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The UK; DFID and Peacebuilding: the case of a split identity


A DFID program in Afghanistan

The United Kingdom is the second biggest player, after the United States, in the war-formerly-known-as-the-war-on-terror. It is deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan, as well as having an aggressive stance in international politics with regard to other Western interests such as Iraq and the wider Middle East. As such, London is an ideological and destabilizing player in many of the world’s conflicts. This seemingly contrasts with the fact that its development agency, the Department for International Development, or DFID, is one of the most important global players when it comes to development cooperation, both in terms of resources as well as best-practices. It has managed reasonably well to straddle the fine line of independence in the complex world of British foreign policy, and is highly respected when it comes to Peacebuilding. Its aim to “promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty” is certainly to be taken seriously, even if it is dangerously general and yet unattainable.

Although it would be naive to think that DFID operates completely independently of other foreign policy-related areas, it has managed surprisingly well to differentiate itself from London’s aggressive stance on terrorism, war and democratization. It has done so without losing track of its “core business”, poverty reduction, and placing other development issues within that framework. Conceptually that may create some problems, but it has allowed it to distinguish between its strategies and activities and those of other UK actors.

Its 2009 White Paper (“Eliminating World Poverty: Building our common future”) is surprisingly free of doublespeakwhen it comes to democratization or other ideological issues that tend to complicate and weaken international development strategies. Just consider the following justification for Peacebuilding:
“Instability, violence and insecurity still blight the lives of millions of men, women and children. To reduce poverty effectively, and allow each person to achieve their full potential, we need states that are capable, accountable and responsive and where a flourishing civil society empowers citizens to realise their rights.” (p.69)
A “flourishing civil society” and “states that are capable, accountable and responsive” are a far cry from the messages that usually echo around Downing Street. In fact, they put Peacebuilding into the only framework in which it is useful: one that sets criteria for people-centered results, rather than ideological or (Western) cultural achievements.  Peacebuilding only makes sense in terms of the creation of opportunities, systems and institutions that allow societies to flourish according to their own situation and standards.
Whenever the concept gets contaminated with other goals- whether they be political, geostrategic or ideological- it loses its original purpose and falls into an abyss of hypocrisy, bad judgment or simply empty rhetoric. DFID has avoided this in a way seldom managed. The feat becomes even more impressive when set to the background of rudderless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus almost a decade of terrorist-induced cynicism coming from the Blair and Brown governments.

A major part of this success comes from the understanding that in order to be successful in its activities, the organisation itself needs to be transparent (its website alone is miles ahead of that of other development agencies), accountable and based on solid research and analysis. This allows greater purpose internally, effective use of funds, and better fund raising and advocacy than is the norm among development agencies worldwide. Its commitments for the next three years are worth almost 3 billion of euros.   

It is not all good news, unfortunately. DFID has not managed to avoid politics altogether. Its commitments to “consider peace and security as part of its development partnerships” are virtually an all-access pass to geostrategic abuse. Moreover, it has not managed to find a voice within other departments of UK foreign policy. Even though any development agency should keep its independence by not becoming too attached to the juggernaut of its own ministry of foreign affairs (which is why some countries have sensibly created a ministry for development cooperation), DFID has had too little impact on London’s thinking on global affairs. Consequently, it is occasionally forced to act in circumstances that go almost contrary to its philosophical basis, as is the case in Afghanistan. The fact that it has been unable to avoid the Afghan quagmire demonstrates that, in the end, it is still a tool of a wider UK foreign policy.

This last point has led to a clear case of split-identity within UK foreign policy. It has become a country of extremes: involved in unnecessary wars while at the same time being a voice of reason from a development cooperation / Peacebuilding perspective. Given this special nature of London’s plight, it is a difficult case to compare and contrast to other agencies. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding its clear weaknesses, DFID deserves to be applauded for its effective combination of significant resources with sophisticated analysis and understanding of the challenges it faces. And other European development agencies should take note.

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