International Development for a Global Britain?

Helping hand: UK aid providing assistance to Syrian refugees. Image: / OGL v3.0

While the UK government’s newly published International Development Strategy sets out some laudable aims, there are reasons to be sceptical about its potential impact on global poverty.

The UK government published its new International Development Strategy on 16 May 2022. The document was the first of its kind since 2015. In the intervening years, much has changed in the world and in UK politics, from Brexit to the disestablishment of the Department for International Development (DFID), and of course savage aid cuts in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that took the UK budget from 0.7% down to 0.5% of GNI in a dramatic reversal of government policy. The Johnson government also issued the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, heralding a new ‘Global Britain’ direction which, like the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID into a combined Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, was designed to align development activity with wider foreign policy goals.

The strategy has been keenly awaited by those working within the development industry, both among agencies that implement the work and among other donors and multilaterals who have historically regarded the UK as a leader in this field. Stated policy priorities are to support i) investment, ii) women and girls, iii) humanitarian assistance, and iv) climate change, nature and global health.

Better linking development to foreign policy, trade and investment, and harnessing the UK’s expertise and reputation, are important themes throughout. New ways of working are also given prominence. The document emphasises spending more aid bilaterally instead of via multilaterals like the UN. This will reverse years of high spending levels through such agencies, now forecasted to receive about 25% of the aid budget. This will play well with certain domestic constituencies, but may be double-edged in terms of UK soft power.

There are references, too, to geostrategic competition and a global clash of values in which a liberal world order is pitted against authoritarianism (see also Liz Truss’s Mansion House speech which casts the UK as part of a ‘network of liberty’). But this kind of bullish content is offset by promises to spend the majority of Official Development Assistance in low-income countries and 0.2% of GNI on the Least Developed Countries. The former makes good development sense, restating a commitment of previous governments. And there are also references to a long-term, ‘patient approach’ – a mainstay of international development thinking as opposed to real-world diplomatic engagement.

These commitments have not prevented early hostile reactions to the strategy from the established international development community. Criticisms range from the nuanced – that today’s development problems are complex, so one cannot prioritise select issues or rely solely on UK technical expertise – to the more value-driven – for example, that linking development to foreign policy, or domestic concerns to those of developing countries, is simply the thin end of a bad wedge. Her Majesty’s Opposition have also weighed in, calling the strategy a ‘double-whammy’ for the global poor.

Many of these criticisms have merit. Top-down solutions to global poverty have too often produced white elephant development projects. And despite many noble efforts and nuanced working, the world of official development aid can be plagued by bureaucratic thinking, whether emanating from the public or private sector. It is also true that UK technical expertise, while tempting to reach for, will often prove inappropriate. And while trade and investment-led development is a promising line of enquiry that might one day plug development’s massive funding gaps, past attempts to involve the private sector in international development have seen modest results.

Aid cuts and a retreat from multilateralism have damaged the UK’s standing in the world and hurt the poor

Additionally, critics are correct that aid cuts and a retreat from multilateralism have damaged the UK’s standing in the world and hurt the poor (though this should spur attempts at alternative financing); and they are right that the introduction of new actors with different values and agendas to the international development scene could prove detrimental in some ways, and beneficial in others.

It is unwise, however, to paint too rosy a picture of contemporary international development. Despite the best efforts of well-motivated aid workers, aid critics and innovators, the official development world is often dysfunctional and bureaucratic. Given to grandiose planning, it has favoured too many one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems, set unobtainable targets that substitute headline-grabbing pledges and celebrity conferences for measurable progress, and squandered public support.

At its best, the international development ecosystem of charities, academics, think-tanks, contractors and UN agencies exhibits high integrity, professionalism, compassion and an ability to innovate. Prominent scandals aside, at their worst, elements within the sector can be resistant to change, blind to their self-interest but preachy. Particularly when coupled with top-down targets and bureaucracy, this does little for the extreme poor whose challenges are often complex and fundamentally political.

Even on its own terms, the international development community – from UN agencies to major international NGOs and OECD Development Assistance Committee donors – has been demonstrably failing to progress towards the 17 goals and 169 targets that were set in 2016 under the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, inequality has risen markedly in the developed and developing world in recent years, while by some metrics, poverty levels have not shifted downwards – bar in China – since the early 1990s.

