Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Stabilisation and the implications for development in fragile contexts

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Sheelagh Stewart - Head of Stabilisation Unit

Stuart Gordon - Associate Research Fellow, Chatham House


Penny Lawrence - International Programmes Director, Oxfam


James Darcy - Senior Research Fellow, ODI

This event was hosted by the Overseas Development Institute to discuss the implications of the increasingly presumed link between security and development prevalent in policy discourse. Sheelagh Stewart, Head of the Stabilisation Unit and Stuart Gordon, Associate Research Fellow at Chatham House presented on their own understandings of the role that stabilisation plays within the security to development continuum, with Penny Lawrence, International Programmes Director of Oxfam, acting as discussant.

Sheelagh Stewart

Stewart covered five key topics in her presentation:

·         What is stabilisation?

·         Why does the Stabilisation Unit care about conflict?

·         What does the Stabilisation Unit do?

·         What does stabilisation mean for development?

·         How are stabilisation and development related?

Stewart argued that stabilisation involves preventing conflict, requiring both upstream prevention and pre-emption and downstream response. The Stabilisation Unit is HMG’s ‘go to’ mechanism to address conflict issues in fragile states. It is operable across all fragile states.

Conflict has become a pressing issue for three key reasons:

1.       Due to the particular challenges faced by countries suffering from conflict in attaining the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, in countries like Zimbabwe, where there is nascent conflict, human development has also been set back.

2.       Conflict is expensive, with estimates that a new conflict costs over US$64 billion – almost the total value of global development aid in one year. This cost is exacerbated by income lost as a result of conflict.

3.       The risk of regional spill over has long been recognised. However, there are now also fears that spill over could occur into the UK, posing domestic threats such as terrorism and international crime.

Stewart argued that the manner in which we respond to conflict matters critically, given the lack of clear divides between civilians and combatants and war and home fronts in contemporary conflict. The nature of conflict is further changing in relation to political settlements. In the past, casualties after political settlement constituted only 5 per cent of total casualties, whereas they now constitute 30 per cent, suggesting that political settlements are not ending violence. Given these new modalities of conflict, Stewart suggests that our responses must also adapt.

What’s been learned about response so far?

1.       The Stabilisation Unit is attempting to provide an integrated response to stabilisation – one plan, implemented by one lead agency in an effort to make the response clearly understood.

2.       Civilian planners are needed in planning stages and should be reflected in command structures, because stabilisation plans are not military plans.

The Stabilisation Unit has focused on four lines of activity:

1.       Security

2.       Political settlement (this needs to be inclusive, as exclusion potentially leads to radicalisation and conflict)

3.       Welfare (water, health and education programmes – these also need to be inclusive)

4.       Livelihoods (can people make a living? Ultimately this is what stabilisation seeks to achieve)

Does this amount to a militarisation of aid?

Stewart pointed to the manner in which aid can be heavily skewed by conflict, having a severely negative impact on its poverty reduction dividend. Stewart argued that there should be more aid directed towards conflict affected areas to rectify this. She pointed out that places characterised by conflict also tend to lack basic infrastructure and frequently have low population centres. The lack of aid to these areas has exacerbated existing exclusions and a lack of aid in future would further marginalise them.

Rather than representing the militarisation of aid, Stewart argued that stabilisation is the beginning of development, merely happening in hostile environments. The Stabilisation Unit will not get involved in programming if it cannot be linked to longer-term development agendas. Operations also remain civilian-, rather than military-led. The necessary military component of stabilisation is importantly different from usual military activities, for instance in valuing infrastructure (it sees no point in bombing roads and buildings that will simply have to be rebuilt later as a development cost).

There are also efforts to learn lessons from the Stabilisation Unit’s programmes on the ground and feed these back into policy. For instance, through experiences in Afghanistan, the concept of “courageous restraint” has emerged, which urges soldiers not to shoot on sight, but rather to show restraint and wait. This leads to less deaths and provides better intelligence.

Stuart Gordon

Gordon covered three key topics in his presentation:

·         Link between stabilisation and development

·         Challenges for stabilisation

·         New stabilisation ambitions under the UK coalition government

Gordon highlighted that development discourse is increasingly concerned with fragile states and the relationship between security and development. Public administration reform and service delivery are seen as a means to improve governance and foster stability. From this approach, the development industry has started to articulate a stabilisation agenda.

At the same time, the security sector has become increasingly interested in development, as a means to foster stability and win ‘hearts and minds’. Security and development are therefore not competing, but rather overlapping narratives, in which tensions exist.

Gordon articulated five challenges for the stabilisation agenda:

1.       May decrease the effectiveness of development (by privileging one community over another)

2.       Construction of political settlements (these are difficult to create by foreign, international actors and cannot simply be based upon elite agreement)

3.       May limit access to some groups of people and endanger workers (focusing on the ‘conflict areas’ may mean ignoring other areas in need and making resources ‘political’, therefore endangering employees who deliver or supply these resources and are consequently associated with the political agenda)

4.       Need to consider: who is being stabilised? Does the presence of international donors in fact lead to LESS stability? While the Stabilisation Unit has attempted to address this by promoting an integrated concept of stabilisation, competing policy discourses still exist

5.       Does military intervention create space for development? How universal is the stabilisation model? Might it only work in certain contexts? What does local ownership mean within stabilisation?

