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The changing context for UK humanitarian and development activities in FCACs

Article by Tim Molesworth and Phil Vernon

December 6, 2021

The changing context for UK humanitarian and development activities in FCACs

The changing international landscape for humanitarian and development assistance in FCACs

The UK’s overseas aid in coming years will be conditioned by the UK’s national interest as understood through a political lens, and by other domestic political and institutional factors. The nature of UK aid will also necessarily be influenced by international trends beyond those prevailing in each individual country to which aid is delivered. Among those, we highlight the following for discussion:

  • A trend of increased armed violence and instability;
  • Geopolitical flux and uncertainty;
  • A number of influential transnational factors; and
  • Incoherent approaches to the delivery of aid in fragile and conflict affected countries (FCACs).


An increase in intrastate violent conflicts, linked to regional factors and violent extremism

Armed conflicts are on the rise, following a period of improvement after the end of the Cold War. The 2021 Global Peace Index noted there had been a reduction in peacefulness in nine of the past 13 years.[1] During this period, armed conflicts have in the main been sub-national or internal in their manifestation, that is, the actual fighting has been contained within national borders. But they are often interconnected. For example, the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya have been fought mainly within the borders of those countries but with the active involvement of outsiders. Meanwhile, many internal conflicts also spread destabilisation and violence beyond national borders, within the immediate region and even farther field. These international connections make military or political resolution harder. Thus conflicts remain unresolved locally, and they persist and further expand. External actors frequently pursue their own wider conflicts in local theatres. These include not only states or groups of states, but also non-state entities such as violent extremist groups, who have responded to their relative weakness in asymmetric conflict by pouring fuel on local conflict dynamics in multiple localities, upping the stakes and entrenching extremist violence more widely.


The humanitarian consequences of conflicts are severe, leading to vast, prolonged or repeated humanitarian aid programmes. These provide succour for those in need, but they can also prolong the conflict. This is because they protect the warring parties from some of the consequences of their actions, allowing them further leeway to continue prosecuting war. Meanwhile such aid is – or can certainly be painted as – intrinsically political; an indication that donors support one or other parties in the conflict.


Longer-term development aid to fragile countries is even more clearly politically charged, as it inevitably interacts with government choices and policies there, and with politics itself, in places where – by definition, if they are ‘fragile and conflict affected’ – political systems are frequently inadequate to permit sufficient dialogue and peaceful political disagreement and opposition. For example, the provision of large sums of development aid by the UK in Nigeria, despite the Government’s human rights record in areas affected by Islamic extremism, is seen by potential recruits to the extremist cause as evidence that ‘the West’ is not on their side.[2] Therefore one of the challenges for aid agencies remains the delivery of ‘conflict sensitive’ aid, i.e. aid is designed and delivered in ways that avoid exacerbating conflicts, and preferably aim to reduce them.


A background of geopolitical uncertainty

If most violent conflicts are internal, interstate conflicts have not disappeared. In addition to being prosecuted through proxies in internal conflicts, some interstate conflicts continue to be fought directly, albeit in a context where major powers along with the UN or regional multilateral bodies have been relatively successful in keeping them frozen or at a comparatively low level of military action. Long-running conflicts such as those between Pakistan and India or South and North Korea remain unresolved but mainly at a very low level of action, though some flare up from time to time, as happened in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, before Russia re-imposed a ceasefire.


Larger geopolitical conflicts with the potential to develop into direct confrontations also loom increasingly large, especially as the period of US-dominated unipolar geopolitics is ending. US power – or at least its willingness to act decisively – is slowly waning, while China grows in confidence and capacity, and Russia continues to act as though it too has a claim to superpower status. The EU meanwhile is unable to create a mechanism through which its security or diplomatic capacity matches the economic weight it still retains. Regional geopolitics in the Middle East remain influential, notably linked to Israel’s security posture and its treatment of Palestinians, and the enduring enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with their respective allies.


These complex, fragmented and overlapping conflicts and relationships form part of the background to an aid landscape which is also fragmented, at least compared with the Cold War and immediately post-Cold War periods. Much of the aid programmed by the UN and the main International Finance Institutions (IFIs) remains strongly aligned with that given by western states. All this can therefore still largely be considered under the broad heading of ‘western’ aid in support, broadly speaking, of the more or less liberal SDG agenda – even though western governments also allocate their aid in alignment with specific national interests, and for some, it is linked – explicitly or not – to other forms of support such as military assistance: UK and US military assistance in Somalia being one example of this.


