The phrase ‘foreign aid’ is often met with extreme responses in the West. Some – readers of sensationalist right-wing media and ‘charity stays at home-ers’ – are critical of giving taxpayers money away to foreign lands at all. Others are part of a consensus that believes a moral obligation for foreign aid exists. The majority of people in the UK fall into the latter category. In 2013, a YouGov poll found that 83 percent of British adults were in favour of a certain degree of overseas assistance. Most governments also form part of this consensus: in 2016, 193 UN member states committed to the  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Narratives around aid tend to suggest the industry is free of bias and full of pure intent – however naive this may seem. A prime example of this is the SDG awareness campaign titled ‘Project Everyone’: presenting an image of aid as a neutral force that independently finds its way to those in need. This narrative is so widespread that NGOs have become fearful of collaborating with entities such as the European Union or NATO, “fearing it was too political”–in the words of Antoine Gerard, UN humanitarian veteran.

But there is a huge body of research suggesting that aid flows are in any case shaped by political preferences. The World Institute for Development Economics Research working paper on North Africa identifies ‘donor political interests’ as a key factor in aid allocation. Influences like need or donor merit are claimed to have been subsequently squeezed by the politicisation of aid. This isn’t new either: there are examples of this throughout history–from early colonial development to US aid during the Cold War. But it is specifically ‘securitization’ which best describes the evolution of international aid–and where it is today.

UNESCO describes the phenomenon as the integration of aid and security policy. Strictly speaking, the merging of defence and development is not a new concept either; it originates from the Marshall Plan, where defence and development were interlaced to suppress Soviet influence in a Cold War context. The contemporary dominance of this policy among some of the largest donor states – most notably the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada–has gone far to underpin global development strategy.


The name of Canada’s so-called ‘3D approach’ says it all, representing the incorporation of Diplomacy, Defence, and Development. Programmes in the Netherlands and Australia provide further evidence to suggest a widespread adoption of aid securitization.

Some of the most striking cases of aid securitization today are countries on the ‘front line’ in the War on Terror. Aid allocation to Iraq and Afghanistan skyrocketed in the advent of the 2001 invasion, with over $7.1bn in development aid going to these countries. The use of aid as an additional arm of foreign policy led to undesirable effects in both states. One of the most concerning consequences is the targeting of foreign-funded NGOs by insurgents and political opponents. This has set a dangerous and tragic precedent; local police and even schools have been legitimised as targets by opposing forces.

The link between aid securitization and attacks on civil society are tracked more closely on local levels in Afghanistan and Iraq by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). These joint civilian-military units are seen by academic researchers as the prime example of the blurring of development and military activities. They are also a commonly cited reason why bodies such as the Afghan National Police are attractive targets for insurgents. In the words of the  2011 Global Monitoring Report, PRTs have the potential to “reinforce a perception that aid is part of a wider military strategy”. Unsurprisingly, then, increasingly militarized aid has disheartened NGOs in the development sector who stress the short-sightedness of this aid strategy.

Analyses of US aid flows suggest that overall aid allocation patterns started to shift after 9/11 and subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Countries with the lowest incomes lost their place in line as security began to skew aid agenda priorities, dramatically reducing need-based aid. But despite its vocal critics – and not to mention its lack of compliance with the SDGs’ theme of an inclusive strategy – the acceptance of aid securitization has persisted.

One reason for this persistence is the ‘fragile states’ agenda. While not a particularly new model, it provides a definition of a country with weak state capacity, providing a framework for governments and non-state aid agencies alike. Gaining traction after 9/11, anxieties over national security have propelled the theory to the forefront of international politics, which connects a country’s ability to develop economically with its ability to reduce conflict. This agenda, then, fits nicely with so-called ‘3D approaches’ and subsequent securitization of aid.

There are no signs of the fragile states agenda–or the entanglement of aid and defence–letting up in the West. This is despite strong opposition from those in academia and civil society. It appears that the world has reached the so-called ‘Security-Development Nexus’: security and development are fundamentally inseparable. The sheer dominance of this position, and the advantages Western governments believe it brings them, suggest that security will continue to be ‘aided by aid’ for some time yet.

About the author

VINCENT KAM graduated from Newcastle University reading Economics and Politics. His areas of interest cover macroeconomic trends, international development, and global governance.