Last year, Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist with a particular interest in “democratization and civil unrest” wrote for Foreign Policy about a method of using statistics to forecast political events and published a list of the top twenty regimes at risk of falling. While it’s not quite Nate Silver and 538, his method, it turns out, is pretty prescient. He notes (my emphasis):
“…Most countries in the top 20 land there because they are poor and have competitive authoritarian or partially democratic political regimes. Unsurprisingly, coups also turn out to be a recurrent problem; the risk is higher in countries that have experienced other coup attempts in the past several years, a factor common to the top eight countries on this list. Active insurgencies also increase the risk of a coup, and this factor affected the 2012 forecast for countries like Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan. Ditto for civil wars and popular uprisings in regional neighbors and slow economic growth, common themes in several regions, including West and Central Africa.”
Last weekend, Andrew Mitchell on the Westminster Hour and George Osborne in the Observer made the case – which has often, sadly, been ignored in recent years – that good development and wise use of our aid budget are in Britain’s national interest as well as being a morally good thing to do. This morning, there is a great flurry about David Cameron’s remarks from India about aid money being used for stability operations and peacekeeping by the Ministry of Defence.
It should be obvious that instability breeds chaos which breeds breakdown in government and governance, which in turn means that those unstable nations are unable to offer their citizens either services or hope (I wrote more about this in the Bright Blue book). Earlier intervention is both more effective and less expensive than late intervention – basically, it’s cheaper and better to head off problems rather than have to deliver troops on the ground or deal with a humanitarian catastrophe. I have argued again and again that the underlying aim of our engagements in these areas must be to aim to end aid by helping other nations to become trading partners – and that means that as well as education, healthcare and infrastructure, governance must be at the heart of what our aid does.
Max Lawson of Oxfam on this morning’s Today programme (from 1hr 52mins in) said he opposed this “false choice… between the poorest people on the planet… and the military”, these “insane choices between the safety of a family and their health and education. That shouldn’t be the case”, and that “British people expect it [aid] to be spent on hospitals not helicopter gunships”. I take his point about the need to clearly demarcate between development intervention and military activity, but sadly he is wrong (the money would not be spent on equipment but rather on the cost of delivering the operation) and also only telling half the story about the rationale for aid.
I have had a number of discussions with various development NGOs about the need to make a hard-headed case for our aid budget (and relatedly to focus on governance and thereby the causes of the awful situations they are trying to alleviate), and sadly many of them seem to feel that they prefer to continue to tug on our heartstrings and ignore the fundamental point that we do not have very much money as a nation, that it must be spent wisely and if we can do so in a way that so clearly benefits our national interest as well as the interests of the poorest people in the world, then we should not shy away from making that case.
Aid and development are hugely political. As Jay Ulfelder points out, and as we can see in Mali, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Algeria (the list goes on), unstable and fragile states are a threat to our national interest. If and where we can help democracy, stability and prosperity to spread and grow, we have a moral and a selfish interest to do so.