Baroness Northover, parliamentary undersecretary of state for international development, during a panel discussion at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo by: Susan Markisz / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

Does the U.K. Department for International Development have a future? The simple answer is “yes” — and it should.

Far down the track, long into the future, the answer may be “no” — but that is indeed far distant.

The Liberal Democrats have helped to ensure DfID’s future. My colleagues, Michael Moore in the House of Commons and Jeremy Purvis in the House of Lords, steered through a Private Member’s Bill to enshrine in law the U.K.’s commitment to contribute 0.7 percent of gross national income to development assistance. Royal assent was granted on the day that Parliament prorogued for the general election.

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals aimed to halve extreme poverty by 2015. The world quite remarkably achieved that. The replacement sustainable development goals, due for agreement at the United Nations in September, aim to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, while seeking to leave no one behind.

This will be even more challenging than the original goal.

It is in failed states, in particular those in conflict, and among disadvantaged groups, such as the elderly, those with disabilities, and those from minority groups, that extreme poverty and the inability to have significant control over their lives — even to keep themselves alive at all — are manifest. And globally, with no country excepted, women and girls have fewer rights, are poorer, and find themselves most excluded.

Coming down the track are overarching major challenges, the key being climate change.  The poorest will be most vulnerable.

Few should therefore doubt the scale of the task for any international development department. Huge public support for Comic Relief shows that the U.K. public generally understands that. To sustain such support will depend a great deal on cross-party, nongovernmental organization, civil society and other support, to argue the case — again and again and again.

As in every department, ministers must ensure that DfID continues to spell out what it does, why, how, with what results, and how this is evaluated, both internally and through rigorous external independent examination. It must ensure that it leverages others.

The focus on governance, increasing tax collection, ensuring sustainability and encouraging growth will all be key. Working with other players — whether the United Nations, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, actors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, blocs such as the European Union, G-8, G-77, African Union and the BRICs  — will be vital.

But while aid remains crucial for some countries, especially fragile states, or in circumstances including humanitarian crises or post-conflict, there is likely to be a shift toward so-called global public goods that affect us all — tackling global pollution, cross-border epidemics and the arms trade, and more.

We also need to address other areas with huge effect on developing countries — trade policies, taxation, agricultural subsidies, intellectual property rights — and DfID’s central voice in government is essential here.

Enshrining 0.7 percent in law matters. Most departmental budgets are relatively stable, but that has never been the case for development. In 1996, for example, the Conservatives committed only 0.26 percent of GNI to aid. The level had even sunk to 0.24 percent under Labour in 1999, which rose to 0.51 percent in 2006 after the hugely successful Make Poverty History year, but sank again to 0.36 percent the following year.

How can sustained long-term commitments to education or health systems be based on such unpredictability?

Under the Coalition, we reached 0.7 percent in 2013. There is pressure to reduce this. Michael Moore’s law is therefore a game changer.

So might other departments look with interest at DfID’s budget?  

If that means working together on development, that is surely fine. We must work across departments, including the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defense, the Department for Education, the Department for Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Government Equalities Office, and so on.

Climate change, diplomacy, trade and economic growth, military assistance (as in Sierra Leone on Ebola), education, health, international law, and equalities all interlink with DfID’s work.

But it is immensely helpful that we report to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on official development assistance. This means that — whatever the temptations — ODA must be for development. Any leeching of funds for non-ODA projects would mean replenishing DfID, not something likely to enthuse any treasury. This is useful protection.

My experience of DfID as a minister is that this is a superb, thoughtful and strategic department, attracting high caliber people. Its close associations with research, think tanks and academia are vital — and of mutual benefit. Sometimes this will be overarching research, for example on the roots of conflict, on how skills and jobs may help to stem radicalism, what may foster or thwart growth; sometimes more specific areas. The research supported, for example into bovine tuberculosis in Ethiopia, can thus benefit the U.K. in turn. That is as it should be — we are, after all, in a globally connected world: Ebola in West Africa or antimicrobial resistance in Southeast Asia can quickly affect the U.K.; climate change affecting the Sahara, displacing people, causing conflict and migration, can impact us here in prosperous Europe.

It is clearly through economic development that people are pulled from poverty. But human development, through education and health, is needed to support that. Not simply counting children into primary schools, but ensuring that they emerge with learning and skills.

Underpinning development are rights — human rights — the most neglected of which are those of girls and women. Hence the practice of female genital mutilation or early and forced marriage; or the universal acceptance that women must assume disproportionate caring responsibilities, together with economic tasks, but with no commensurate recompense —  owning so little of the world’s wealth and property, yet contributing so much of its work; and with limited ability to control fertility — husbands free to tear from their wives’ arms their contraceptive implants. Women are indeed so often the second sex.

We know that helping to relieve poverty is morally right. We also know that development is in our strategic interests, to help secure a more peaceful world. As Liberal Democrats we have ensured that there will be the budget to do this.

Until we have at least managed to eradicate extreme poverty, there will continue to be a need for a Department for International Development.

Stay tuned for more U.K. election coverage and news, views and analysis on how this impacts DfID and U.K. aid in the coming weeks. To explore additional content, visit the Future of DfID series site, follow us on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Baroness Northover

    Lindsay Northover is Parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department for International Development. Prior to 2010, she was Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on international development in the House of Lords. She is a former trustee of UNICEF, the Tropical Health and Education Trust, a former council member of the Overseas Development Institute and chaired Women Liberal Democrats. Her first degree was from Oxford; her doctorate from the U.S., and she was a lecturer at University College, London.