SDSR – Establishing the National Interest (and a swipe at development aid): 6 October 2010


This review – thus far – has been devoid of discussion about Britain’s national interest (what it might be, where it can be found, where our particular interests lie). It has, as we’ve discussed previously, managed to avoid a sensible discussion about strategy – that’s been done by the enterprising folk on the Public Administration Committee, who seemed determined to speak truth to power in a highly commendable fashion. May they continue to do so.

The timeline for SDSR didn’t lend itself to an indepth look, from basics, at where we stand in the world and all that – there was, so Dr Fox would be bound to claim, good evidence for the Tory’s stance on our national interest from the opposition green paper and speeches he and the now nearly-anonymous William Hague had made in opposition. But there is a problem with this and it’s the ‘action without vision’ problem (a former student can consider themselves proud of passing this on, and making me think…) “”Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare”. And without the national interest or the strategic vision being recast what we do face is some kind of half-way house nightmare, and I’ll illustrate my concerns in two ways. Firstly via a swipe at the development budget and secondly with reference to the anticipated defence cuts.

Development aid-

As one of the few areas of government spending ring-fenced for this Parliament, it sits in a privileged and lofty position and therefore should be subject to a decent level of scrutiny. Aside from my personal preference that the government sort out the problems of this society first before dumping cash on the developing world (an unpopular view, I know), I think it’s worth examining the different ways different countries approach this issue. The Chinese government offers the largest challenge to the European model of development aid. It offers aid without condition, and aid that is specifically targeted at spurring trade. I spoke to a senior military official from West Africa a few years back who told me that he’d received a large consignment of fatigues from the Chinese, it was double what he had ordered so he queried the mistake – ‘you can have them’, they said, ‘courtesy of the Chinese government’.. he was as pleased as punch, they had made a friend for life. British and European aid tends to come with ‘conditionality’, the need to reform governance or trade structures to ‘qualify’ for the aid. Part of this seems reasonable, it is our money and it would be nice to see it spent properly, but part of it does smack of neo-colonialism, and that has poor connotations in the recipient communities. Whilst having – as DFID puts it – a ‘pro-poor’ disposition, which is laudable, it might be somewhat better to tie up the government’s thinking on SDSR with the work being done in DFID: something that notably fractured under the leadership of Clare Short.

So, why tie up these two distinct strands? Because we know that conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and security sector reform are important stabilisers, and as we’re all too aware the defence budget is about to take a clobbering and we need to make sure all of our policy strands are working to maximum effect. So, my suggestion would be that development is considered a part of the security strategy. There are some second order issues about the ballooning industry of international NGOs: does DFID really need to outsource its thinking work to NGOs? Isn’t this something they could lever more effectively through research council funding? And what oversight is there of NGO effectiveness in the field – surely this can only be properly measured 5 or 10 years down the line; not really good enough in today’s financial climate.

Defence Cuts –

It’s become a long standing mantra in defence circles that once you’ve cut a capability you’ll never get it back, and that’s substantially true. What will hopefully emerge from the SDSR is that the review unit has considered that attrition rate of our current equipment stock, and how they plan to replenish it (unless we’re leaving Afghanistan by this lunchtime, in which case it’ll be less of a problem). The projected operational life of this equipment might be sensibly halved or quartered in theatre. My personal hunch is that this would make the review too complicated, and that it hasn’t been properly considered. Tied to this is the need to really grip the problem of future wars – evidence based policy making on this score will always lead to fighting the last war (to a greater or lesser extent), horizon scanning is perhaps more of an art than a science, doing it properly – and that means the kind of monitoring and scanning that is being rolled back (make sure you follow the developments/reforms in BBC Monitoring) should be a game that is focussed on keenly in Whitehall.

Are we about to experience ‘action without vision’?… We should all hope not. The UK’s core interests will not be served by a review that is focussed on an abstract bottom line. Cameron and Osborne are right that Labour left defence spending in the mire – the PFI and PPP schemes will go down in history as a national disgrace – but the remedy is not to act, without thinking very carefully first. As my good friend Patrick Porter has said in another place: ‘this is no time for amateur hour’.


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