Comment & analysis

Redefining ODA: what does it mean for peace?

25 February 2016 Shelagh Daley

The OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) last week redefined what can be counted as Official Development Assistance (ODA) to include more peace and security related costs. While a greater focus on peace was needed, the new rules may risk undermining both the volume and impartiality of aid – resources that should be safeguarded to benefit the poorest, says Shelagh Daley.

Saferworld has long argued that peace and security are inextricably linked to development. This was most recently recognised in the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s Global Goals, which include a goal on peaceful societies. However, how ‘peace and security’ is defined – and whose interests are prioritised in the process – is extremely important in determining whether aid and other interventions actually lead to more peaceful, stable societies.

The recent addition of ‘preventing violent extremism’ activities as eligible to be counted as ODA, in the OECD DAC’s new definition, raises the concern that it is donor interests, not the citizens of recipient countries, that are being prioritised – despite repeated reassurances in its new directive. The previous DAC guidelines stated that “activities combatting terrorism are not reportable as ODA, as they generally target perceived threats to donor, as much as to recipient countries, rather than focusing on the economic and social development of the recipient”. The new directive, however, now makes ‘preventing violent extremism’ activities eligible. These include education, rule of law and working with civil society groups amongst others, but only for the purposes of development. There is a question as to why these activities would need to be framed in the context of preventing violent extremism at all if the primary purpose of these activities is developmental.

Violent extremism is defined by the OECD as “promoting views which foment and incite violence in furtherance of particular beliefs, and foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence.” Focusing on this, when work to address violence of this nature would already fall under the scope of efforts to prevent conflict and promote peace (focusing not only on ‘extremists’ but rather on all conflict actors), runs the risk of directing ODA to a specific, politically driven set of activities. This contradicts the well-established and fundamental principle of aid working impartially to advance the well-being and rights of people in the face of violence and abuse by all conflict actors.

In conflict situations, many governments are inclined to label their opponents ‘violent extremists’ or ‘terrorists’, a label that is rarely applied to state actors even when they are responsible for considerable abuses against civilians. In this context, Saferworld research shows that attempts to get aid agencies to take sides are often dangerous and counter-productive, because they can lead to aid that ignores important conflict drivers, reinforces bad governance, gets diverted, looks biased, alienates the local population, and exposes aid agencies to attack. Despite its reassurances that “development co-operation should not be used as a vehicle to promote the provider’s security interests”, it is not clear how the OECD will effectively safeguard the impartiality of aid and prevent it from becoming the benign face of donors’ wider security agenda under this new directive.

Some of the changes within the new definition, and the lobbying reported around them, also seem to be aimed at addressing budget reallocation issues within donor countries rather than addressing gaps in the definition of development aid on issues of peace and security. The previous guidelines stated that “financing of military equipment or services is generally excluded from ODA reporting”, though it allowed for the additional costs incurred for the use of “military personnel” to deliver humanitarian or development services under specific circumstances. The new directive expands this slightly, stating that “the use of (usually donor) military personnel and equipment to deliver development services and humanitarian aid is included in ODA additional costs only”. The definition also now includes training of military personnel on issues like human rights, rule of law, or protection of women in conflict, in contrast to the previous guidelines. While including human rights training and efforts to promote civilian oversight of the military is a welcome move, the inclusion of more military costs (i.e. additional costs incurred with operating equipment) as ODA-eligible should be questioned. The military sometimes has a valid role in reform of the security sector, and supporting humanitarian or development efforts in situations where civilian actors are unable to do so. However it is not clear why aid budgets should cover additional military equipment expenditures.

More generally, the push to expand the ODA-eligibility of military spending, even on commendable activities, especially in donor countries where the military budget sits at 2% of GDP, threatens to squeeze development budgets at a time of soaring global humanitarian needs. In the long run, neither development nor security will be advanced by raiding these resources, even for military priorities that are in line with development aims. As the OECD further develops its ‘casebook’ and safeguards to go with the redefinition of ODA, it is important that there are adequate monitoring mechanisms to limit the risks of abuse.

There is a pressing need to make development work to address the serious peace and security needs of affected populations, with the interests of the intended recipients and not that of the donor country paramount. By rigorously guarding this distinction in practice, donors can ensure their ODA focuses on long-term, global public goods – an urgent and enlightened investment to prevent the spread of crises in our globalised world. Political, security or commercial imperatives of the day will not always align with these long-term investments. They must not be allowed to undermine them.

Shelagh Daley is Saferworld’s UK advocacy coordinator.

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“Despite its reassurances that “development co-operation should not be used as a vehicle to promote the provider’s security interests”, it is not clear how the OECD will effectively safeguard the impartiality of aid and prevent it from becoming the benign face of donors’ wider security agenda under this new directive.”

Shelagh Daley