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Fixing aid: bypass corruption with military precision

Navy workers deliver aid in the Philippines. DFID, CC BY

The UK government’s Department for International Development has been severely criticised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact for its apparent failure to tackle corruption in the countries that benefit from its funding. But DfID does have fairly rigorous procedures in place to counter corruption – and is broadly results-focused.

Although this particular report has come under fire from aid experts there have been past grievances about corruption. Some argue that aid needs to be comprehensively redesigned and that spending decisions should be based on evidence rather than faith. What’s more, the notion that overseas aid (and aid workers) can be neutral, impartial and transparent may simply be a myth. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that they are and deliver aid ourselves directly, via the armed forces where necessary.

Aid as influence

Aid is often politicised and used as a tool for influence in foreign policy. As economist Paul Collier has noted, Western aid is often offered on the condition that Western values or democratic models are adopted by the recipient nation.

Overseas aid was more overtly politicised during the Cold War, when it became weaponised. In the long struggle with the USSR, the US in particular saw the need to back like-minded countries and allies in order to fend off Communist inroads.

This is also true of the global war on terror. American aid, for example, has been used as a non-military component of America’s irregular warfare strategy. In Afghanistan it has been used for stability operations, democratisation and battling the Taliban – winning hearts and minds for the Western vision. The American approach to aid overtly links security and perceived overseas threats to its provision.

When it comes to complicated missions such as supporting post-2001 Afghanistan, overseas aid often doesn’t operate in isolation from other aspects of foreign policy. A counterinsurgency campaign cannot depend on force of arms alone. In order to replace the Taliban, financial and technical aid was needed to support legitimate Afghan governance and disarmament.

With this in mind, and considering the finite resources available, it may be prudent to de-prioritise development aid which is independent of greater foreign policy and grand strategy.

And with the West in relative decline as countries such as Brazil, India and China rise, it may be argued that resources are generally better allocated to humanitarian capacity, rather than spending so much on development programmes. There have been questions as to why the UK has spent development money in India if it can afford its own space programme and about why aid money finds its way into the pockets of corrupt officials. Maybe these are legitimate complaints.

Since it is often the armed forces that deliver humanitarian aid with the most success, there is an argument for allocating a significant portion of the aid budget to developing their ability to handle humanitarian operations. The navy needs ships and helicopters to transport aid and equipment, while army engineers need training to respond in a disaster.

This could not only make aid spending more effective but would also enable donors to avoid depending so much on potentially corrupt intermediaries. This fits with the idea of smart power – in which the hard power of the armed forces combines with the soft power of aid budgets to achieve worthwhile results.

The British response to the Ebola outbreak is an example of how such a technique can work. If armed forces are properly resourced, they can make a significant contribution to humanitarian operations. In this case, the navy has been bringing medical supplies to help doctors working on the ground in Sierra Leone. The navy launched a similar operation in the Philippines in 2013 to distribute aid to victims of typhoon Haiyan.

Overseas aid is rarely truly neutral or impartial in nature. It is a mode of influence within foreign policy, and British aid should be representative of British interests and intent. It is hard to see how allocating significant aid funds through third parties operating under the myth of the neutral aid worker can be best practice as a force for good.

This is not to say that European-derived obligations and contributions towards the likes of the European Development Fund should be ignored. But investing in the armed forces, and specifically naval capacity, for a global humanitarian (and military) reach and latent power may be a more prudent way to spend a finite aid budget. The alternative is to potentially squander money on frequently corrupt and ineffective long-term development projects.

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