Issue 11 - Article 7

Aid Policy and Post-Modern Conflict: A Critical Review

May 1, 1998
Mark Duffield, Senior Lecturer, International Development Department at the School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, UK

This article seeks to capture the main lines of a discussion paper, the full text of which will be available at the end of June 1998.

The discussion paper concerns the changing nature of aid policy; in particular, humanitarian assistance and the trend toward conflict resolution and social reconstruction in situations of ongoing political crisis. The need to examine the nature of conflict and policy implications has to be set against the changing character of modern warfare. For several decades, a clear majority of all conflicts and protracted political crises have been occurring within and across state boundaries rather than between formally constituted governments. Moreover, compared to inter-state conflicts, these so-called internal or intra-state wars are often characterised by their longevity and deep-seated nature. The exact number of wars at any one time is subject to argument and varies according to the data used (numbers killed, duration, etc.). Recent research has suggested that the predominance of internal war is a post-World War II phenomenon; indeed that it reverses the pre-war situation where inter-state conflict predominated. Moreover, the incidence of internal war is estimated to have increased five-fold since 1960 to reach about 50 in the mid 1990s. While the number of conflicts has oscillated over this period, the trend has undoubtedly been upwards. Even assuming that this has now peaked and new forms of instability are not developing (and this is a big assumption), if internal war declined at a similar rate, it would take until about 2025 to reach the levels prevalent during the 1950s.

Since the end of the Cold War, responding to internal wars and their consequences has become an issue of increasing concern. Over this period, however, there has been an important change in approach. From the mid 1980s, relief and humanitarian expenditure grew rapidly to peak at about $9 billion in 1994: a six-fold increase in less than a decade. Since this period, however, spending on humanitarian assistance has declined to an estimated $3.75 billion in 1997 (Stockton, 1998). That this decline reflects a corresponding decrease in the number of people deserving of humanitarian assistance is a matter of dispute. What is more certain, however, is that the experience of Somalia and Bosnia have cautioned donor governments against ill-judged involvement in complex emergencies. At the same time, there has been a shift in emphasis towards formulating ways of preventing local conflicts developing into larger conflagrations and, at the same time, to peacefully resolve and ameliorate existing disputes. This challenge has been embraced across the spectrum of aid agencies. That is, from NGOs, independent think-tanks, intergovernmental organisations, and the UN system to donor governments.

In examining these issues, it is clear that aid policy has altered significantly within the past couple of decades. Of crucial importance has been the demise of political world movements that represented an alternative to the western liberal-democratic model of development; namely Third Worldism and the Socialist Party State. While encouraging widespread social and political change, the absence of a credible opposition to liberal democracy has also allowed a certain blurring of international agendas in the North. As a result, aid policy appears to have narrowed in breadth and focus. For example, current approaches to development in Africa and transition in the European East seem increasingly interchangeable. Compared to the Cold War period, aid policy is now much less concerned with the interconnections and tensions between states. Rather, it is the structures and relations within them that are its main concern. Since liberal democracy now represents the dominant model, it is perhaps understandable that such relations should be viewed in an increasingly uniform light.

Within this process of narrowing, a significant occurrence has been the blurring of security and development concerns. Aid has always played a political role. During the Cold War, however, its role was different to that of today. Security was then largely conceived in terms of antagonisms between states and was approached on the basis of military deterrence and the formation of political alliances and blocs. It was in relation to helping maintain the latter that aid was frequently employed. The demise of alternative political systems and the increasing focus on intra-state relations, however, has changed both the meaning of security and aid’s relation to it. Rather than inter-state tensions, wider security objectives are now more concerned with the regional implications for stability of such internal matters as poverty, crime, population growth, and so on. Insofar as current approaches to development cooperation also aim to address these conditions, there has been a merging of security and development concerns. Development is now widely regarded as the foundation of stability and, at the same time, stability has become the necessary basis for development. They have become complementary, interchangeable and mutually reinforcing categories.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a reinterpretation of the role of humanitarian assistance in internal conflicts. During the Cold War, relief and development were often seen as mutually exclusive under such conditions. Development aid, for example, was regarded as conferring political legitimacy and hence unsuitable in many cases. Now, however, humanitarian assistance alone is usually regarded as insufficient. While in some political crises, the resumption of normal development links might remain problematic, it is argued that humanitarian aid should not contradict or undermine the longer-term aims of development; for example, by creating dependency or fuelling wars. At the same time, aid agencies should attempt to pursue appropriate development goals as and when opportunities arise. In rejecting the mutually exclusive nature of relief and development under conflict conditions, such thinking has also contributed to a blurring of these categories. There has emerged, at least in policy terms, a form of ‘developmental relief’ in which the focus of assistance has shifted from supporting people to that of strengthening institutions and processes.