Other players such as the Gulf States, Russia and China use their aid more nakedly in support of access to economic and other strategic resources and opportunities. China’s Belt and Road Initiative illustrates this well.[3] Aid fragmentation is on very clear display in the Horn of Africa, where external powers combining aid with their economic or military goals include the US, the EU, the UK, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a web of influence that can be quite hard to unravel.[4] China in particular is seen as loading unsustainable debt levels onto many countries, including fragile countries, as part of its aid for infrastructure programme, much of which is in the form of loans.[5] To an extent, different approaches to aid reflect the political systems of the different donors, with western democracies more focused on conditionality linked to good governance, and programmes that aim to improve citizen – responsive governance, while their geopolitical competitors are less concerned about such factors. Aid is therefore an integral part of the narrative about global competition between democratic and autocratic political ideologies which is highlighted in the UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign.[6]


The challenge for UK aid is therefore to continue to support a liberal concept of ‘progress’, as a way to link its humanitarian and development aid to the foreign policy goals of shaping an evolving geopolitical landscape which maximises cooperation and conflict resolution, but without allowing aid to become simply a tool in a new Cold War.


Transnational factors

A third set of salient factors can be grouped under the heading ‘transnational’, as the Integrated Review does. One of these is international crime, whose networks take advantage of (and in so doing frequently worsen) inadequate governance in fragile countries to operate there, notably for the production and transit of illegal drugs and other goods – as for example the use of the vast and hard to police Sahel for trafficking drugs to Europe.


This phenomenon overlaps with another: the large numbers of migrants from poor and fragile countries seeking safety and opportunity in the developed West, often a great personal risk. Migrants often fall into the hands of organised criminal traffickers. Libya is a well-known location for this, where armed political groups operate as criminal enterprises, trafficking migrants seeking entry to Europe.


Organised crime also overlaps with international terrorism. Terror and organised crime groups make common cause in overcoming and corrupting local and national governments; in many cases, Islamist terrorist organisations are themselves involved in trafficking and smuggling, either directly or by effectively licensing and taxing traffickers.


A fourth factor is the phenomenon of, and the need to manage, transnational health risks. This is seen currently and most obviously in the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to further undermine governance and stability in fragile and conflict affected countries as government services fail to support affected communities and potentially increase levels of alienation and armed opposition.[7] But the destabilisation caused by an outbreak of Ebola in fragile and conflict affected countries in West Africa in 2014-16, including long term long term aid partner Sierra Leone, is also well attested.[8]


Finally, it is increasingly clear that fragile countries are particularly vulnerable to further destabilisation due to the impacts of climate change, for example as competition for land and other economic opportunities ramps up in the face of inadequate governance. This is especially true of fragile countries in the tropics, where some of the direct and indirect environmental impacts of warming are expected to be most marked.[9]


Among the implications of these transnational factors: the need for the UK to work closely with others and especially with multilateral organisations and processes, ensuring that responses to these phenomena are conflict sensitive, and are used to promote stability and longer term, positive peace, as well as respond to the specific issue in question.


Incoherent approaches to the delivery of aid in FCACs

Given this background, aid resources are increasingly concentrated in fragile countries, and that is expected to remain the case.[10] Yet it is by no means clear that current approaches to aid delivery there are coherent, conflict sensitive or as effective as they could be. Partly, this is because of the instrumentalisation of aid for geopolitical competition, which skews design and other decisions. It is also partly due to ineffective programming and poor collaboration, even among experienced international agencies. These are typically siloed, failing to work in a joined up way, as each responds to its own mandate and perceived organisational interests differently. Because implementing agencies compete with one another for funds and opportunities, this further obstructs collaboration and coherence.


