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Do militarised responses belong in the UK’s International Development Strategy?

Article by Lewis Brooks and Julia Poch Figueras

June 20, 2022

Do militarised responses belong in the UK’s International Development Strategy?

Conflict and authoritarianism are on the rise. This won’t surprise anyone reading about events in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and elsewhere. The new UK International Development Strategy (IDS), published in May this year, reveals how the UK plans to deal with this shifting geopolitical landscape. If it is going to prevent future crises and support development, the strategy must steer efforts to address the causes of conflict while avoiding the harms that come from overzealous use of force by the UK or its allies.


The humanitarian impact of insecurity on development is clear – not least its horrendous effects on women and girls. Conflicts create global security challenges that impact the UK: shrinking the pool of democratic states, increasing corruption, impacting the global economy, and creating conditions for transnational crime and armed groups to thrive. But the use of violence in response to transnational security threats can exacerbate these challenges and risks sowing the seeds of future crises and inequalities.


What’s in the International Development Strategy on conflict?

The Government includes the need to address conflict in the International Development Strategy to ‘prevent the worst forms of human suffering’. There are also references to tackling the root causes of conflict and security challenges; leadership in the area of women, peace and security; and a new conflict and atrocity prevention hub. But prioritising ‘tackling conflict and insecurity’ is less explicit than in previous aid strategies and in last year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.[1] However, there are positive links made to climate change where the IDS notes that ‘[w]omen, children and those living in conflict-affected states are most affected’, and the specific focus on women and girls is encouraging despite not recognising gender as a cross-cutting priority issue.


A positive development is the proposed shift in how the UK administers aid for development towards decentralisation and ‘reducing bureaucracy’. The strategy commits that ‘those who benefit from our work must have a voice in what we do, and how we do it’ and reforms ‘must be locally owned’. Ambassadors and High Commissioners will now have more agency to take decisions. Timelines for business cases will be cut and paperwork reduced. There is also an emphasis on a ‘patient approach’ to development. Taken together these could enhance the UK’s approach to conflict prevention: understanding the context to respond effectively and flexibly in collaboration with those caught in conflict as part of a long-term plan for peace. However, there are some potential inherent contradictions in what is being proposed and the strategy risks prioritising shortcuts to security over the long-term investments needed in the partnerships, analysis and political will to tackle underlying drivers of conflict.


The risks of a ‘hard’ security approach

Woven throughout the policy – and much more explicit in the recent Mansion House speech by the Foreign Secretary – are hints of ‘harder’ approaches: using the military to build the ‘security and resilience capabilities’ of other nations; improving ‘cyber and physical security’; and partnering with allies like the Gulf states who ‘will address malign dynamics such as terrorism and extremism, serious and organised crime, and irregular migration’.[2] The UK works with security forces across the world to increase their capacity through training, mentorships and providing arms and other military equipment for partner security forces.[3]


The majority of attacks and civilian casualties due to terrorism and organised crime occur in conflict-affected countries. There is a development and security interest in stopping this violence. Yet as a new synthesis of Saferworld research on the war on terror finds, interventions too often perpetuate the same drivers of conflict that the UK and other nations promise to address: corruption, exclusion and abuses.[4] In a bid to tackle ‘terrorists’, the UK and others reinforce the security forces of kleptocratic, patriarchal and authoritarian regimes, who exclude and oppress their people.


One such UK ally is Egypt, whose regime has benefited from UK diplomatic support, military training and arms sales. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military has taken over more of the economy; and used the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’ to abuse and detain human rights defenders, journalists, transgender people and the political opposition. Security forces are accused of abuses against sexual and gender minorities and being complicit in cases of gender-based violence (GBV).[5] Egyptian security forces have failed to halt violations of human rights by the ISIS-affiliated armed group known as Wilayat Sinai or Sinai Province and carry out their own abuses. Many other UK allies fit a similar profile: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or individual groups like the Libyan militias trained as counter-migration ‘coastguard’ by the EU and UK.[6]


These interventions have been a nightmare for development, human rights and democracy. Those trying to deliver humanitarian aid or broker peace have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Aid was even withheld from rebel areas in Syria to avoid contact with fundamentalist armed groups – increasing risk of starvation for civilians who couldn’t access the relief.[7] The narrow focus on stopping armed groups from recruiting is hindering efforts to build genuine, long-term stability. For example, these initiatives exploit the stereotype of the ‘peaceful mother or sister’ by using women to gather intelligence on their communities – but they don’t support these women to improve their political or economic rights. Women are treated as just another resource, and harmful social and gender norms are another useful tool in the pursuit of short-sighted objectives. The role that masculinities play in conflict, violence and recruitment is usually ignored in these responses.[8]


It is unsurprising that these interventions are exclusionary and top-down – planned in male- and elite-dominated spaces, and failing to seek the participation of civil society. They don’t try to understand the root causes of exclusion, inequality, injustice and insecurity in people’s daily lives, and they ignore minority groups’ experiences, needs and concerns. This is particularly concerning when we know that a country’s economic, political and social development increases with the active contribution of the majority of its population, and that the effectiveness of peace processes depends on the participation and buy-in of the affected groups.[9] So it is in the Sahel, where the international community has poured vast resources into countering armed groups and the ‘threat’ of irregular migration, while state security forces abuse and marginalise communities. The result: underlying conflicts have not been resolved and now the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, is stepping in to exploit the crisis.


