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Britain's international aid gets ambitious reboot

‘Evidence-based ideas that offer hope of a real reset.’

This is a composite image done in a collage style. To the left we see a portrait of Official portrait of Andrew Mitchell  a British politician currently serving as the Minister of State for Development and Africa. He is pictured in black and white wearing a suit and looking at the camera. To the right we see a screenshot of a report and on the left cut outs of a hand holding a plant, a notepad and pen, and some British pound bills and coins. Karolina Grabowska, Akil Mazumder, Suzy Hazelwood/ Pexels and Chris McAndrew/UK parliament

The British government has launched a major new international development policy that aims to restore faith in UK aid. It follows years of dysfunction after former prime minister Boris Johnson merged overseas aid into the foreign office and enacted sweeping budget cuts, causing Britain to lose its reputation as a reliable aid partner.

Appointed after Johnson’s departure, International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell has been spearheading efforts to revitalise the UK’s image on the world stage as a serious player in aid policy. The White Paper on “International development in a contested world”, published on Monday, represents the culmination of his efforts so far.

A new strategy in all but name, the lengthy document was called “a roadmap to 2030” by Mitchell and links UK government policy to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. While it promotes some of the latest thinking in different areas of the aid space, including a big push for anticipatory action, there are also some key gaps, particularly around climate and financing.

It is markedly different in both tone and content from the policy published in May 2022, when Liz Truss was Foreign Secretary. That approach was widely viewed as self-interested and insufficient for the crises the world faced. The UK is now on its third Foreign Secretary in just over a year – former prime minister David Cameron – though work on the White Paper began under his predecessor, James Cleverly.

The White Paper is clear on what UK international development policy seeks to achieve: “end extreme poverty and tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.” It lists six ways to reach those objectives, including: mobilising development finance; reforming the international system; tackling conflict, fragility, and humanitarian crises; and innovation.

Here are some key takeaways:

A reset 

The closure of the Department for International Development (DFID) in 2020 triggered chaos for UK development and humanitarian policy. There were widespread institutional difficulties as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) took over the brief, becoming the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), in a process that lasted years.

The FCDO, like DFID before it, controls the bulk of the UK’s aid budget and sets strategy for both international development policies – focused on longer-term objectives like poverty reduction – and humanitarian policies, which respond to emergencies.

The difficulties caused by the departmental merger were greatly exacerbated by the reduction of the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income*, cutting £4.6bn from programmes around the world.

Both the merger and the aid cuts worsened the UK’s performance and global reputation in development and humanitarian policy.

Mitchell’s lengthy White Paper, which claimed to have consulted widely across 70 countries, re-establishes ending extreme poverty as an overarching objective – the purpose for which DFID was also originally established.

Unusually for a government document, the paper is prefaced by three pages of “testimonials” from world leaders and senior officials welcoming the policy.

The document “offers a welcome change of tone, with evidence-based ideas that offer hope of a real reset and refresh for the UK on the international development stage”, said Sarah Champion, the opposition Labour MP heading the International Development Committee, a parliamentary FCDO watchdog. In a written statement, she described it as a “highly ambitious paper” and, in a nod to Britain perhaps following a similar track under any future Labour government, “directed at achieving impact for years to come”.

The White Paper also represents a clear achievement for Mitchell, who is said to have steadied the ship when he joined the FCDO in October 2022, fighting off elements in government hostile to international development. Mitchell previously led DFID and has a reputation as a strong advocate for aid, having led a failed parliamentary rebellion over the budget cuts.

Funding problems remain

The document does not set out a pathway back to a 0.7% aid budget, even though that is what is needed to achieve its “notable ambitions”, according to Gideon Rabinowitz, director of policy and advocacy at Bond, the UK network for NGOs.

That funding gap was described as, “still the elephant in the room”, by the IDC’s Champion.

The government attempted to keep any harm caused by the aid cuts under wraps, but development news outlet Devex ran a tracker of the impacts. After Mitchell’s arrival at the FCDO, he published an impact assessment that showed that thousands of people “in acute humanitarian need” would die as a result of the ongoing aid cuts.

“The UK's ability to respond to humanitarian crises in areas of conflict and climate change have been seriously compromised, financially and politically,” Champion said. With the new strategy leaning heavily on the private sector stepping in to make the funding sums work, she worried that companies' appetite to do this was unclear.

The aid budget is ultimately controlled by the Treasury. Rabinowitz said Bond was “concerned that this White Paper fails to recognise the reforms to the UK’s policies on tax, trade and debt cooperation required to reduce poverty and inequality.

“The lack of commitment and political will from other government departments outside of FCDO speaks volumes,” he added.

Loss and damage: missing in action 

The UK government has received extensive criticism recently for its perceived backsliding on domestic climate commitments, but tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is the second overarching objective of its new international development policy.

The paper details why the government is concerned about the impacts of climate change and outlines its policy commitments, such as “playing a constructive role in international climate negotiation processes” and “balancing mitigation and adaptation funding".

However, the document makes no mention of loss and damage: not only one of the most sensitive and important ongoing climate negotiations but one that also has a brief – the fallout of climate disasters – that falls squarely into the FCDO’s remit. Loss and damage could be a major new demand on the UK’s international climate finance, which comes from the existing aid budget despite the fact it is supposed to be new and additional assistance.

“I’m surprised to see no explicit mention of climate loss and damage with the serious questions that remain over climate and development finance,” said Champion.

Change in tone

Unlike previous policy and messaging from the FCDO, which emphasised projecting UK power and “Global Britain”, the new paper strongly advocates for a more collaborative approach. The document said the UK recognised it has “much to learn, as well as much to offer”, and committed to “listening to those closest to the challenges faced by communities”.

“Today’s answer cannot be about rich countries ‘doing development’ to others,” wrote Cameron. “We need to work together as partners, shaping narratives which developing countries own and deliver. Development cannot be a closed shop, where we try to help other countries and communities without heeding their vision for the future.”

The paper said “countries and people that have historically been excluded from power must have a central voice in how the international order changes”. Because of the UK’s “historic role” in the international system, the country has a responsibility “to help ensure it is more representative”, said the document.

Early action 

There’s a big emphasis throughout the paper on taking a preventative – and cost-saving – approach to crises. This includes through traditional means such as social protection, which it said “should be at the centre of international development, humanitarian and climate efforts”, but also through futuristic technologies too.

“Drawing on groundbreaking data science, AI, machine learning and open-source intelligence capabilities, the UK and its partners are entering new territory in our ability to forecast complex risks,” said the document, which suggested using new technologies to improve predicting conflict and mass atrocities, “buying time for response”.

“Access to data and technology should be extended so that early warning is more systematically used across the international system,” it added.

A general election is due in the UK next year, and the Conservatives are consistently far behind in the polls, raising expectations that the Labour Party could soon take charge of the aid brief.

While Mitchell’s document is the product of a Conservative government, it was designed to win approval from across the political spectrum. It may just have done so.

(*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a reduction to GDP, instead of GNI. This correction version was published on 27 November 2023.)

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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