Popular Engagement and the UK National Security Strategy

The new UK National Security Strategy commendably thinks beyond the shape of today’s threats, to consider what might threaten us in the future. Yet it still fails to deal adequately with the security consequences of globalisation, even after decades of experience.

Both the new strategy and the Foreign Secretary’s “Networked World” series of speeches drew attention to the increased role that ordinary people play in today’s global politics. Instant global communications, the spread of democratic freedoms,  and thriving, close-knit diasporas: the average man or woman is better informed, more empowered and more globally aspirational than ever before. These are positive trends, by and large, contributing to economic growth, cultural exchange and increased interdependency. But they can also present security challenges. At the extreme end of the spectrum, terrorism, organised crime and certain forms of immigration present significant cross-border threats, and it is these that the new National Security Strategy addresses.

However, the new connectedness of populations can also destabilise societies and promote conflicts internal to states, perhaps when a minority is excluded from the benefits of globalisation, or when new ideas and ways of living threaten traditional power structures. On this, the strategy is silent.

I have seen precisely the latter in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, where labour migration to the Gulf States and back again has disrupted the partly tribal, partly feudal social structure of the valley. For decades a small number of rich families had owned nearly all the best land, and had controlled most political positions  Yet they had failed to provide a decent quality of life to the landless majority. Local government reforms made no difference; nor had elected officials or the introduction of modern policing. But from the early 1990s onwards, flows of money and ideas from beyond the valley, whether in the form of migrants, Bollywood movies or mujahideen returning from Afghanistan, provided the poor with an aspirational jolt: things could be different.

Only once the population realised that rule by a self-serving elite was neither inevitable nor permanent did grievance turn into a desire for action. A protest movement emerged in 1994, blocking roads and demanding change for over a decade. In 2006, the Pakistani Taliban were able to leverage this activist resentment by presenting themselves as an alternative to the entrenched elites, eventually hijacking the protest movement entirely. A minority of ordinary but disgruntled Swatis joined their ranks or supported their efforts, thinking they would create a better quality of life for themselves and their children. Think about that: Talibs aren’t always anti-modernising reactionaries; some are modernist revolutionaries. Only once the beheadings and suicide bombings started did many realise their mistake.

So the increased exposure of ordinary people to new ideas and ways of living, which could have been a force for good, instead directly played into the growth of a hideously violent insurgency, ended only by the temporary forced evacuation of two million civilians and the military occupation of the valley.

The silence of the National Security Strategy on such well-understood phenomena is astonishing. After all, this is a strategy that explicitly calls for tackling the root causes of instability and conflict, and which recognises that “we are all increasingly connected, not just as states, but ... as individuals”. Yet it fails to take that final step and connect its own dots. It fails to understand that the very connectivity of people allows not just for the spread of radical ideas, but for the realisation by ordinary people of previously unseen inequalities in their own societies. Stable societies are able to absorb, address and overcome the tensions that result, and to harness them for positive and peaceful social change – but fragile societies struggle to cope. The strategy should have acknowledged that our growing connectedness can itself be a root cause and enabler of instability.

Foreign Secretary William Hague’s speeches, on the other hand, made significant progress in recognising some of the security implications of connectivity, but he was short on detail as to how to respond. Mr Hague seemed to believe that tweeting while on his visit to Islamabad would make a significant impact upon Pakistani public opinion of British policies in the region. Such speeches and strategies of course gloss over the finer details in their emphasis on big picture descriptions. But for the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which was meant to convert the imperatives of the National Security Strategy into actionable tasks, and to overhaul the security establishment so as to be able to deliver on them, the excuse doesn’t hold. 

The SDSR did not include a single population-centred tasking or budget line. The UK thus has no strategy for the destabilising influence of globalisation and popular connectedness. This shortcoming is most apparent when it comes to the stabilisation of fragile and conflict-affected states, which are the source of five of the strategy’s 15 priority threats to the UK.

The SDSR emphasised the creation of capable governments as a path to stabilisation. But that’s only half the job. Achieving stability also requires strong relationships of trust between peoples and their governments. People need to know that however bad today may be, tomorrow will be better; that the future is predictable enough to venture outside and take risks; that the permanent institutions of courts, police, councils, hospitals, schools – all of these are run with their best interests at heart, and can be trusted to stick around once development and aid from abroad dries up, as it inevitably does. None of this can be achieved without a workable strategy for engaging populations in unstable states.

Thankfully, the SDSR does call for a Building Stabilisation Overseas strategy and for a National Security Communication strategy to be developed in the coming months. Both present opportunities for righting matters. Here’s what they should do.

