21 August 2020

To forge Global Britain, it’s vital that overseas aid and the armed forces work together

By Daniel Kawczysnki MP

Britain has always been a nation that punched above its weight in global affairs. Whilst we may no longer possess a world-spanning Empire, the UK is still home to institutions which make a difference around the world.

The BBC World Service offers comfort and information to citizens of oppressive governments. Our armed forces support friendly nations and deter would-be aggressors. And UK Aid has become a powerful symbol of our commitment to helping those developing countries.

When we voted to leave the European Union, some feared that this signalled a retreat from our generous, internationalist position. Of course, this was not the case, and the Government is committed to making a reality of ‘Global Britain’.

But whilst our negotiators are out striking trade deals, there is a real danger that these other vital pillars of our global profile will be neglected.

Combating the Covid-19 pandemic has required unprecedented intervention in the economy, on an extraordinary scale. Whilst I think the Chancellor was right to promise to do “whatever it takes” to keep Britain afloat, there’s no escaping the fact that furlough and all the rest will need to be paid for.

And if the axe has to fall somewhere, the foundations of ‘global Britain’ could find themselves on the chopping block. Public anger at perceived misuse of the overseas aid budget – encouraged by the legally-binding 0.7% spending commitment – is growing, and there is concern that the decision to merge the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign Office signals a weakening commitment to its vital work.

Even worse, the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) poses some very painful choices about the future of the armed forces. Even if the rumours of cutting 20,000 troops from the Army are wide of the mark, such reductions could cripple our ability to respond to threats in an increasingly dangerous world.

In order to protect these vital national assets at a time of tightening budgets, we must use them much more intelligently and find new ways for them to support each other. Which is why I am urging ministers to expand the role of the armed forces in delivering our overseas aid commitments.

Our troops are already well prepared for such a role. In fact, they are already regularly deployed in humanitarian and disaster relief operations – for example, providing engineering and medical support to UN operations in Sudan. The MoD is also the second-highest spending department when it comes to contributing to programmes under the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), the Government’s mechanism for funding conflict prevention, stabilisation, security and peacekeeping activities.

Forging a closer working relationship between the armed forces and our international development work would benefit both.

On the military side, part of our legally enshrined aid budget could be used to take some of the strain off the MoD, which is running huge structural deficits. This could not just be used to pay for operations but also to protect funding for non-combat assets, such as hospital ships, which can play an important role in humanitarian work but may be squeezed by defence cuts.

And with nation-building such an important part of modern warfare, troops involved in international development would be honing skills they could put to use winning hearts and minds in and after future conflicts.

Critics might claim that this is siphoning off the aid budget to the military. But in fact, there is already clear precedent for such a move: the MoD already recoups its excess costs for some disaster relief and similar missions from DfID. I’m simply proposing to deepen this existing relationship.

On the other side, those overseeing UK Aid would be able to call upon the skills, personnel, and equipment of our world-class armed forces. Closer collaboration between military leaders and the aid sector would also fit with the Government’s ambition to bring a more focused and strategic outlook to Britain’s international development work.

It could also help to boost recruitment and raise the profile of the military with internationally-minded young people. Perhaps we could even end up with a specialist, non-combat regiment of the Reserves that specialised in aid and disaster-relief work, giving ordinary Britons a chance to get involved on the front line. Ministers should not be afraid to be bold!

One of the biggest flaws in the 2015 SDSR was that it shied away from asking the hard questions about how we operate. We can no longer afford to allow attachment to the old way of doing things to stand in the way of what’s best for Britain. Overseas aid and the armed forces are both vital to the UK’s global role. It’s time they worked together.

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Daniel Kawczynski is the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.