organisations can bring to bear when former United Nations’ Secretary General, Kofi Annan - working on behalf of the African Union - successfully brokered a cessation to the post-election violence. 

So, tackling conflict in today’s world means working harder with old partners and reaching out to new ones. The Foreign Secretary has talked about a “networked world” and about the foreign policy tools that will influence states which will come to dominate our times.

Development policy must be similarly networked. We must engage multilateral and bilateral donors not only through established mechanisms but through innovative collaborations with new partners - like India and China, Indonesia, South Africa,  Turkey, Mexico and Brazil - partners whose reach is crucial if we are to tackle conflict and promote development. I will say more on this subject later this year; it is an important area and one where I want to see DFID charting new territory.

My fourth lesson is that addressing the conflicts that mar the development process is no easy or quick feat. Building things up takes much longer than pulling them down. That is true not just of buildings, of homes, of bridges, of power stations but of the institutions of state -police forces, independent judiciaries,  bureaucracies, legislatures, free broadcasters and so on. But changing attitudes takes perhaps the longest time. 

So, in Northern Uganda, DFID’s investment in youth today will yield dividends in generations to come.  In military-speak, this means that we need to show “strategic patience” if we are to see a return on our policy. By educating a generation of girls in Pakistan, we will be making a significant contribution to that country’s development in the years ahead.  But let’s be clear that this is a very long-term vision and it will take time for the results to show.

The fifth and final lesson is that we must look for fresh ways of drawing together all the development, diplomatic and defence tools at the UK’s disposal. The wars of the future will not be the wars of the past. But some things we have learnt from past and ongoing wars will remain valid - the need for greater MoD, DFID and FCO cooperation is one of them.

In Sierra Leone, for example, we saw the benefits of close civilian-
military cooperation. Here, peace depended not only on establishing    
basic security (in part, through military force) but also on addressing the underlying causes of conflict, such as corruption, youth unemployment and the exclusion of key social groups.  DFID’s ability to understand, and support the provision of security and justice from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable has been crucial in this success.

I want to see DFID working even more closely with the MoD and the FCO, focused on preventing warfare and tipping the scales from conflict to peace in the world’s hotspots. I want to see not just a “comprehensive approach”, but what I think could be the next logical step, an “integrated approach” that brings the FCO, DFID and MoD together from the beginning to the end, from planning and execution through to the evaluation of our interventions.

Of course, the level of policy and resource investment from different departments will vary widely in individual countries. The DRC is not Helmand. But it is surely right that wherever different departments have an interest, they work in a fully cooperative and integrated manner. Here, I hope we can use the SDSR to flesh out further details.

 But let me be clear: this is not a case of DFID being coerced to use its aid programme to meet others’ objectives. Nor is it a case of DFID officials simply handing over cash willy-nilly. Some of the stories that are currently doing the rounds in some newspapers are as absurd as they are ill-informed. Our aid will stick to development principles and to the OECD/DAC definition of what constitutes aid. We want the best possible outcomes for those living in fragile or conflict countries.

Just as the military has doctrine - policy distilled through years of experience - so the development community has the DAC guidelines. In these guidelines, we have codified what works and, like the military uses doctrine, we use our guidelines to make sure our developmental efforts are as effective as they can possibly be. 

But to get those best outcomes DFID must make sure that the development case is part of the Whitehall mix when decisions are being made so that we can do what is right for our national security and right for those who are suffering the direct consequences of conflict. And let’s be realistic about this: taxpayers expect us to be able to do both.

Looking ahead

My visit to Afghanistan in July - alongside the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary - reaffirmed my view that well-spent aid is in our national interest.  Whilst the military is there to bring much-needed security, lasting peace will only be achieved through political progress backed by development.

I therefore decided to expand our aid programme in Afghanistan by 40 per cent specifically to allow the UK to intensify its development work, improving outcomes and results on the ground, and accelerating progress to a more stable country.

