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Arms to Africa? Policy coherence for development and power

On Tuesday of this week, British MPs debated the decision taken in 2001 by the UK Government to license the export of an air traffic control system to Tanzania. Here, Alan Hudson, a Research Fellow at ODI, reflects on one of the many issues which the case raised, the issue of policy coherence for development.

In December 2001, British Aerospace (BAE Systems) was granted a licence to export an air traffic control system to Tanzania. The cost of the air traffic control system was £28 million. The International Civil Aviation Organisation had investigated the case and reported to the World Bank – which was considering whether to grant debt relief to Tanzania – that the system was “not adequate and too expensive”. In the UK, there was a dispute within Government about whether the export licence should be granted, with the then Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, the most vocal of those arguing against granting an export licence.

As a signatory to the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, the UK Government was required to consider whether the export of the air traffic control system would seriously hamper sustainable development in Tanzania. Collectively, as has been the case in all but one application to export arms, the UK Government took the view that it wouldn't. Once Clare Short and her less vocal allies had lost the argument, and the licence had been granted, her department - DFID - decided to freeze £10m of UK aid to Tanzania. This clearly indicated that in her view the sale of the air traffic control system to Tanzania would do nothing to further progress on poverty reduction in Tanzania. And, perhaps, that providing aid to Tanzania would in this instance amount to providing aid to British Aerospace.

One good thing to come out of the case was some clarification of the criteria for assessing applications to export arms. This was one of the recommendations made by the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Control, a Committee of MPs drawn from the Defence, Foreign Affairs, Trade & Industry, and International Development Select Committees (see paragraphs 115-135). But the case also raised a number of questions for those of us concerned with promoting and enabling poverty reduction in developing countries; questions about corruption, questions about arms exports and export control regimes, questions about sovereignty, and questions about the nature of the relationship between developed and developing countries.

Goal 8 of the Millennnium Development Goals commits governments, particularly those in the rich world, to build a global partnership for development. Such a partnership – even a partnership between “sovereign” states – entails responsibilities. In addition to providing more aid more effectively, developed countries must ensure that they do not marginalise development objectives when formulating and implementing policies in relation to other issues. Policies on issues which are "beyond aid" – trade, migration, investment, climate change and so on – ought to support, or at the very least not undermine, policies which are focused on development. This is the goal of 'policy coherence for development'.

Policy coherence for development matters. In its absence money spent on aid and development will be wasted as development objectives are undermined. There are signs that the UK, with DFID in the lead, is beginning to take policy coherence for development seriously. This year will see the first annual report by the Government, to Parliament, on policy coherence for development, following the passage into law of Tom Clarke MP’s International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Bill in 2006. Another positive sign is the steady, if rather slow, evolution of mechanisms to take account of development objectives in relation to issues such as migration, arms exports, money laundering, and, in some cases, corruption. But, as the Tanzania case demonstrates, when push comes to shove, and the pusher has the power, codes of conduct, criteria and guidelines can count for very little.

If governments are to take policy coherence for development seriously, and to make evidence-informed decisions, they need to know about the costs of incoherence and the benefits of coherence. This is important too for public accountability. The Foreign Secretary told the UK Parliament in 2002 that the decision on Tanzania’s air traffic control system had been taken on the basis of complex cost-benefit analyses (analyses which, despite repeated requests, have still not been provided to Parliament). In the absence of evidence about the likely impacts in Tanzania, performing a cost-benefit analysis which took account of likely development impacts, would have been a challenge. ODI and other research organisations have an important role to play in marshalling evidence about the costs of incoherence and the benefits of coherence. This will help those governments committed to policy coherence for development – whatever their political party – to make well-informed decisions, and demonstrate to the laggards that policy coherence for development matters.

Alan Hudson
I am a Research Fellow at ODI, working on issues around governance and accountability, with a particular emphasis on cross-border issues. From 2001 to 2005, I was an advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development. In that capacity, I was also a member of staff on the Quadripartite Committee. This Committee has the task of scrutinising – after-the-fact – the implementation of the Government’s export controls policy. The Committee’s report for 2002 included extensive discussion of the Tanzania case and its implications.