From this perspective, a new strategy, and a different – perhaps even a disruptive – approach to UK international development efforts is warranted. Do the key ideas and directions set out in the new UK government strategy take us in the right direction? In this respect, the document is of mixed value. Many of its themes and preoccupations are not new at all (such as climate spending, humanitarian relief, and women and girls). And some headline-grabbing announcements are really continuations or enhancements of previous trends and themes. Cutting red tape and increasing political oversight – both emphasised – are hardly new themes for Conservative governments. And the turn to UK-branded aid work, as exemplified by favouring bilateral programmes, is an accentuation of an ongoing trend partly driven by funding cuts.

But some approaches are new. The strong emphasis on investment and alternative financing mechanisms is one. ‘British Investment Partnerships’ in which the UK government works with businesses are projected to raise £8 billion of financing by 2025, ‘including from the private sector’. British International Investment, which replaces the Commonwealth Development Corporation, will be a vehicle for this, helping to mobilise third-party capital including sovereign wealth funds and pension funds. There are also references to new economic partnership agreements, Free Trade Agreements with African states over goods and services, and a ‘Developing Countries Trading Scheme’ to help align trade and development.

The practice of international development badly needs to move beyond traditional ideas around aid and a sole concern with poverty reduction

Yet it would be naïve to assume these mechanisms alone could deliver pro-poor investment, trade or development in a world of savage economic competition and sometimes questionable political leadership. It is also conceivable that they may accentuate the long-standing difficulties that fragile states have in obtaining predictable aid and financing. The document’s welcome promises of a ‘sustained commitment to Africa’, prioritising South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, do not really address these obvious challenges in the weaker states the UK has historically supported, from Somalia, Mali and the Sudans in Africa, to Myanmar and Sri Lanka in Asia or Lebanon in the Middle East.

Repeated references to the UK’s expertise, branding and unique ‘offer’ also stand out. Beyond issues of trade and investment, references to harnessing UK talent outside of government via universities, business or civil society are woven into a narrative about doing development differently. Critics may spy a plot to privatise development and put business interests first. Yet the practice of international development badly needs to move beyond traditional ideas around aid and a sole concern with poverty reduction.

The new framings around investment in support of self-reliance, linked to the best of UK expertise, will tap into a section of the voting public’s sense of the UK as being simultaneously a force for good and the home of credible institutions. But it is also an attempt to marry international agendas with promotion of UK businesses, exports, science and technology, and a domestic ‘resilience’ agenda. By deploying UK expertise in fields such as health or law and order, benefits should in theory accrue at home. In these respects, the document is novel and interesting – could it even help to chart a course ahead in a time of populism and economic nationalism? Much will, of course, depend on where and for which parties the benefits are realised.

There are other double-edged policy commitments within. For example, £3 billion has been pledged towards humanitarian relief over the next three years. This could save many lives. Yet the bulk of humanitarian work concerns the relief of immediate human suffering amid crises, rather than building resilience and socio-economic capital. Allocating resources to save lives in the short term is laudable. But in a zero-sum funding situation this is traded off against longer-term agendas, from socio-economic development to climate change and conflict prevention. Given that most humanitarian need manifests in impoverished, climate- and conflict-affected states, the case for such a large allocation is open to debate. Relief efforts poll well with the UK public, but together with increasing allocations to Ukraine, this commitment means that other important priorities and locations lose out.

Overall, what are the odds that this strategy can be delivered? If the years ahead are anything like as turbulent as the last, it is, of course, hard to know. Here, perhaps, lie the bigger questions, such as how relevant the strategy is to the contemporary world, both in terms of the extreme poor and the contested international environment. In truth, much remains unclear. How, for example, will funding be allocated geographically? Given the interlinked causes of poverty, from poor nutrition to insecurity, bad governance, and lack of sanitation, what time and resources, if any, will the UK provide outside of the priority themes it has highlighted? Are there discrepancies between reducing multilateral investments and claiming to focus on systemic problems like climate change that demand collective solutions? Will the UK be able to fund conflict and crisis management in an unstable Uganda, Bosnia or even Argentina? Such important policy and contextual issues are not really dealt with in the document, which instead skips quickly over issues ranging from violent conflict to poor governance, while saying little at all about the realities of implementation, or whether a government that has not just integrated but also demoted development in terms of importance has the bandwidth to pursue what it has set out.

Let us hope that because of its merits and despite its gaps, this strategy is accompanied by further policy statements and detailed but flexible planning. More importantly, let us hope it acts as an opening salvo for a much-needed debate about the nature and direction of international development in a world where inequality and inflation are reversing the gains of past years. The UK could do a great service to the world by playing a leading role in any such debate as a former, albeit recovering, ‘development superpower’.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Simon Rynn

Senior Research Fellow, African Security

International Security

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