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Security Central to Tackling Poverty in the 21st Century

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Douglas Alexander MP delivered the following speech at an NDN forum in New York on Monday, April 27, 2009.

Safer communities and better security will be central to the UK's aid effort. Security must be recognised along with the provision of basic services like health, education and water as a key part of development work. I urge the UN and the international community to transform the way they do business to realise this change.

I am calling for a stronger remit and more support for regional organisations - such as the African Union - which are best placed to provide peacekeepers and mediation.

My four-point plan includes:

• Support for secure political settlements that will build the legitimacy of the state - practical and lasting agreements on power-sharing.

• Help to build effective justice systems and to reform the police and army to offer people genuine safety and ways to resolve disputes.

• Assistance to ensure states can survive on their own by helping governments to raise tax revenues and to encourage civil society.

• Increased support for states to deliver basic services like health education and water to meet the expectations of their citizens.

Research has shown that a single civil war can cost the same as the sum sent spent annually on development aid worldwide. The importance of helping to build a strong state has been underlined by experience in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has never had a strong centralised government. But sustainable peace and the eventual exit strategy from our development effort depends on helping to create a stronger government that has credibility with its people. So we are increasing our help for core state functions including the Presidency, local government and the justice system as well.

Half of all the children who die before the age of five are born in fragile states. Civil war is more likely to break out in low-income countries - so there is a vicious circle of poverty leading to violence leading to more poverty. And conflicts all too often spill over borders, destabilising entire regions.

In response to this challenge many donors, including the UK, have already shifted additional resources towards fragile states. But fragile states don't just need more money, they need a different approach to help them tackle the root causes of their fragility.

We must help to provide opportunities for the poorest so that they have choices in life, to ensure that resorting to violence, gun-running or kidnap are not their only options.

Somalia provides a clear example. It has become infamous for the pirates that plague its coastline. The US, UK and European Union continue to contribute to international efforts to combat that threat. But the piracy is a direct reflection of the crisis afflicting the country - a crisis brought on by 18 years of conflict and the almost total collapse of the state.

We must offer Somalis a reason to hope for a better future, by creating jobs, especially for young people. If we can't provide opportunities for people to earn a secure living, the risk of fighting for a warlord or an extremist group or taking your chances on the Indian Ocean might seem worthwhile.

Wherever we live - whether it's Baltimore, Brixton or Basra - there are people who will pay our children to pick up a knife, or a handgun, or an AK47, and to use it to commit acts of violence. The challenge we face, in rich and poor countries alike, is to give people a choice and a stake in their communities - the chance to earn an honest living and provide for themselves and their children without having to turn to violence and crime.

That is why we require a fresh approach. For decades we have worked to support economic growth and provide basic services like clean water, health and education. But in countries afflicted by conflict we must now add to that core mission a commitment to build peace and to build functioning states.

In the past, aid agencies have too often been afraid to engage in building political institutions for fear of being accused of interfering in a developing country's politics. But our experience teaches us that we cannot address the challenges we face in fragile environments, in particular, through technocratic solutions alone.

Training people to become teachers, health workers or police officers, and supplying text books and equipment are necessary interventions if we want to reduce poverty, but alone they are not sufficient.

We also need to support political institutions and processes - parliaments, political parties, civil society and the media.

As the World Bank's study on Voices of the Poor showed - and experience from Liberia to Afghanistan or Bosnia demonstrates - poor people want security and justice in the same way that they want sanitation, education or health care.

If we are honest, many who want to eliminate world poverty have been wary of working in this area. As a concept, it became conflated and confused with the idea of 'the war on terror'. It poses sovereignty issues for developing countries and is politically sensitive for donor countries. And where there has been a focus on security, it has largely been in terms of state control of its territory rather than thinking about security from the perspective of poor people.

And it is those people that we should be placing at the heart of our thinking on developing safer communities.

So interventions to train police officers better, to tackle abuse by soldiers, and improve access to courts need to become as commonplace a response to poverty as building schools or health clinics.

And by helping these countries that are in or on the edge of conflict to take steps towards sustained peace, and strengthening a government's capacity to govern, we will make a decisive contribution to achieving a safer, more equal and more prosperous world.