Why the UK doesn’t mind if aid boosts military spending

Rough ride: government troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Former coalition defence minister Gerald Howarth has expressed concern that “the UK is effectively subsidising the defence budgets” of its aid recipients.

Drawing on research undertaken by the House of Commons Library, Howarth highlighted that as Britain has increased the aid sent to a range of recipients, including Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the same countries’ defence budgets have swollen.

This was born out by analyses charting defence spending increases since 2012/13. Rises from $330m to $400m in Tanzania and from $430m to $460m in DRC did indeed coincide with injections of UK aid funds into those states. Picking up the story, the media announced with horror that British aid is “paying for foreign armies”. But Howarth’s “discovery” is rather less revelatory than it seems.

Pragmatism

As any student of international development knows, all aid is “fungible” –- that is, if you put money into a state, it frees up cash for that state’s government to spend elsewhere.

An international non-governmental organisation that builds a school or hospital in a remote province might well believe it’s to be far removed from the grubby business of funding corrupt or authoritarian regimes.

Their actions, however, mean that these regimes have one less school or hospital to build themselves as few regimes can survive without providing any services to their populations. That releases space in the budget for other items, such as paying soldiers’ wages or purchasing helicopters.

The UK has also directly funded foreign militaries in a range of African states for some time. In recent years, it’s made major contributions to United Nations-sanctioned operations in Somalia, DRC, South Sudan, Mali and elsewhere, providing training, logistical support and sometimes considerably more.

It has also long provided training to many African militaries, police and security services – a strategy Whitehall views (perhaps somewhat optimistically) as a pragmatic attempt to foster professionalism and stability in some of the continent’s most conflict-ridden and violent regions.

Clearly, there are no guarantees in such a complex and risky arena. Given he served as a minister for international security strategy in a department that funds many of these operations, though, Howarth’s outrage at the indirect “subsidising” of militaries by other UK ministries was perhaps somewhat disingenuous.

Security and prosperity

What is perhaps most interesting about this particular controversy was the response provided to Howarth’s critique by the UK’s development arm. The Department for International Development’s spokesperson argued that UK international development investment “helps create more stable, secure and prosperous countries” and that more economically prosperous countries tend to spend more on their militaries.

On the face of it, that’s a slightly strange response. In the cases highlighted in the House of Commons Library research, we can see a rise in defence spending, but rarely a rise in the percentage of GDP spent on defence. Between 2012-2014, the latter has remained constant in DRC, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire and has fallen in Nigeria. In Tanzania, meanwhile, a 20% net rise in defence spending means that now 1.1% of the country’s GDP goes on defence rather than 1%. (By comparison, the UK spends 2% of GDP on defence.)

But of course, “stable, secure and prosperous” states are not necessarily democratic, transparent and accountable.

Many of Africa’s more stable, secure, and economically prosperous countries also trend towards authoritarianism. Many of these states are also major recipients of UK assistance for both developmental and defence, and in several of them, one party has held power for decades. These include Uganda (since 1986), Rwanda (since 1994), Ethiopia (since 1991) and Mozambique (since 1975).

Ugandan troops mark the 51st anniversary of their country’s independence. EPA/Khaled Elfiqi

Whether this is coincidental or not is an open question, but plenty of scholars (including me) have argued that it isn’t. Over several decades, a range of semi-authoritarian African states have successfully managed their relationships with Western governments and bureaucracies to their advantage over several decades. That has won them the support and resources they needed to construct the decidedly illiberal structures of rule they now preside over.

The difficult question here is not so much whether Whitehall is aware of its role in all this – it is – but whether it cares.

Over the past decade, the focus of British diplomacy and development policy has moved decisively away from promoting democracy, peace, political space and transparency in Africa and towards stabilisation and security. These days, London’s objective is to help nurture African states that won’t cause populations in the UK too many problems, whether in the form of terrorism, migration or disease.

In one sense, this is only fair; it is after all a government’s job to protect its citizens from harm as far as possible. But doing so at the expense of political freedoms abroad conflicts with some of the fundamental values of British political culture – and authoritarian states make unreliable and unpredictable allies.