By Matt.Ross

27 Jan 2010

Without a coordinated approach to intervention in conflicts, both nations and departments can end up working at cross-purposes. Matt Ross meets Richard Teuten, who fosters over-arching UK strategies on armed struggles

Stereotypes will only get you so far in this world – but occasionally you do come across an individual who fits neatly into the mould created by your preconceptions. And Richard Teuten (pictured above), the head of the interdepartmental Stabilisation Unit, is one such character: a genteel, suave, precise civil service mandarin straight out of central casting. In his job, that unruffled, diplomatic approach is essential; Teuten helps develop solutions to complex problems not just internationally, but – just as awkwardly – interdepartmentally.

The Stabilisation Unit (until 2007, it was called the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit) was established jointly by the Department for International Development, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the Ministry of Defence following criticisms that British operations in Iraq lacked sufficient expertise or coordination. “In 2003, we all recognise now, our understanding of what we were getting into in Iraq was weak,” says Teuten. “The perceived weaknesses in the international community’s response to Iraq was the spark to the unit’s creation.”

Iraq, though, only highlighted broader changes to the ways in which conflicts play out around the world – changes to which the UK had been slow to respond. “The nature of conflict in which the international community is involved has changed,” comments Teuten. “It’s much more among the people now, rather than state on state. And the military can’t solve these problems; it can only create the space in which others can solve them.” Solutions, he says, require the “people of a country to view a political authority as legitimate and credible; military action alone can’t achieve that.”

In Iraq then – as in Afghanistan now – various arms of the British government were working alongside the military to build up “a non-predatory police force” and “the means to resolve political grievances without resorting to violence”. Having met “people’s fundamental requirement for physical security and a sense of their justice needs being met,” says Teuten, “then their need for basic education and healthcare becomes important along with basic livelihoods.”

The requirement for a “combination of civilian activities”, Teuten explains, “puts much greater emphasis on all those actors working together, with a single common aim and a set of objectives divided up between themselves that are coherent and prioritised. In the past there may have been occasions when there were different understandings, and therefore different objectives were being pursued –by different parts of the government and international community – that were at loggerheads with each other”.

To help develop that strategic plan, says Teuten, his unit “facilitates an in-depth discussion so that people understand the underlying problems; the relationship between the UK’s objectives; the critical path to the most important of those.” The unit can’t write a cross-departmental plan itself, he says: “If you write a strategy for someone else, they will not own it; you have to facilitate them writing their own strategy.” Instead, one of the departments takes the lead role: “You have to have someone leading the process – but all the other key players must feel they’re a part of it.”

Asked how he manages to broker such compromises, Teuten does concede that sometimes the centre of government has to step in. “Occasionally it’s more than just consensus,” he says, diplomatically. “Cabinet Office or Number 10 will be involved and will encourage individual departments to review their initial position to encourage a different outcome.”

However it’s achieved, coordinating the different objectives, skills and resources of government actors can transform the overall impact of UK operations, says Teuten. By strengthening the Afghan government’s presence and legitimacy in Helmand province, he argues, his unit has given the army a partner to work with; without this work, “it’s likely that the armed forces would have given up relying on the civilians and adopted a model where they sought to do everything by themselves, which wouldn’t necessarily have increased the likelihood of success.” And he cites a 2007 review of the Afghanistan strategy facilitated by his unit, which he says prompted government action that “resolved once and for all the tension between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency” work.

To help enact the agreed strategy, the unit can deploy people from a list of 950 civilian experts and up to 100 serving police officers, and it’s currently building up a 200-strong civil service cadre. For the civil servants – most of whom may be deployed overseas at three months’ notice for up to a year – this is, says Teuten, a “wonderful opportunity to contribute to the government’s foreign policy objectives, and to undertake tasks that accelerate one’s personal development” (see box).

So the unit will soon have 1250 people on call – but only 120 are currently deployed. “The difference is explained by the amount of funding that is available”, says Teuten. Deployments are normally funded by the cross-departmental conflict pool budget, but that “has had to be used to top up the cost of assessed contributions to UN and EU peacekeeping missions, as a result of the growth of those missions and the decline in sterling.” The unit’s parent departments, he says carefully, “would like to do more, but there isn’t the money for all the things they’d like to do.”

Asked to assess the value of interdepartmental units as a way to address cross-cutting issues, Teuten is careful. “I would be cautious about advocating a lot of replication,” he says; for many areas of domestic policy, “it may be enough to bring people together and improve training, rather than creating a cross-government cadre.”

Given its remit, though, the unit’s interdepartmental structure is “the lesser of all possible evils, in that it brings together the three departments in a way which wouldn’t happen otherwise to try and agree what collectively we’re all trying to achieve in any particular country,” says Teuten. “It has reduced the likelihood of activities taking place that conflict with or undermine each other, and made it easier to prioritise what we’re trying to achieve. It does take effort – it’s not transaction-free – but at least we now have a process whereby different preferences can be resolved”.

We also have a process whereby civil servants with the right skills and abilities can apply to join a cadre of people who may be deployed to help stabilise far-flung parts of the world. The rewards, says Teuten, will be reaped both by host countries and by the civil servants themselves. “Whoever wins the general election, more emphasis will be placed on individuals who understand working across government – and that’s something you would gain,” he says. “There is also likely to be more emphasis on understanding conflict environments.”

The Stabilisation Unit, Teuten believes, provides opportunities both for the UK government, and for the individuals on its roll. For British civil servants, he concludes, the incentives are “a mixture of personal development objectives and wanting to do something that’s really very important – and not only for the UK, but also for the places where they’re deployed.”

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