Such changes underpin the shift in aid policy away from humanitarian assistance towards attempting to support development in conflict situations. This is manifest in the growing interest among aid agencies in conflict resolution and social reconstruction activities – a development, moreover, that relates directly to the merging of security and development. Many conflict resolution agencies, for example, see themselves as attempting to go beyond the limitations of humanitarian aid by directly addressing the causes of conflict. That is, through advocating sustainable development and supporting measures that encourage social and political integration and co-operation. If violent conflict can be resolved in this manner, development could proceed and assume its role as guarantor of future stability.

The discussion paper examines the changes in aid policy in relation to their conceptual rigour and empirical validity. At the same time, it is concerned to point out the implications and consequences of this shift. The focus on internal relations, the merging of security and development, together with the search for new co-operative arrangements to achieve a better outcome for aid now constitute a powerful and formative set of ideas. At the same time, however, this position rests on rather a narrow range of assumptions concerning the nature of conflict and society. An important concern is that solutions to violence spring directly from the assumptions themselves.

As already implied, internal war is largely understood as stemming from a combination of poverty, resource competition and weak institutions. In other words, as originating in underdevelopment. At the same time, violence is thought to spread on the basis of local breakdowns in communication, misunderstandings and mutual fear. Therefore, it follows that stability can be promoted through growth and sustainable development while political violence can be eradicated with co-operative integration and education.

Because of the direct and intuitive relation between assumptions and solutions, aid policy says little about the actual nature of the emerging political formations in the South. The existing social dynamics or the real relations linking politics and the economy are seldom examined. On the contrary, one more often encounters views of the developmental or transitional condition in which what is described is little more than a youthful, if often wayward, version of a liberal democratic ideal; a generational gap which the magic of development will close. At the same time, in depicting conflict as originating in underdevelopment, the significance and singularity of political violence is minimised. It appears as something abnormal or transitory that development will eventually abolish. Consequently, aid policy has difficulty in considering internal war as symptomatic of the expansion of new and innovative forms of political economy. This weakness is especially important today when globalisation has given many transnational companies a renewed confidence in their ability to expand even in areas that are unstable. If only to eliminate the possibility, it should at least be considered that the pattern of growth currently unfolding may itself contain the seeds of continuing insecurity. Aid policy, based on the mechanical assumption that development will cure conflict, contains a strong tendency to normalise situations. Even where high levels of political violence and unpredictability continue.

The paper acknowledges that the end of the Cold War has created many new opportunities for international solidarity. The merging of security and development, for example, could be restated in terms of the ‘low politics’ of poverty and human rights having become the ‘high politics’ of governments. That such issues are now prominently on the political agenda and have entered the public domain is a welcome development. At the same time, globalisation has forged new links between international and local actors. Although strong isolationist tendencies exist, these links have helped reconfirm a collective responsibility. The attempt to develop co-operative forms of assistance and, especially, market expansion has also created new opportunities for Southern governments. For some, they promise an escape from aid dependency and a renewed development of social politics. Stability, improving life-chances and greater human freedoms, however, will not miraculously appear of their own accord. Indeed, the current period holds as many dangers as it does promises. It is in the spirit of wishing to support those opportunities that exist that this discussion paper focuses on the structure and limitations of aid policy.


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