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Is ‘human security’ a neat way of framing a poverty-focused aid programme, or a clever device for the EU to appropriate development aid for the purposes of foreign policy?

Written by Simon Maxwell


We need to start having a discussion about ‘human security’ as a vehicle for thinking about aid, especially with respect to the EU, and with the following question in mind: is human security a neat way of framing a poverty-focused aid programme in the modern era, or is it a clever device to appropriate development aid for the purposes of foreign policy?

The question is stimulated by a presentation this week by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU External Affairs Commissioner. This was to a meeting organised jointly by ODI and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Overseas Development in the UK Parliament. The presentation and a report on the meeting can be found on the ODI website.

The Commissioner used the concept of human security to argue that the boundary between development and foreign policy is eroding. Her argument was that new thinking puts ‘human security’ first and demands that new links be made between poverty programmes and those targeted at peace and security. She said: ‘some in the development and foreign policy worlds still believe there is a hard and fast distinction to be made between development and foreign policy, or foreign and domestic policy. The truth is these distinctions are losing their meaning. Development assistance – what form should it take, how much should there be, who gets it and how best to spend it - remains a vital issue. There is no doubt about our commitment to the MDGs or to poverty alleviation. That is the primary objective of the European Consensus on Development. Over half of the EU's commitment to increase aid will go to Africa and we will continue to prioritise our support to the least developed and other low income countries. But that’s not the whole story of EU aid.’

At one level, all this is undeniably true, and indeed one of the main themes of the work we have been doing at ODI on ‘What’s Next in International Development?’.  It is important to recognize that the welfare of poor people is affected by conflict, by international trade regimes, by climate change and by global threats like terrorism and the spread of new diseases. It is interesting in that connection to read the White Papers produced by both the UK Foreign Office and DFID this year: both put global threats and issues firmly on the agenda.

The EU’s own contribution is the Commission Communication to the Council, published in June 2006, called ‘Europe in the World’. This lists the main challenges, describes the EU’s external policy ‘assets’ and looks at ways to achieve greater coherence, effectiveness and visibility. The assets include the new consensus on development policy, but also the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the European Security and Defence Policy, trade, enlargement and various other things. These are complemented by internal items, like the Lisbon agenda on growth and competitiveness, the impact of the single market, and the debate on energy policy.

Human security is not a bad way to capture the idea that all these are related and important to the extent that they impact on the welfare of individuals. Indeed, the concept was taken up at the beginning of this decade precisely as a way to avoid development concerns being swamped by the post 9/11 concern with the war on terror: physical security matters, but so too does food security, water security, environmental security and so on. The UN Commission on Human Security made much of this multiple meaning of the term ‘security’.

There are, however, risks, two in particular, and also some operational concerns.

The first risk is that the budgets for development and security are somehow merged, so that pro-poor expenditures are diverted into peace-making or peace-keeping. In the EU, this translates into a fear that ‘our’ money, for development, is diverted to CFSP budget lines or to quasi-development in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood.

This has been a real concern. When the Financial Perspectives for 2007-13 were agreed last December, a single number was given for the whole of what was called ‘Heading 4’ - the EU as a global partner. The total figure amounted to €50bn in 2004 prices and represented an increase of 4.5% p.a. in real terms. However, the total was not broken down as between the six main instruments or areas of expenditure, which included development, but also pre-accession spending, European neighbourhood spending and a stability fund. Observers were rightly concerned that when real resources came to be allocated, development spending would be displaced, possibly in the name of human security.

To an extent, those fears have been dispelled. A detailed breakdown is now available, which shows the development instrument ring-fenced at €15bn, with the total in 2013 being 25% higher in real terms than the figure for 2006. This is a slightly smaller increase than for the budget as a whole (29%), and a good deal lower than for CFSP (245%) or pre-accession (52%). Nevertheless, the planned figures offer some ‘protection’ of development expenditure. It is worth noting also that the Financial Perspectives do not include a further €22bn of support to the European Development Fund over roughly the same period. Provided that all these monies contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), they make a substantial contribution to the pledge of increased aid that European countries made in 2005. Note, however, that any money in the budget not qualifying as official development assistance should not count against the aid pledge.

However, there is a second risk which also needs to be considered. This is that money safely earmarked within the development budget might nevertheless be diverted away from the provision of services to the poorest, again in the name of human security. There may be a blurred boundary between, for example, local conflict resolution, mine-clearing or policing and national or even global interventions which offer only very indirect help to the poor. Do peace facilities count? And what about what the Commissioner called ‘humanitarian disarmament’?

Here, a different set of safeguards is required. Partly, they can be general, as in the case of the European Consensus on Development. More specifically, and in the case of the new development instrument, they can be found in the Regulation which determines how the money will be spent. This has the force of law and is unambiguous:
  • The primary and overarching objective is the eradication of poverty;
  • At least 90% of the funding will qualify as official development assistance, using the criteria of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD;
  • Assistance will not be used to finance arms or ammunition, or operations having military or defence implications.

The document goes on to describe what is expected to be funded, using language about sustainable development, poverty reduction and human development that will be familiar from the European Consensus.

The wording in this document gives every impression of some hard bargaining during drafting, and its true worth will need to be tested during delivery. At first sight, however, the safeguards appear strong.

There are some more difficult areas, for example with regard to the stability instrument, but in general there seems no reason not to give the EU the benefit of the doubt. The new provisions are consistent with a human security perspective. They are also consistent with a poverty focus, as expressed in the UK International Development Act.

If this is the case, then a final question arises. The policy framework is reasonable. The instruments have been well designed. The European Commission has made good progress in improving efficiency and accountability. Ministers have recognized as much. The latest DFID White Paper is positive about the EU. Why, then, is the share of UK aid delivered through the Commission scheduled to fall rapidly, from 20% in 2004 to under 10% by 2013?

In part, this is an arithmetic artefact. The size of development spending through the EU is fixed by the budget decisions made for the Financial Perspectives and by the negotiations over the new European Development Fund. Both of these are driven by factors largely unrelated to the overall size of the aid budget. Meanwhile, the UK has committed to a large increase in aid, which will enable the target of 0.7% of GNP to be reached by 2013. For the EU as a whole, development spending is slated to increase by about 20% a year to 2013. Taking the Financial Perspectives and the Development Fund together, the figure is only about a quarter of that. Thus, a paradox: the EU is ‘getting its act together’ but its market share is falling.

This is a topic for a different day, but my own solution to that dilemma has been to propose a new EU MDG Fund of €5bn a year that would be poverty focused and large enough to enable the Commission to maintain market share. It would also, by the way, provide a lever, an incentive, to encourage further reform. And it would be consistent with the new human security paradigm.