THE BLOG

Prime Minister Cameron: UK Aid Budget Is Not a Political Piggy Bank

26/02/2013 11:43 GMT | Updated 27/04/2013 10:12 BST

I was 19 when I served as a peacekeeper in Somalia in the early 1990s. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations was officially created the year before, and I was moved by Kofi Annan's Agenda for Peace.

I admit, before shipping out to Somalia, I was fuzzy on the important separation between military peacekeeping and humanitarian work.

My experience in Somalia, and the reflection and study that followed, sorted out the confusion. I now see how critical it is that military operations, even those which include humanitarian objectives be given separate and distinct priority from poverty-focused work.

Prime minister David Cameron does not appear to share this view.

Last week Cameron commented that he would like to see potentially hundreds of millions of pounds of the Department for International Development (DFID) budget diverted to the UK Ministry of Defense as part of efforts to better deliver security in conflict-affected areas.

Some in the UK argue this was not only a move to deflect criticisms for previous defense cuts, but a move to hijack development aid as a political tool and a shrewd but short-sighted political maneuver to placate members of Cameron's party.

This move is also a potential milestone in a pernicious pattern of securitizing poverty-focused investments. Conflating poverty alleviation with peacekeeping and other military operations ignores a fundamental principal of economic efficiency - comparative advantage - and fuels mission creep, one of the most dangerous threats to military operations.

First, comparative advantage. The mission of the military is force - force to defend, force to secure, and force to kill to achieve military and security objectives. This is true even in peacekeeping, and it must remain true for military objectives to be achieved and for soldiers to be kept as safe as possible. For every conflict there are different 'rules of engagement' governing operations, but the bottom line is the same: force.

Soldiers no doubt care about the general welfare of people where they work as much as aid workers, and many aid workers are no doubt grateful for the stability militaries work to create. But the role of both is fundamentally different, and can only be complementary when these distinct divisions are operationally enforced and adequately communicated. Soldiers, humanitarian relief workers, and those who do longer-term development work all face greater personal and professional risks when their roles are not incredibly clear.

The backlash against polio and other immunization workers resulting in several murders in Pakistan and Nigeria and potential setbacks to eradicate polio globally in the wake of the United States Central Intelligence Agency use of a Pakistani doctor to set up a fake vaccination program to catch al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, highlights the costs of approaches which deliberately blur these lines.

Which brings me to mission creep. Blending the necessary coercion of the military with the neutrality that humanitarian workers and development professionals strive for is a strategic mistake and dangerous for both. Given the risks to the military mission and to troops from conflating these two types of work and putting more burden on already complex missions, I can only assume that silence on the part of the UK Ministry of Defense indicates this is purely a political maneuver and a budgeting exercise in which one Ministry will be made richer at the expense of another - not in fact an effort to strengthen overall engagement.

Shifting resources from development to defense also ignores the substantial leadership role the UK plays in alleviating poverty around the world, including prime minister Cameron's co-chairing of the United Nation's High Level Panel of 27 world leaders creating a plan to tackle global poverty after 2015 when the current Millennium Development Goals expire.

Inconsistent leadership will impact the UK's bilateral relationships and credibility and shifting these resources abruptly, ignores not only the rigor with which the UK evaluates its investments to ensure value for money, it also ignores commitments already made to people, institutions and countries.

UK development aid has proven to be value for money. It saves and improves lives. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the evidence.

It's shockingly short-sighted to consider cutting back on these investments at a time when we know what we need to do to get all children vaccinated, to end the scourges of AIDS and tuberculosis and to reach the most unreached and vulnerable in our world.

It's a political maneuver that helps no one, not the people of the UK and not even in the long-term, prime minister Cameron.

Kolleen Bouchane served with the US Army from 1993-1997. She earned a masters in Conflict, Security and Development from Kings College London and is currently the Director of ACTION, a global partnership of advocacy organizations working to influence policy and mobilize resources to fight diseases of poverty and improve equitable access to health services.