24 Feb 2016
Aid used to fight terrorism is money well spent
The gap between those Australian agencies charged with looking after international terrorism threats, and those responsible for our overseas development assistance, just got smaller.
Last week in Paris the OECD's Development Assistance Committee changed the definition of foreign aid to include some military spending and spending on countering violent extremism.
Australia has always adopted a very conservative approach to our aid reporting. We've never, for example, counted as part of our aid budget the 22 patrol boats and maritime advisers we've donated to 12 Pacific Island states, even though the boats are performing essential civil maritime policing: search and rescue, environmental monitoring, safeguarding maritime governance and delivering effective responses during humanitarian crises.
The OECD's recent move paves the way for Australia to now spend more of our $4 billion aid budget on countering violent extremism and terrorism. This is both a national security and development issues, and increasingly relevant to poverty reduction.
We should now use our aid program to play a more prominent role in our international counter-terrorism programs. This could be, for example, by assisting civil society groups to specifically prevent radicalisation, supporting the reintegration of terrorists and deradicalisation efforts, building the capacity of a country's security system to prevent terrorist threats and researching the causes of violent extremism in developing countries.
Poverty does not make people into terrorists, but poor people in poor countries are the most affected by terrorism. Only a small percentage of the more than 100,000 deaths from terrorist attacks over the past 15 years have occurred in OECD countries. More than 90 per cent of terrorist attacks occur in states with weak governance and poor human rights records.
Terrorism is a direct threat to development. It diverts talent and disrupts supply chains, threatens the safety of employees and negatively impacts the development of business operations. It can reduce the overall growth rate of a nation through impacts on tourism, financial markets and the attractiveness of the nation for foreign investment.
Terrorist groups, such as Islamic State, have attacked aid workers and schools and violently restrict the rights of women. In responding to terrorism, states have to divert resources away from basic services to improve security.
Foreign aid can be used to strengthen resilience to violent extremist ideologies. Improving governance in weak states can help to deny terrorists easy recruiting grounds in lawless communities. Our aid might not directly break up terrorist groups. But it can reduce support for them in areas where they seek resources.
If the threat of terrorism is shown to be adversely affecting development, then a dedicated Australian aid program to target violent extremism directly, or efforts to reduce violent extremism through existing initiatives, may be justified.
These interventions will be targeted to communities at risk of violence, with the goal of strengthening their resilience against violent extremism. Australia might consider piloting some small-scale programs to counter violent extremism in at-risk nations, such as Bangladesh or Kenya.
If terrorism and violent extremism aren't identified as having a significant impact on the target country, we should still ensure that our existing aid programs don't have negative or unintended consequences that might assist terrorist groups or our aid being misused to promote violent extremism. The OECD Financial Action Task Force urges countries to exercise diligence when channelling aid through the non-profit sector to prevent its misuse for terrorism. We adopt a similar approach when we require environmental impact assessments of almost all major industrial proposals that require government permits. The World Bank has required EIA for projects that it funds for over 25 years.
The global evidence base for the contribution that foreign aid can make to countering terrorism is limited, so we should share information with like-minded nations and others that are trying to assist communities at risk of radicalisation.
But the last thing we should do is to apply a counter-terrorism lens to everything we do in our aid program. Our development assistance will often focus on different communities and seek different outcomes to our international counter-terrorism efforts.
But the recent change in the OECD's guidelines on what counts as aid should ensure that we use our foreign aid more for interventions targeted on communities at risk of violence, while respecting human rights.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and co-author of Security through aid: Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism With Australia's Aid Program.
Originally published in Australian Financial Review, p40.