James Cowan at launch of new development initiative
Coalition for Global Prosperity


I used to be a soldier.  In 2009 and 2010 I was commander of Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan. 64 of my soldiers were killed.  The start of my tour was marked by unremitting violence.  But at the end, I took a last patrol along the Pharmacy Road in Sangin, once the most dangerous in Helmand and, arguably, Afghanistan.  The patrol commander was nervous at being stuck with his brigade commander in such an infamous place.  But the strange thing was, nothing happened. The sun shone and the birds sang. Never has nothing happening felt more like success. I have often look back to that sunny morning in Helmand. Our work there was a combined Defence, Diplomatic and Development endeavour.  But at times, the effort felt too weighted to Defence – as the saying goes, if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  The cost of the deployment was hard to sustain, and in 2014 the UK greatly reduced its military commitment to Afghanistan.

In 2015, I left the Army to lead The HALO Trust, the world’s biggest humanitarian mine clearance charity. We operate in 23 countries and employ over 8,000 local people. These people would otherwise be destitute, displaced or recruited by terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Al Shabab, Daesh or the FARC. Last year alone, 1.7 million people benefitted from our work.

Some people criticise overseas aid as a form of latter-day imperialism. But look at the history of HALO in Afghanistan - we were founded in Kabul exactly 30 years ago and have weathered every change of regime since.  An Afghan has led HALO there since the early 1990s. Of his 3,500 deminers, only four are ex-patriate staff. In place of a very British, very military and very expensive solution, HALO presents a very Afghan and very affordable answer to a very Afghan problem.

Britain has been a longstanding supporter of mine action in Afghanistan through the Department for International Development and the Conflict, Security and Stabilisation Fund. Over the last ten years, DFID has provided funds to clear Herat Province, benefitting over 370,000 families. An entire suburb of Herat city, with a population of over 35,000 people, has been built on cleared land.

This is development in action – and largely funded by the British taxpayer. The deminers whose salaries were paid by the British could have swollen the ranks of the Taliban. Instead, they were given the dignity of a livelihood and an entire province, bar a few small pockets where the situation is too volatile – is now safe for agriculture and the creation of infrastructure.  Outputs such as these should silence the most vocal of aid critics, for it shows us that aid is not only the right thing to do, but is also an investment in our national security.

In recent months, Afghanistan has been shrouded once again in a cloud of violence. Earlier this month, six of our staff were seriously injured by a roadside device that exploded during a Taliban ambush. They are now recovering in hospital. And although we were forced to suspend operations for two days, our teams were back on the ground within the week.

It is clear then, that military support is required in countries where conflict still spills over into humanitarian space. Only with security can organisations such as HALO continue to help the Afghan people.  But whereas some NGOs would resist partnership with military agencies, HALO realises that development on this scale is not possible without security.  To HALO, there is simply no contradiction between furthering British and other Allied National interests and meeting our humanitarian responsibilities as an NGO. In a world in which Britain faces threats that are increasingly hybrid in nature, we surely need a coordinated response between military, agency, diplomatic and NGO assets.

As a soldier, I also served in Iraq. In 2004, I commanded my Battalion, The Black Watch, just south of Fallujah in the so-called Triangle of Death.  This month, The HALO Trust will start clearance operations in Fallujah, recently liberated from Daesh. Damage and loss assessment reports by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the World Bank estimate it could take at least ten years to rebuild Iraq.

Even before the arrival of Daesh, Iraq was the world’s most mine-contaminated country. But like its neighbour, Syria, it is now badly affected by improvised explosive devices or IEDs. Unlike earlier wars, largely fought in open country, the war in the Middle East has been focused on great cities like Aleppo, Fallujah, Mosul, Raqqah, Damascus and Baghdad, where booby traps proliferate and bombs lie buried in pancaked concrete buildings.

HALO is the first humanitarian operator to enter Fallujah where Jihadi ideology took root following the ousting of Saddam Hussein. There is a risk that conflict may erupt again if stabilisation and reconstruction efforts are inadequate. I don’t need to labour the point that any future conflict in Fallujah, or elsewhere in Iraq, could easily bring terror back on the streets of Britain.

HALO plans to address the problem of urban contamination through the use of British technology adapted from that other mining sector, mineral extraction, using crushers, sifters and diggers.  We plan to export the Fallujah model to other post-conflict cities in Syria, Libya and Yemen. 

But British Aid should not simply be directed at the world’s current hotspots. There are too many countries in the world which still lie in the shadow of bygone wars – Angola, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Somalia to name a few.

Mine clearance in Sri Lanka, has not only saved many lives, but allowed infrastructure to be rebuilt and helped over 300,000 people return home. In Cambodia, since the 1990s 51% of one million beneficiaries have been lifted above the World Bank poverty line as a direct result of mine clearance. Average agricultural income per household rose from $2,500 pre-clearance to $4,500 post clearance.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the reconstruction challenge faced by Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. But it’s worth remembering Mozambique, once one of the most densely land mined countries in the world. For 22 years, the UK supported mine clearance there, led by HALO. In 2015, Mozambique was finally declared mine free.

The .7% of GDP that the UK commits to overseas aid is often a subject of controversy. Defence, Diplomacy and Development are sometimes talked about as the three ‘D’s.  As a Mine Clearance charity founded and led by ex-soldiers, The HALO Trust sits at their junction.   Of course, there is much more that could be done to orchestrate the three Ds and I would personally welcome a greater level of coordination, but this refinement should not invalidate the broader strategic prize.  Last year, the UK committed £100m to ridding the world of landmines. At a time when so much difficulty accompanies chemical and nuclear arms control, the chance to eradicate landmines as an entire class of weapons is a genuinely strategic opportunity and a perfect example of why UK Aid is a force for good in the world.  It takes vision to make a strategic difference and I will shortly be followed by people with such vision.  For that reason, I commend the work of the Coalition for Global Prosperity.