But this is not just a matter of poor operational collaboration. There is a tension at the highest level between two opposing forces. On one hand, it is increasingly acknowledged at high levels – at least in western and UN agencies – that aid agencies should support long term, enduring stabilisation and peacebuilding, in line with the UN’s fundamental raison d’être. This is the thrust of the UN’s Sustaining Peace agenda, to which the UN Security Council, General Assembly and UN affiliated agencies (including development banks) are all in principle signed up. This argues for long-term, sustained support for the development of peaceful societies and states. It acknowledges, on paper at least, that this is a complex, multi-generational endeavour requiring appropriate tools.[11] Yet such tools have not yet been developed, at least not on a commensurate scale. Instead, the existing institutions of aid – its organisations, systems and norms, designed for a different purpose – have been largely left intact, while in principle accepting a significantly amended mandate and role to which they are ill-adapted. This is equally true of donors such as the UK, and delivery organisations.


Meanwhile, and on the other hand, major western donors are largely retreating towards an approach that favours short-term stability, even when this is patently at odds with Sustaining Peace, and with some of the acknowledged features of the peaceful societies they claim they wish to build, such as individual freedoms and a dynamic civil society. In some respects, this is a resurgence of realpolitik perspectives in foreign policy where, in the present context, western donor governments actively support fragile country governments such as that of President El Sisi in Egypt, which trample on freedoms and are not obviously making progress towards long-term peace. This support is justified by western governments so long as the countries concerned are aligned with western interests in respect of issues such as migration or violent extremism, or in the interests of regional stability rather than political uncertainty to which political freedoms might give rise.


Partly, this tendency towards realpolitik also represents a frustration at the failure of high profile ‘nation building’ projects in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and the failure of the Arab Spring and similar movements to replace those in power as well as systems of power. Partly, it reflects the genuine difficulty donors have in supporting long-term goals through open ended and unpredictable programming. This is especially the case for democratic donors who have to demonstrate impact for which they are held accountable by parliaments and journalists with limited patience or understanding. Partly too, it reflects the assessment that dealing with some of the complexities analysed above – migration, climate change, epidemics and violent extremism – is simply easier in a context of short term stability, than in the face of the complex and unpredictable dynamics that tend to accompany democratisation and liberalisation. Geopolitical competition creates additional incentives to adopt a realpolitik, rather than be led by the goals of peacebuilding, because western and multilateral aid is so easily outcompeted by less demanding aid from other ‘non-traditional’ sources, which impose less politically difficult conditions.


Finally, the difficulty aid agencies have had in reinventing themselves for the Sustaining Peace model means they are often all too happy to revert – with a sigh of relief, perhaps – to the simpler, technocratic approach to aid they have long been used to. In the absence of a clear operational approach to Sustaining Peace, they have focused attention on technical cooperation under the umbrella of aid frameworks such as the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus. This sets out the needs for better collaboration among agencies delivering different packages of aid, designed for the three broad goals implied by its name.[12] But in practice the Nexus commits them to coordination merely, rather than to developing programming that is coherent with the idea that humanitarian, development and peacebuilding needs and rights co-exist simultaneously in fragile countries and societies, rather than being understood and delivered separately.


Changing UK institutional capacity for humanitarian and development assistance

The UK’s institutional capacity to deliver international assistance within the shifting international context is also changing, due to a reduction in aid spending and institutional changes within government.


The UK aid budget

The UK is, by any measure, a significant international donor. In 2019, it was the third largest donor of Official Development Assistance (ODA), in absolute terms, within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries after the US and Germany, making a contribution of 19.35 billion USD. As a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI), the UK was sixth of OECD countries with its commitment of 0.7 per cent of GNI.[13]


In 2020, the COVID pandemic saw a significant reduction in UK ODA (minus ten per cent), driven by a decline in GNI.[14] This was followed by a reduction of the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on ODA to 0.5 per cent in 2021, leading to an average spending change on ODA of -29 per cent. However, as spending on pandemic related costs, including COVID vaccines donated to other countries and other health related costs count as ODA, some sectors of humanitarian and development assistance suffered significantly steeper cuts than the 29 per cent average. Cuts to the aid budget are set to save around £4.4 billion in 2021, though this constitutes a fraction of the UK Government’s broader pandemic response domestically (£250 billion in 2020-21) or its increase in the defence budget of £4.4 billion in 2021-2022 and a further £4.5 billion in 2022-2023.[15]


