Money from the UK's official aid budget could be used to fund military operations to stabilise war-torn states says David Cameron. And aid agencies agree - up to a point.
Speaking during a trip to India, Mr Cameron said it was right to look for ways in which the Department for International Development (DfID) can work more closely with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence.
Initiatives which provide the basic level of security needed for development to take place can be an "important" use of aid funds, he said.
However the prime minister's suggestion has alarmed aid charities and non-governmental organisations who fear that the UK's achievement of the United Nations target to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas assistance will be undermined if any of that cash is diverted to defence activities.
Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth said: "Peace and security are critical to helping countries develop, which is why the UK already rightly targets 30 per cent of its bilateral aid spending on fragile states.
"Some of this money is jointly managed with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence and goes towards security and police training. This aid has to be in line with internationally agreed definitions of aid.
"However, this is wholly different from diverting UK aid for UK arms or UK military operations. Any move towards this would be a misuse of aid money and a major cause for concern. The Prime Minister's words yesterday do not suggest he intends to do this."
With defence among a number of departments threatened with further cuts in the spending review, the Prime Minister is coming under pressure from Conservative backbenchers to drop the protection he has so far granted to the aid budget.
Any cut in the DfID budget would threaten to breach Mr Cameron's pledge to meet the United Nations target of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, which Britain will meet for the first time in 2013.
But NGOs fear that the PM may meet his pledge while reducing the funds available for aid activities, by reallocating some of the responsibilities of the MoD or Foreign Office to DfID.
Asked whether he felt there was room for money in the aid budget to be spent on defence activities, Mr Cameron said: "I think we have to demonstrate that the DfID budget is spent wisely."
International Development Secretary Justine Greening was "rightly keen" to focus on countries which have been affected by conflict and war, none of which have achieved any of the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015, he said.
A personal reflection
Back in the 1980s, when I worked for UNICEF, I visited a village in Mozambique where rebels had attacked the health centre, writes International Editor Lindsey Hilsum. I saw the bodies of the health workers on the path -- they had been tortured and killed. "What we need is a tank outside for protection," said an aid worker friend.
A quarter of a century later, I've learnt that the relationship between aid and the military is complex, but a basic truth remains -- there's no point in funding development if the people and the projects will be destroyed. It's a conundrum: one reason it's easy for the Taliban to sway people in Afghanistan is because most Afghans are poor and uneducated, yet development projects rarely succeed in countries ravaged by conflict. It's easy to waste a lot of aid money http://sites.tufts.edu/feinstein/files/2012/01/WinningHearts-Final.pdf as a project by Tufts University found out.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of aid money being spent on soldiers and armoured vehicles. The roots of many aid agencies are pacifist -- OXFAM, for example, was founded by Quakers. The UN has set up guidelines for which aspects of peacekeeping can be legitimately counted as development assistance and which should come out of a donor country's defence budget. http://www.oecd.org/investment/stats/34086975.pdf
"The enforcement aspects of peacekeeping are not reportable as Overseas Development Assistance," it says. However, activities including human rights and the rehabilitation of demobilised soldiers and of national infrastructure, do count as aid. David Cameron's decision to shift some of the peacekeeping budget from the MOD to DFID should be uncontroversial as long as the British government obeys international rules.
In the years since the civil war in Mozambique ended, many millions of international aid dollars have been spent on demining, as well as disarming former rebels and soldiers and training them for peacetime jobs. Today peacekeepers are needed in other countries. It may be a better use of aid than trying to fund development in countries like Afghanistan where conflict continues, and aid projects are easily destroyed.
Conflict and war
"We should be thinking very carefully about how we help states that have been riven with conflict and war," said Mr Cameron"I think it is obviously true that if we can help deliver security and help provide stability and help with stabilisation, that is the basis from which all development can proceed.
"And I think what is very healthy about this Government is that DfID is no longer seen as - and neither does it see itself as - a sort of giant NGO. It is very much part of the Government - it is part of the National Security Council.
"DfID and the Foreign Office and the Defence Ministry work increasingly closely together. If you are asking me can they work even more closely together, can we make sure that the funds we have at our disposal are used to provide basic levels of stability and security in deeply broken and fragile states, then I think we should.
"That is an important part of development.
"There is the conflict pool which we already use. Can we do more, can we build on this approach? I am very open to ideas like that.
"We have our moral responsibilities for tackling poverty in the world. We also have national security responsibilities for mending conflict states and helping with development around the world and we should see DfID in that context."
Mr Cameron said he was "delighted" that Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander had been warning against the "fiscal nimbyism" of Cabinet ministers who are willing to contemplate cuts in general but not to their own departments.
"I'm delighted that the Chief Secretary - as all chief secretaries do - is making points like that. That's absolutely right, that's what they are for," he said."These spending rounds involve difficult decisions, but I am sure that the coalition will be able to make them," he said. "I think we will make the right decisions."