Impact of the New Government

Gordon suggested that the UK coalition government has attempted to reorient foreign security policy and made this an early priority. However, he went on to suggest that it is not entirely clear what role the government played in shaping defence and security policy and that this might have instead been driven by other forces. There is a potential concern that any securitisation of aid will lead to increased pressure on spending, with a focus on deliverables and outputs.

In relation to the Stabilisation Unit specifically, Gordon commended its focus on conflict prevention and tackling threats at their source. However, he pointed to a potential over-ambition within stabilisation interventions that is worrying and needs to be monitored.

Penny Lawrence

Lawrence provided a brief response to the two presentations from an NGO perspective, pointing out that there has been much more debate on the issue of stabilisation than on development. She agrees that stabilisation is important because of the need to prevent conflict and instability. However, the focus on situations of conflict risks overlooking broader underdevelopment concerns and may appear biased by directing assistance to conflict areas.

Lawrence also raised the question of how effective the military is at delivering aid. Drawing upon an example of a World Bank evaluation of US military-built schools in Afghanistan, she suggests that their record is not stellar. Rather, the US-built schools were found to be more expensive and in a substantially worse state than those built by NGOs or the Afghan government.

Lawrence went on to argue that while the military might be experienced at statebuilding, it is not so good at improving state-society relations, for instance through engaging with citizens. In contrast, NGOs, she suggests, have a wealth of experience in this regard, drawing on Oxfam examples from justice programmes in Yemen and work with pastoralists in Kenya.

In closing, Lawrence pointed to four areas of concern for the stabilisation agenda:

1.       Stabilisation misses the importance of people having voice in long-term development

2.       Can the stabilisation agenda make the necessary commitments to long-term development (of 10 – 15 years)? Donor contracts are often 3-6 months and focus on quick wins.

3.       Need to understand more about theories of change in fragile states, particularly because change in these contexts are highly unpredictable

4.       Staff across the development industry need to be more honest about where aid strategies don’t work or where they will make things worse.


Several questions were raised about the skewing of aid as a result of focusing on conflict affected communities and the potential problems this poses. Stewart noted that there is a problem with areas receiving no aid until they are affected by conflict and then receiving huge amounts. Gordon suggested that these large amounts cannot be effectively absorbed, leading to increase corruption and a worsening of security due to distortions in the local economy. The skewing of aid issue was also reflected in questions relating to the potentially biased nature of political settlements, where donors might exclude actors who are considered ‘spoilers’ (such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or Hamas in Palestine). Stewart claimed that this concern is already on the agenda with recognition in policy and principle that settlement is not possible without broad-based reconciliation. Gordon suggested that perhaps this issue is more one of reintegration, rather than reconciliation and is therefore a higher order political question, rather than a social one.

The role of communication and citizen voice was pinpointed as an important factor in development and security processes, which Stewart explained the Stabilisation Unit recognises. She pointed to the Unit’s successful work with shuras in Afghanistan in creating a space for individuals to share their concerns and vent their frustrations with both government and donors. Lawrence suggested that communication is critical in helping to build public awareness and that giving people a voice rebuilds confidence. Gordon, however, also noted that we put a lot of faith in the idea that the space for dialogue is some kind of panacea, yet little is known about its ability to overcome or alter power relations. He also suggested that it is difficult to ‘scale up’ community voice beyond local communities in order to create a stabilisation effect.

The difficulty of measuring success was also raised. Stewart explained that the Stabilisation Unit monitors shura attendance and also carries out more random samples of people’s needs and their perceptions of their fulfilment. The Stabilisation Unit has found that as stabilisation improves, so too does citizen participation and satisfaction. Gordon went on to note that in the absence of systematic measures to assess impacts, a series of proxies must be used that are not able to capture the complexities of fragile state environments.

Finally, a question was asked about whether differentmodels of stabilisation exist. Stewart claimed that stabilisation is not premised upon support to a central government – but that it is capable of greater flexibility. Gordon also attested to the flexibility of the British stabilisation model, although noted that a universal, one-size-fits-all model is probably impracticable. Instead, he suggests looking to common priorities across fragile state contexts, such as political settlements. Lawrence closed by suggesting that more dialogue is needed on lessons learned in order to develop the best possible model of stabilisation.

Covering the Discussion

·         Impact of aid: does targeting aid at conflict affected communities create exclusions that may exacerbate conflict?

·         Political settlements: does stabilisation necessarily exclude important actors from reconciliation processes?

·         Security and development: Do these concepts derive from intrinsically different logics? Are they compatible?

·         How does stabilisation accommodate both security and poverty reduction goals?


Promoting development in fragile contexts is a major concern of international development actors, with stabilisation efforts seen as an important means to support transitions towards improved security and longer term development. Yet, these efforts have sometimes come in for severe criticism for instrumentalising, diverting and distorting development assistance in the pursuit of particular security objectives. This meeting explores these arguments, inviting further debate on whether stabilisation represents a new and positive paradigm for undertaking development in fragile states, or a significant ‘securitisation’ of aid that undermines international efforts to tackle poverty.