The resignation of Priti Patel and the securitisation of UK development aid

by Dr. Eamonn McConnon, Research Fellow at IICRR

The headlines

The news that Priti Patel has stepped down over meetings with Israeli government officials is a story with many angles. There is the issue of whether Prime Minister Teresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did or did not know about these meetings, whether they were informally sanctioned or a solo run by an ambitious minister. Another angle focuses on May’s bolstering of support for Brexit within her cabinet with the appointment of Brexit supporter Penny Mordaunt as Patel’s replacement. But behind this headline of the resignation of the UK’s Secretary for International Development due to an ill-advised holiday in Israel is a story about the current state of UK development policy and the further entrenchment of the relationship between development aid and national security.


“No security without development, no development without security”

A number of factors have driven the closer connection between security and development. One is the need to bring together a broad range of expertise in order to resolve long running conflicts and in cases such as Sierra Leone and Mozambique sustained development aid commitments were an important part of peace processes. This gave rise to the mantra “no security without development, no development without security”. Another factor is the desire of donor states to address risks to their own national security, in particular the threat of terrorism and violent extremism. The logic being that development aid can stabilise fragile states, educate young people to prevent them turning towards extremism, educate militaries and police on human rights, contain the spread of infectious diseases, mitigate the effects of climate change so that they do not cause conflict and so on. This means that there are big assumptions of what development aid is expected to achieve and the definition of the concept of development is being stretched. However, there are restrictions on what development aid can be spent on laid out be Organisation for Cooperation on Economic Development (OECD) which prohibits the purchase of military equipment or services, peacekeeping or counter terrorism. Among development scholars and practitioners there is a split between those who believe that a closer cooperation between security and development actors is necessary to end conflict and those who fear that development goals will be side-lined in favour of military goals.


The UK as a development policy leader

The case of the UK is interesting because its development agency The Department for International Development (DfID) was established to allow greater freedom to set development policy independent of the needs of foreign policy or security policy. It was a leader in the coordination of security and development in the late 1990s and set out very clear conditions for how development aid could be used for security matters. These were that the activity should be focused on poverty alleviation, development policy should not be secondary to military policy and it should be focused on the security of the most vulnerable and not the security of the UK. In addition to this DfID introduced the International Development Act in 2002 which made it law that UK development aid could only be spent on poverty alleviation and put an end to the use of tied aid by the UK. However, since 9/11, the War on Terror and UK involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a slide away from this clear position towards justifying UK development aid in terms of UK national interests and national security.


Priti Patel’s holiday in Israel

How does this connect to a holiday in Israel? Priti Patel was a controversial appointment as Secretary for International Development back in July 2016 due to her previous statements that DfID should be scrapped and replaced with a development agency with a greater focus on trade. But during her short tenure she did not implement any sweeping reforms or try to row back on the UK’s commitment to spend .7% of GDP on aid. She did, however, maintain a discourse connecting development aid with international conflict and threats to UK national security. During a visit to Nigeria in August a range of aid commitments were made by Patel on education, famine relief and preventing slavery. These commitments were framed not just in terms of development but as part of the fight against Boko Haram and addressing threats to UK national security.


Patel is reported to have met with Israeli officials in the illegally occupied Golan Heights. The purpose of this visit was to discuss the possibility of using UK development aid to support an Israeli military hospital. The development rationale was that the hospital would be used to treat refugees fleeing from conflict in Syria. Aside from the breach of protocol which has been widely reported, this represents an extreme and unprecedented step for DfID in using development aid for security purposes. To suggest spending aid money in a country which is an expansive military presence in its region, builds settlements on illegally occupied land and to propose spending that money on a military hospital in one of the illegally occupied territories is a long way from the founding principles of DfID.


It stands in stark contrast to another clash between a Prime Minister and a Development Secretary back in 2001. On that occasion Development Secretary Clare Short attempted to veto the sale of military radar worth £28m to Tanzania on the basis that the equipment was not necessary and the money would be better spent on alleviating poverty in Tanzania. Prime Minister Tony Blair overruled her and the sale went ahead, but it showed the desire to disentangle development from UK national interests. This latest incident shows how far DfID has drifted from its original clearly defined criteria for cooperation between development and security. It suggests that the definition of development and how poverty alleviation connects to foreign policy and national security interests is being stretched ever further and the relationship between development and UK national security interests have become deeply entrenched.


For more information on this topic see the article: “Security for all, Development for Some? The Incorporation of security in UK Development Policy” published in Journal for International Development (2014)

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