Wednesday, 02 December 2020
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In the run up to the British 2015 General Election, there have been calls from defence-related organizations and individuals for the major political parties to maintain the Defence Budget at 2% GDP or even increase its volume. It has been claimed that present threats—such as the radical so-called militant group Daesh or ISIL, the Ukrainian crisis, Russia's military rise—and future unknown threats indicate that the defence budget should no longer be slashed. After all, Prime Minister David Cameron urged all NATO member states to adhere to the 2% target at the 2014 NATO conference. With the UK predicted to spend less than the target, commentators have been urging the political parties to recommit to the NATO target. There has yet to be any commitment by any of the three main parties.

Conversely, the Coalition government has met the 1970 UN target of providing 0.7% of GDP for development assistance. [1] A parliamentary bill has passed all its stages in the House of Lords to ensure future governments provide this proportion of aid. With the aid budget continued to be ring-fenced, several groups, especially those of the far right, have called for the aid budget to be educed or aid expenditure. In this article, Jisheng Li argues that it would be a mistake to simply transfer money from the development budget to defence, even though the latter is in dire need of funds.

First, the recent history of conflict has shown that military might or hard power cannot ensure stability or even achieve desired political objectives. British intervention in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan required not just the armed forces, but foreign policy engagement and development in the post-conflict period. It is because of this issue of conflict that the Coalition government has focused 30% of its own bilateral development assistance towards fragile or conflict states. In fact 44% of British aid was directed towards conflict states in 2011. [2]

It may be argued the British Armed Forces should receive part of this development assistance. After all, they have been the leading force in most humanitarian relief efforts and post-conflict work. [3] While this is true, such efforts are not classified as aid by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which the UK is part of. [4] It may further be argued that it is fruitless to send aid to such countries as it would be wasted or these countries would never develop. Development assistance however can partially stabilise a region, preventing war or the need for military intervention. Development aid therefore has a role to play in UK defence and security and should not be simply cut to find finances for the defence budget.

Second, reducing aid and placing it in the defence doesn't necessarily mean safer and stronger world. Spending 2% of GDP or even more on defence may be a boon for defence supporters. However, it is more the method of expenditure that matters than the proportion of GDP or volume you receive. MOD projects such as the former FRES vehicle programme were inefficiently managed. Such inefficiency would divert expenditure from other projects and ultimately adversely the whole defence force. The MOD requires a substantial budget, yet reckless spending would not help the armed forces, the military and economic security of the country. This argument of efficient expenditure of course can be applied to other government departments including the Department for International Development (DFID). Governments should not just transfer money to reach expenditure targets but be mindful on how the money is spent.

Third, spending a high or strong amount on defence doesn't mean the UK will automatically be a global power in the international arena. In the past, a country's position in the world would be determined by the size of its armed forces or even its empire. In the 21st century, national power and prestige can be projected by other means. This could be for example, assisting conflict or developing countries, or leading nations through addressing climate change or tackling global inequality. These examples are where British development aid can create a positive impact and present the UK as a leading nation. As a House of Lords Committee noted, the UK's development assistance is a key instrument to present soft power and thus ensuring The UK's military strength is undoubtedly a means to present power, but development assistance is also another method. UK aid therefore should not simply be transferred to improve the defence budget.

In conclusion, a ring-fenced budget such as DFID's is an easy target for those who wish for the 2% defence target. Yet, aid money should not be the target to fund the MOD's budget. This however, should not mean that DFID should continue to receive 0.7% of GDP. Neither does it mean the future UK defence spending should be lower than 2%. Personally, both targets can be met, although as mentioned, government departments need to focus on efficient spending.

Jiesheng Li has a Masters in Development Studies. He contributes this article in his personal capacity.

[1], DFID, 2014, Department for International Development Annual Report and Accounts 2013–14, London: Department for International Development

[2] Creagh, M., 2015, Written Question: Department for International Development Overseas Aid, London: Hansard

[3] The British Army for example, works in the field of development through the Military Support Stabilisation Group (MSSG), which is now part of the larger 77th Brigade. The MSSG works in partnership with the Foreign Office and DFID to improve development. See

[4] See What is ODA? By the OECD - for the strict guidelines for what counts as a nation's aid and what does not. These guidelines of course have been criticised, especially given the role of armed forces in improving development. However, such a criticism is beyond the scope of this article.

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