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Building stability overseas: shifts in UK strategy and suggestions for implementation

While the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review was visibly reported as a missed opportunity, the recent Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) has received little attention. Yet BSOS presents a unique opportunity to better understand and connect approaches across ‘civil society’, ‘development’ and ‘security’ actors. 

Jeremy Allouche
14 April 2012

In recent years, military interventions from Bosnia to Iraq and now Afghanistan have dominated the security development agenda. Most strategic experts have been arguing that military interventions will not be successful unless accompanied by development projects. The British government has developed its own policy and contributed to the doctrines on peace- and state- building under the name of stabilisation. Stabilisation entails the prevention or reduction of violence in order to reach a political settlement between the conflicting parties and the design of social and economic interventions in order to support the development of a legitimate state. For better or for worse, the British experience in Helmand, Afghanistan has been a source of inspiration for the Stabilisation Unit, the UK Unit which is partly responsible for implementing this strategy.

Since 2010, the UK government has developed and published two major strategy documents that represent a strategic shift in thinking about security and development. While the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review was visibly reported as a missed opportunity, the recent Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) has barely been mentioned in the media. Yet, despite its poor visibility, BSOS presents a unique opportunity to better understand and connect approaches across ‘civil society’, ‘development’ and ‘security’ actors. 

For some like Rory Stewart (or William Easterly for the US), lessons from past experiences reveal that the UK lacks the capacity to engage both in state building and development interventions at the same time, and basically that development and security approaches are doomed to failure, especially for a medium power such as the UK. However, to think about security and development challenges just through the eyes of peace- and state-building is a narrow understanding of how security and development approaches can be approached. In fact, the new Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) moves away from state building and post-conflict reconstruction and focuses on upstream conflict prevention. For some NGOs like Saferworld, this is a welcomed strategic shift and in fact represents a shift back to earlier policies from the beginning of this century. Jack Straw made upstream conflict prevention an important pillar of his policy. But how this policy should be operationalised has never been properly addressed until now.

The focus on upstream conflict prevention is an important and welcomed strategic shift and the key question therefore remains: how is the current strategy to be effectively implemented? The British government’s lack of engagement within the development community around this new strategy is unfortunate. The decision of the UK government to publish BSOS as just an online version in the middle of the summer has not helped to facilitate a platform to communicate on this issue. The well-founded criticisms against the British government in Iraq and Afghanistan should not hijack the debate on discussing strategies around security and development. The arguments on the securitisation of aid (i.e. Oxfam, Action Aid) or the so-called neutrality of humanitarian actors do not provide any tangible alternatives in dealing with the relationship between security and development. 

As such, BSOS offers a political opportunity to open up a debate on the meaning of the security-development convergence and the practical steps needed to link the resources and activities with the overall goal, which can be simply summed up as the co-existence of national and human security imperatives. In this attempt, there are three major issues that need to be discussed in order to effectively implement the strategy: 

  1. The tension between impact, a money-for-value result-based agenda, and upstream conflict prevention;
  2. The meaning of stabilisation in upstream conflict prevention
  3. The lack of attention to coordination with NGOs and capacity on the ground at the expense of cross-Whitehall integration at the policy level. 

Upstream conflict prevention, value for money and impacts 

A potential tension in this strategic shift is the relationship between value for money and upstream conflict prevention. The current strategy argues that it is more cost effective to focus on upstream conflict prevention. This is probably true in that military intervention during and after conflicts are very costly. Having said this, the relationship between upstream conflict prevention and measurable impacts as boldly emphasized in the use of Conflict Pool funds may become problematic. It is indeed highly difficult to base upstream conflict prevention strategies on measurable impacts. The use of counterfactuals (the ‘what if’ question) may not be easily integrated into impact measurement and may deter the Stabilisation Unit, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) or Ministry of Defence(MOD) from investing in long term projects on upstream conflict prevention.  The danger would be for these departments to focus on short term technical fixes. For those evaluating conflict prevention programmes, redesign and flexibility are two key principles as fragile and conflict-affected states constitute highly complex and fluid environments. As emphasised by Chris Barnett, the draft OECD Guidance on Evaluating Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities (currently under revision) provides an entry point for developing such an approach by taking into account the perspective of local people. 

Way forward - what does stabilisation mean for development? 

The question of what stabilisation and political order mean for development is crucial and not well articulated in the BSOS. The institutional measures are essentially focusing on short-term missions around the stabilization unit and the stabilization response team, namely to ‘stabilise’ temporarily situations of potential and acute crisis. It is unclear how these responses are linked to a potentially transformative, comprehensive and long-term project, and how these are coordinated strategically. Linking to our first point, the assumption is that it is cost-effective to invest in conflict prevention is perhaps based on the fact that it focuses on early action as a quick fix rather than upstream conflict prevention. As I said earlier, the strategic choice to focus on upstream conflict prevention requires a structure that the government has already lost, given the long history of budgetary constraints in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Early warning necessitates a solid grounded knowledge (as the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown). And the use of electronic information as spelled out in the Strategy is not the type of information that will help to anticipate instability. One question posed by this is whether the Government should not invest more in strong intelligence and solid conflict analysis to be more active in terms of upstream conflict prevention. 

Where is civil society in this strategy? 

The current Strategy essentially focuses on cross-Whitehall collaboration. It ignores how to create partnerships with non-governmental organizations. This is of capital importance as many peace- and state-building activities are outsourced to many NGOs in the field. Although BSOS highlights the importance of partnerships, it does not establish any clear strategies to engage with civil society actors. It is actually interesting to note that section ten on partnership with others does not include civil society actors.  This seems at odds with the recent events highlighted in the preface of the strategy, namely the Arab Spring which has shown the importance of civil society actors in ensuring stability. 

Overall, BSOS embodies a new strategic shift in terms of security-development thinking to go beyond the specific and hopefully isolated experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. It opens up a platform for discussion with NGOs in the humanitarian and development field on how security and development can be applied. However, this strategic shift in thinking will require a reconfiguration of policy and practice across Whitehall which may not fit very nicely with a money-for-value result-based agenda. 

This raises a number of further questions about the Strategy.

  • To what extent civil servants that have worked on stabilization mission have the qualifications and capabilities to work as a preventive, rather than a reactive, force (a good question that was raised during the House of Lords debates on the strategy);
  •  To what extent this strategy is simply designed to address an internal audience in terms of value for money. 

Whether upstream conflict prevention as a policy will be realized or not, the impact of BSOS will be visible as it will further accentuate the current trend in concentrating aid resources towards fragile and conflict-affected countries. It poses fundamental questions that are beyond the reach of this article for DFID, FCO and MOD in terms of their mandate, business model and capacity. 

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