All this leaves the International Development Strategy at risk of trying to walk in two opposite directions: addressing some of the causes of conflict and human suffering while trying to take a short cut to security by addressing the symptoms only.


Where next for the UK’s conflict efforts

The Government must now fill in the gaps, iron out the inconsistencies and add detail to the commitments set out in the International Development Strategy. Whatever policies come next, the central theme of them should be addressing the root causes of crises. Support for open societies, particularly for democracy and human rights, is a glaring omission in the IDS, given its prominence in the Integrated Review.[10] Poor governance, marginalisation and corruption are significant drivers of conflict – all issues that open societies help to expose and tackle.


Diplomats and officials now turn to making the strategy a reality. Their choices must mitigate the risks of security partnerships, either by improving training or investing in democratic civilian oversight. And officials should decisively end partnerships where the recipient is more likely to foment conflict than end it. Mitigation is a strategic necessity; it can’t be a box-ticking exercise.


The UK National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security is a reasonable starting point on gender equality. Women’s and girls’ challenges should not be treated in isolation but as part of a set of norms that structure the discrimination and abuse against them and other marginalised groups, including sexual and gender minorities. A gender analysis of the strategy’s priorities would identify the root causes of conflict and violence and how to address them to advance towards a more just, equal and peaceful society. It should be a priority to include women from diverse backgrounds in decision-making processes they are traditionally excluded from.


Finally, we need more detail on the commitments to localisation – the UK must prioritise giving those affected by conflict a greater say and role in ending it. Not as faceless sub-contractors to a grant fed down through layers of INGOs and consortia – but as civil society, communities, protest movements, faith groups, women activists and women’s and girls’ rights organisations – in other words, the people who are best placed to respond to the conflict dynamics they identify and take advantage of the peace opportunities their networks connect them to.


The strategic conflict framework alluded to by Minister Vicky Ford in February must be the vehicle for drawing together the threads left dangling by the International Development Strategy and taking them further.[11] Only by addressing the root causes of conflict and focusing on long-term, equitable peace and development – rather than on short-term threats – can the UK’s approach to conflict be classed as a development strategy.


Lewis Brooks is the UK Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at Saferworld where he leads the organisation’s engagement on security, development and conflict policy as well as contributing on themes such as arms export controls and gender, peace and security. He has spent the last 9 years in various advocacy, policy, project management and research roles focused particularly on conflict and human rights. Immediately prior to Saferworld, Lewis was the Head of Policy and Research for the Royal Commonwealth Society – leading their Commonwealth approach to promoting LGBT rights. 


Julia Poch Figueras works as a Gender and Peacebuilding Adviser at Saferworld where she focuses on integrating a gender transformational approach into peace and security-related programmes, research, policy and advocacy. She has contributed to several research and analysis on gender, peace and security in several contexts such as Colombia, South Sudan, Uganda and South Asia, and regularly engages in advocacy initiatives on women, peace and security in the UK and the EU.


[1] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age, March 2021,

[2] FCDO and The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, The return of geopolitics: Foreign Secretary’s Mansion House speech at the Lord Mayor’s 2022 Easter Banquet,, April 2022,

[3] Abigail Watson and Lewis Brooks, ‘Persistent Engagement’, Persistent Risk: The impact of UK security assistance on rights and peace, Saferworld, October 2021,

[4] Larry Attree and Jordan Street, No shortcuts to security: Learning from responses to armed conflicts involving proscribed groups, Saferworld, May 2022,

[5] HRW, Egypt: Security Forces Abuse, Torture LGBT People, October 2020,

[6] Ruben Andersson and David Keen, Partners in crime? The impact of Europe’s outsourced migration controls on peace, stability and rights, Saferworld, July 2019,

[7] David Keen, Syria: playing into their hands, Saferworld, October 2017,

[8] Catherine Powell and Women Around the World, Gender, Masculinities, and Counterterrorism, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2019,

[9] Donald Steinberg, Peace Missions and Gender Equality: Ten Lessons from the Ground, International Crisis Group, March 2009,

[10] Rowan Popplewell, Why the UK government’s international development strategy is a big gamble, May 2022,

[11] Vicky Ford MP, Letter to Baroness Anelay of St Johns DBE, Tom Tugendhat MP and Sarah Champion MP, FCDO, February 2022,

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