I have also taken great pains to underline my commitment to closer DFID-MoD cooperation

  • In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and in other countries, hundreds of DFID staff have gained first-hand experience of fragile states
  • No fewer than 17 have also been honoured by Her Majesty The Queen for their work in dangerous environments
  • During the recent Pakistan floods, DFID worked closely with MoD to ensure equipment was ferried to those most in need and; 
  • It is, of course, no accident that I chose to make this speech here at the RCDS today

Indeed, we have something of a burgeoning DFID/MoD fixture list: I have already played host to General Sir David Richards, the incoming Chief of Defence Staff while I have invited the outgoing CDS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup to address DFID staff on the nexus between security and development.  The more we share our experiences, the more we will all learn.

Increasing our chances of success

Right now, the SDSR gives us the perfect opportunity to go further in coordinating Whitehall’s response to conflict and poverty.

In the past, the UK took important steps to create cross-departmental bodies, bodies such as the Stabilisation Unit, that could improve cooperation between departments. The Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team has also shown how effectively DFID, the Foreign Office and the military can work side by side.

But there is scope to go further, learning from past experiences while  making better use of existing structures - drawing on whatever tools and instruments are most appropriate, without getting hung up on institutional provenance.

I want to see more flexible, bespoke solutions crafted in response to specific needs on the ground. I want to see DFID, FCO, MoD and the Armed Forces working even closer together, for example delivering effective Security Sector Reform.

The Stabilisation Unit is proof that this experience is possible; it is time now to build on this so that we can change mindsets and habits across Government. Cross-Whitehall cooperation should be second nature for DFID staff, and we will encourage our colleagues in the FCO and MoD to think and act similarly. This is what I have in mind when I say we should develop an “integrated approach”.

As part of the SDSR we will be discussing new ways to develop the Conflict Pool - a unique cross-departmental funding arrangement – so that it can better support the full breadth of our work in conflict-affected countries.

But as we look ahead we will find ways of going further and faster.

The Bilateral Aid Review, which I initiated as soon as I came to office is - as I speak - analysing DFID’s programme in each country, looking at the results our programmes obtain and the value for money we get. This is a thorough bottom-up process and will focus on the detailed picture in each country. 

Overall, however, I am pushing for us, in future, to spend more of the UK’s aid programme in conflict and fragile countries. Because in doing so we will maximise our impact on the lives of the most vulnerable, while also leveraging the contribution that aid can make to national security. And as we approach the UN MDG Summit next week there can be no better time for remembering that our ultimate goal is to ensure that all people in conflict countries - and wherever else poverty may exist – have access to the food, health care, education and other services that they so desperately need.


Ladies and gentlemen, if you are  living in one of those dreadful camps in Darfur, it does not matter how much access to money, aid, trade or different articles of development you may have, because as long as the conflict continues, you will remain poor, frightened, dispossessed and angry.

Just as conflict condemns people to remain in poverty, so it is wealth creation - jobs, enterprise, trade and engagement with the private sector - that enables people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Yet without peace and security this cannot happen. For just as development cannot occur in the absence of peace, peace without development is a peace that may not last.

This is true not only in places like Helmand, that rightly fill newspaper columns and are constantly in the nation’s thoughts, but also in places like Harare where economic development that can provide jobs and basic necessities, is essential to achieving stability.

To achieve this stability we have to move beyond a zero-sum game, where one camp sees DFID, the MoD and FCO working together as suspicious; and the other argues an independent DFID, focused on poverty-alleviation is wasteful. The world’s poorest people have an interest in security and development. So do we. As your College’s motto so aptly proclaims: “Strength in Unity”.   We cannot achieve our goals if we do not work together.

If trust is the most important part of any partnership; then it is vital when you are talking about a partnership as wide as ours. DFID needs to trust its partners both in government and outside to help it innovate and push boundaries.  The military must trust that DFID will do everything it can to support their mission.  And our NGO and charity partners must trust that this Government will never compromise its development principles.

Because one thing is certain: the future holds many new and more difficult conflicts, conflicts that will inevitably threaten Britain and its people while also making it harder for us to achieve our goal of eradicating world poverty.

I said one thing was certain. But actually there is a second certainty:  that we have the will and the determination to face up to those challenges. To shape thoughtful solutions that address the reality of conflict while also bringing lasting help to the millions living in its shadow.

The choice is ours. To move forward with confidence, focusing on the poor and vulnerable in conflict-ravaged countries, working across government and beyond in a spirit of true partnership; or to run scared of change and to miss this golden opportunity to make the world a safer and more prosperous place for generations to come.