Advocates: UK Integrated Review spells end of 'development superpower status'

Image by: Cabinet Office / UK Government

A major U.K. government foreign policy review has heralded the end of the country’s status as a “development superpower” and is “laden with contradictions,” according to aid advocates.

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy pays relatively little attention to development. Security — including the expansion of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal — resilience, and international contests are the dominant themes of the paper, dubbed “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.”

The report, billed as the biggest review of the country’s outward-facing policies in decades, says the U.K. will “move from defending the status quo within the post-Cold War international system to dynamically shaping the post-COVID order, extending it in the future frontiers of cyberspace and space, and protecting democratic values.”

The government has repeatedly pointed to the Integrated Review as the blueprint for the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, which directs most of the aid budget and policy.

Speaking to members of Parliament on Tuesday to announce the review, Prime Minister Boris Johnson maintained his government’s position on cutting the aid budget, saying that it would return to 0.7% of national income “when fiscal circumstances allow” — a precondition that has been derided as meaningless by critics.

“These are not the actions of a ‘world leader on international development,’” said Kevin Watkins, chief executive at Save the Children UK. “Sadly, the prime minister’s statement provides further confirmation of the government's intent to surrender the U.K.’s position as a development superpower. Instead of putting international development where it should be — at the heart of the foreign policy review — it has been relegated to a substrategy to be published at a later date.”

The review states that the government’s aid strategy will be published in a later document, though there is no indication of when.

“The Integrated Review appears to be more centered towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper.”

— Sarah Champion, chair, U.K. International Development Committee

The Integrated Review states: “The UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments. As one of the world’s largest providers of ODA [official development assistance] ... we will focus our aid work on those areas which are important to a globally-focused UK and where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”

The U.K. will “maintain our commitment to Africa” — and key partners such as Nigeria and those in East Africa in particular — “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific,” the report adds.

“The Integrated Review published today has absconded from the vital opportunity to set out a new strategic vision for the three key pillars of development, diplomacy, and defense,” said Melissa Leach, director at the Institute of Development Studies. “Instead, it reiterates a narrow focus on defense spending and fails to deliver the rounded vision needed to tackle the most pressing challenges that affect us all: climate change, poverty and inequality, conflict, and disease.”

She described the “lack of ambition” for U.K. international development work as “seriously disappointing” and added that “the disregard for development in this review is a major loss for this country’s long-standing role as a development superpower and the soft power and global influence it creates.”

In a statement, Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director at the ONE Campaign, said: “This review says one thing, while the Government does another. How do they expect to achieve the tilt to the Indo-Pacific while implementing severe aid cuts that will impact many countries in that region?”

There was political opposition to the government’s stance on development, too — some from the government’s own benches. Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.K. needed to be “standing up for ourselves” on “aid and the 0.7[%].”

Labour MP Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, said: “With little more than a passing mention of development, the Integrated Review has done little to alleviate fears that this is the beginning of the end for the U.K.’s development superpower status. The Integrated Review appears to be more centered towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper.”

Champion said the document is “laden with contradictions,” in particular around the government’s policy toward Africa, which the report acknowledges would “increasingly be left behind” under current trends, with around 85% of the 1 billion lowest-income people living on the continent by 2045.

How UK aid is spent up for negotiation with defense and foreign policy review

The government insists it will maintain the amount spent on aid — but exactly how aid is spent will be up for negotiation.

The review was met with a mixed response from the broader foreign policy community. In a section dedicated to conflict and instability, the report says FCDO will establish a new “conflict centre” to increase the United Kingdom’s impact in “preventing, managing and resolving conflict in priority regions.”

It also promises to “build momentum on efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict” and to “tighten the focus of the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.” But the “positive comments” on conflict resolution are “undermined” by a £363 million cut to CSSF funding and other cuts to crisis response, said Lewis Brooks, U.K. policy and advocacy coordinator at Saferworld.

International alliances are also a key theme of the paper, with the U.K. reaffirming its support for multilateral cooperation to address global challenges. “We will seek to reform and strengthen the international humanitarian system, and promote the use of digital technology to provide faster and cheaper support to those affected by crises,” the report says.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.