The Government has indicated an intention to return to the 0.7 per cent of GNI ODA commitment when the fiscal situation allows. Currently, this is projected to happen in the 2024-2025 fiscal year, depending on certain conditions to be met. How this will translate into the aid budget is not clear, especially given the UK is interested in redefining how it calculates ODA.[16]


Given the size of the UK economy, the UK will remain a significant donor internationally. The sharp decline in aid has significant ramifications for communities which would have otherwise received UK support, particularly in FCACs where the majority of international assistance is directed. This is more than a temporary blip, as well. Aid projects, particularly development or peacebuilding activities, are not able to be turned off and on like switches. They depend on maintaining significant operational capacities among partners (international and national) within recipient countries – which, once unfunded, are difficult to re-establish quickly. They depend also on deep networks and relationships with local stakeholders, authorities and partners, many of which will have been strained or broken by the sudden cessation of projects. This is especially important in FCACs, where trust and a nuanced understanding of complex conflict factors and political economy is essential for effective delivery of aid. These factors have significant consequences for the ability of the UK to deliver humanitarian and development assistance within the short to medium term as spending on ODA recovers.


Changing institutional structures for aid

The institutions through which the UK is delivering assistance are also changing. In 2020, the Government announced the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development (DFID). Proponents of the merger argue both that it makes sense to link aid activities more explicitly with foreign policy and that the separation of aid from other aspects of foreign policy was artificial anyway. Critics suggest that the artificial separation was the strength of DFID, allowing it to get on with the business of addressing poverty effectively with less pressure to tailor activities to foreign policy agendas.


No matter the argument, the merger has happened. The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has incorporated DFID and has to overcome the inevitable internal distraction of managing the structural and cultural challenges of bringing two organisations with different institutional cultures together (at a time when they are also disentangling long-held aid and diplomatic relationships with the EU). Specifically focused on the problems associated with FCACs, the merger also included the UK’s Stabilisation Unit, uniting that with the conflict capacities in FCDO and DFID within a new Conflict and Mediation Unit.


Also in 2020, the Government announced the Integrated Review completed later that year. The Integrated Review was framed as a pivot in the UK approach to foreign policy, promoting a more joined up and strategic approach to the changing world. The link between aid and other foreign policy tools are made clear, the integrated review promises a new international development strategy in 2022, which will ensure alignment of UK aid with the objectives in the strategic framework of the integrated review.


This is particularly the case with aid related to peace and conflict provided through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). The Integrated Review refers to the intent: ‘[t]o tighten the focus of the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. [The UK] will prioritise its resources on the foundational link between stability, resilience and security, and work with governments and civil society in regions that are of greatest priority to the UK.’[17] It also talks about making CSSF assistance ‘politically smart’, language which connects these ideas to concepts such as the Elite Bargains and Political Deals work of the Stabilisation Unit. This work has merit in providing a framework for better linking structural efforts to address conflict to the political realities of peacemaking.


There is a risk, however, that a focus on ‘politically smart’ aid addressing conflict will practically preference the elite bargains and political deals and neglect the longer-term structural peacebuilding activities which are necessary for meaningful and sustained peace. This concern mirrors a sense that the realpolitik perspective identified earlier in this paper is currently more in vogue and that, in practice, shorter term stability and short-term UK interests will be prioritised over sustainable peace – which is surely in the longer term UK interest. This feels at odds with the idea of the UK as a values-led ‘force for good’, reliant on its soft-power to promote its interests in the world.


A final point relating to institutional capacity needs to be made around partnerships. The UK’s aid sector is not just the domain of the Government. It consists of a large number of partners through which aid is implemented, including multilateral organisations, UK and international NGOs and the private sector. Relating to peace and conflict aid in particular, the UK is a powerhouse – with a strong network of peace focused NGOs and a large pool of experts on which to draw. These capacities are also changing. Reductions in aid spending due to COVID-19 have exacerbated the impacts of a steady increase in focus on ‘value for money’, an important aim in a sector reliant on tax-payer money. However, this has seen a shift towards funding through projects rather than core funding, which limits the ability for organisations like NGOs to maintain capacity and expertise that can be drawn on by the Government to help build peace abroad. There is a broader value of this longer-term capacity to the UK that should not be discounted or lost under the rubric of ‘efficiency’.