First, Whitehall should encourage the use of two-way, persistent communications between the governments and populations of unstable and conflict-affected states – that is, it needs to prioritise what is known as "population engagement".

With notable exceptions, stabilisation initiatives are treated as if they are separate from the communications policies that explain them to the population. This divide promotes a mode of communications that defaults to propaganda, believing that the narrative around a project should be set by the government, and delivered to the population in the manner most likely to lead to its widespread adoption. A better approach would consider the following:

  • The population is a resource. Many initiatives could benefit from the involvement of thousands of pairs of hands, eyes and ears. Anti-corruption programmes, for instance, could leverage popular anger by enabling anonymous SMS reporting of low-level corruption, tied to a conventional programme that encourages low-level officials to go straight.

  • Rumsfeld was right: unknown unknowns matter. Populations know things that governments don’t, from details of unreported atrocities to where the best fruit trees grow. Engagement brings this knowledge to the fore. Where engagement serves to bring popular grievances into the open, it also enables their resolution before they can simmer into extremism and violence.

  •  Participation builds trust. Popular dialogue around or participation in a given programme increases awareness of initiatives, improves transparency of government, and inculcates mutual trust. Note ‘mutual’: a government’s trust in its people is just as important as the other way around.

  • Populations in unstable states can be hard to understand. The more content flowing up from the population, the more that both the host government and its overseas partners can understand the complexities of the populations that it’s working with.

  • Feedback makes programmes better. Two-way communications provide immediate monitoring and evaluation of projects: donors and government departments alike can assess popular responses and adjust programmes to improve both performance and perception. 

Select policy initiatives that impact upon the population should be accompanied by venues for consultation, criticism and enquiry, all open and accessible not just to the general public, but also to traditionally excluded social groups. For instance, population engagement around unpopular tax reform can serve to identify needed amendments to the policy just as well as it can reduce opposition and improve popular understanding. Other projects should be built around population engagement, like the anti-corruption example above.

Second, stabilisation and conflict prevention and recovery should involve a standardised research process to enable successful population engagement. Remember that flows of information can destabilise societies, and population engagement has to be managed carefully. A poorly conceived SMS engagement project, for example, could serve to exclude certain social groups just because they don’t have mobile phones, don’t use them in the same way as the majority, or render them vulnerable to false allegations.  A farmer who uses SMS to find commodity prices may be absolutely comfortable answering automated surveys received by text message, while city kids who use texting to chat with their friends may not. Such preventable exclusions can themselves exacerbate grievances and contribute to instability. So research is needed to understand not just what technologies populations use, but also how, when and why they use them.

More abstractly, research would need to demonstrate how information moves through those societies, and its consequences for distributions of power. Does youth literacy and media engagement challenge established or traditional authority? Such information is critical for getting population engagement right.

Finally, stabilisation should involve active diaspora engagement. Brain drain might take expertise away from unstable states, but that does not mean that expatriates are uninterested or unable to help. Diasporas can act as bridge populations, providing foreign governments indirect access to otherwise insular communities. Diasporas can also contribute substantively to stabilisation, whether by fundraising or peer-to-peer micro-financing, or by remote provision of services like education and dispute resolution. These populations can be engaged in the UK as well as abroad as sources of innovation, entrepreneurship and promotion of the arts, all of which feed into positive engagement.

If an example is needed, look at the way that the Haitian diaspora worldwide contributed to the earthquake relief effort earlier this year, with the help of volunteer technology communities like Crisis Mappers and Crisis Commons. Global Haitians translated SMS messages from Creole into English to help guide responders to people trapped under the rubble. They also helped volunteer techies of all nationalities build a digital map of Port-au-Prince to better coordinate the relief effort – not to mention all the money and resources they sent.

The National Security Strategy opens with the claim that we live in “a world of startling change”. Indeed. This is a world where access to modern ideas can promote retrograde movements like the Taliban, and where brain-drain can in fact be leveraged to lift societies out of conflict and instability. The challenge is learning how to harness that change.

The new connectivity of populations presents counter-intuitive security challenges – but it also provides us ample opportunities for meeting them. We simply need to be careful not to make matters worse. Everyone knows that knowledge is power, but somehow we forget it when we talk about communications. If we want to really “shape a stable world”, as the National Security Strategy modestly suggests, then we need to understand how to engage populations in the resolution of their problems. And quickly.


Jim Linton Williams has spent the last three years designing popular engagement research and communications projects for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, and conducted five months of field research in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly NWFP) since November 2008. He is founder of the Popular Engagement Policy Lab, and blogs at Two Tin Cans.