How the UK’s aid budget is funding security forces and working against human rights

| 7th December 2017
A Royal Marine Commando unloading aid supplies from a RAF C-130.

A Royal Marine Commando unloading aid supplies from a RAF C-130.

Cpl Darren Legg RLC / MoD Crown, via Flickr
A new report from Global Justice Now reveals how the British government's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund is providing financial support to police, military and security forces implicated in human rights abuses. AISHA DODWELL from the charity gives the inside story.

The problem here is that the money being used is meant to reduce poverty, not prop up armies around the world. 

Police, military and security forces around the world are unlikely to be the first things that spring to mind when you think of the UK's overseas aid projects. But that is precisely what over £500 million of aid money has been spent on this past year alone.

The UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) is a well kept secret and part of the government’s foreign policy arsenal. It brings aid money together with other government funds to make up a £1 billion (and growing) pot that allows the government to fund projects in dozens of countries which supposedly promote the UK’s national security interests.

Yet a new report launched this week by Global Justice Now highlights how the CSSF is in fact diverting much-needed aid money away from poverty alleviation, in some cases even channelling money to security forces in states involved in human rights abuses. Much of where this money ends up still remains a mystery due to a lack of transparency.

Aid diversion

One recipient of this fund is Nigeria, whose security services are being supported with £4.4million of aid via the CSSF. A core part of this project is to provide “strategic assistance” in the fight against Boko Haram.

Likewise, Iraq's security services are being bolstered as part of a CSSF project that receives £7.5million in UK aid support. And in Sierra Leone, £1.37 million in aid has been allocated to a training project for the country's military and police, including training in "public order management."

The problem here is that the money being used is meant to reduce poverty, not prop up armies around the world in the UK's 'national interest'. But what’s worse, there is a real risk that the CSSF is opening the door for the use of aid money for projects that actually risk harm.

In some cases, such as support for Nigeria's security forces which have been accused of excessive force and inhumane treatment of suspects, the CSSF support raises serious questions. While in other cases, the UK is risking complicity in serious human rights violations through supporting security forces of regimes accused of heinous crimes.

Funding repression?

In Bahrain, for example, where according to Human Rights Watch, “the authorities prosecute and jail prominent human rights activists and political opposition leaders,"the CCSF has provided £3.52 million over the last two years.

Given the lack of transparent reporting from the CSSF, there is no publicly available information to ascertain how much, if any, of this has come from the aid budget. This funding has been used for training projects to teach Bahraini police how to "command and control" demonstrators, including sessions on using "less than lethal options" such as water cannons and dogs.

Another CSSF project utilises more than £2million of aid money to support Sri Lanka, part of which includes police reform and training. This comes despite UN reports of “endemic and routine” use of torture against those arrested in the country.

Changing rules

Using aid money in this way - to fund overseas security projects - is hugely problematic as it is diverting aid away from its core purpose. There is legislation in place that states that aid must be spent on alleviating poverty and promoting development.

And there are clear international rules governed by the OECD on aid spending, which only permits aid to security forces in exceptional circumstances, and only on specific activities.

Due to the secretive nature of the CSSF, and the scant information publicly available, it is impossible for anyone, including MPs, to properly scrutinise whether these projects are really consistent with the OECD’s new rules.

In any case, much of the CSSF work that does fall within the rules only does so because the UK government secured a change in rules to include some limited forms of spending on the military, police and counter-terrorism.

And the government has plans to shift the goal posts even further. Their manifesto is explicit on this point, stating: “We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help ... we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules...If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending.”

Securitisation of aid

The whole CSSF project, and the associated drive to redefine aid, is all part of a sinister trend whereby aid is becoming increasingly securitised, used as a public slush-fund to be deployed wherever the government wants to pursue its military, security or counter-terrorism interests.

This means that UK aid is being increasingly skewed towards areas where there is a national self-interest, rather than where the need is greatest. This blurs the lines between promoting development or humanitarian objectives with narrowly-defined national interests. In doing so it risks making  a mockery of the entire aid project.

Core potential

These trends are grim indeed. But the solution is not to end aid. Instead, we must reclaim the concept of aid for what it should be: not a tool to further national security interests, nor a benevolent gift, but, as a form of global wealth redistribution.

Based on the principles of solidarity and justice, aid can, if put to good use, help strengthen democratic public services around the world and promote alternative economic models that deliver for the majority of people.

Aid can help tackle the root causes of inequality and challenge the vulnerability and precariousness of people’s lives. That is why we are calling on the government to close down the CSSF and stop using the aid budget to support its overseas security agenda.

That’s not to say that supporting security forces abroad is always the wrong thing to do, there may be times when this is a necessary thing to do. But to muddy the waters and divert money meant to help the world’s poorest people in order to achieve this is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.

This Author

Aisha Dodwell joined Global Justice Now in July 2015. She works on policy and campaign strategy across a number of topics including food sovereignty, aid policy, migration and corporate power.