The UK’s aid activities are changing in response to uncertainty both in the international environment and as a result of domestic institutional changes which have not yet reached their conclusion. As UK aid goes through this process, a few key elements are important for the UK to take into account when looking at how aid will be delivered in FCACs:


  • The UK is likely to see the largest portion of its aid going towards FCACs, due largely to need, but also to the explicit link made in the Integrated Review between aid and the UK’s strategic priorities. To be effective, this aid needs to be defined and delivered with a clear emphasis on conflict sensitivity and building stability and peace. It needs to be framed – and reported on – showing its explicit contribution to peacebuilding, within a long-term strategic approach in each context.


  • The UK’s aid activities need to find the correct balance between efforts aimed at promoting stability, for example through elite bargains and political deals, with the need also to address the structural drivers of violent conflict. ‘Politically smart’ aid should look to create the opportunities, through stability, to then allow for longer-term structural change which is necessary for the evolution of like-minded peaceful societies the UK would like to see. To do so, however, it is necessary to ensure that these politically smart activities are linked to long-term theories of change for conflict transformation and that this theory of change is followed through in consecutive UK political cycles.


  • The UK cannot meaningfully act alone in FCACs. The size of its aid programmes, and its expertise in dealing with peace and conflict, provide it with a strong convening capacity around international assistance. The UK should leverage this to maximise the collective impact of international aid towards peace. The UK should invest in making tools like the humanitarian-development-peace nexus more effective for strategic coordination in support of peace, investing in conflict sensitive coordination and advisory mechanisms, and championing conflict sensitive approaches within the broader international humanitarian and development sector. This means going beyond the better coordination, currently the focus of the HDP Nexus, to radically reform parts of the UN aid delivery institutions in line with Sustaining Peace.


  • As the UK embarks on defining a new development strategy, and new frameworks for addressing conflict through the FCDO’s new Conflict and Mediation unit, it should ensure that it does not fall into the trap of excluding its wider network of partners. The UK’s capacity to engage in FCACs meaningfully depends on its networks of NGOs and independent experts based in the UK and elsewhere. Certainly, in an environment of aid cuts, it should commit to maintaining a base capacity within those networks.


Tim Molesworth is the Senior Advisor for Conflict Sensitivity and Peace Technology at the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK based peacebuilding NGO. He has 11 years’ experience working with the UN and NGOs in contexts such as Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya on strategic approaches to peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity.


Phil Vernon is an independent advisor with over 35 years’ experience in international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding.


Image by DFID under (CC).


[1] Institute for Economics & Peace, Global Peace Index 2021, June 2021,

[2] John Campbell, U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Preventive Action, Special Report No. 70, November 2014,

[3] OECD, China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Global Trade, Investment and Finance Landscape, OECD Business and Finance Outlook, 2018,

[4] Alexander Rondos, The Horn of Africa – Its Strategic Importance for Europe, the Gulf States, and Beyond, Horizons 6, Winter: 150-160, CIRSD, 2016,

[5] Zainab Usman, What do we know about Chinese lending in Africa?, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, June 2021,

[6] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

[7] UN News, COVID-19 pandemic ‘feeding’ drivers of conflict and instability in Africa: Guterres, May 202,

[8] Conciliation Resources, Responding to Ebola-driven conflict: Dialogue initiatives in Mano River border regions, March 2015,

[9] Dan Smith & Janani Vivekananda, A Climate of Conflict: The links between climate change, peace and war, International Alert, November 2007,

[10] OECD DAC, States of Fragility 2020, OECD, September 2020,

[11] UN. 2015. The challenge of sustaining peace: report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 review of the United Nations peacebuilding architecture. New York: UN.

[12] The Nexus is identified as a priority within the integrated review.

[13] OECD, Development finance data,

[14] OECD, COVID-19 spending helped to lift foreign aid to an all-time high in 2020: Detailed Note, April 2021,

[15] Sam Hughes, Ian Mitchell, Yani Tyskerud & Ross Warwick, The UK’s reduction in aid spending, IFS Briefing Note BN322, Institute of Financial Studies, April 2021,

[16] Philip Loft & Philip Brien, The 0.7% aid target, House of Commons Library Research Briefing Number 3714, House of Commons Library, November 2021,

[17] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

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