Britain's Conservatives appear to mull changes to aid spending rules

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo by: Jay Allen / Crown Copyright

The main political parties in the United Kingdom appear to agree on the quantity of aid spent overseas, but there is concern in the development community that favored Conservative party incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May plans to shake up the rules around aid spending.

In the run-up to snap elections on June 8th, the major political parties released their manifestos this week, outlining plans for how the respective groups would run government if elected.

There is consensus in the major parties for maintaining the U.K.’s commitment to spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid. But aid groups fear May’s Conservatives — who have a commanding lead in the polls — could renege on promises to keep the Department for International Development an independent government body, with a seat in the Prime Minister’s cabinet.

Hints in the Conservative manifesto also point to a likely renegotiation of the rules that govern aid spending; alluding to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, but not mentioning the body by name at all in relation to aid or development.

“There are still ways that we can improve the way that taxpayers’ money is used to help the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent, on whom and for what purpose,” the manifesto states. “So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 percent target.”

That statement worries some. “One thing I don’t think we’d anticipated was this mention of a possible change in official development assistance and OECD DAC rules, but we don’t know anything else. [It] could be good or bad, we’re not really sure,” Andrew Griffiths, head of advocacy at Sightsavers told Devex.

Early in the “Global Britain” section of the manifesto, the party adopts more absolute rhetoric on the prospect of changing the aid rules, outlining one of the cornerstones of Conservative international engagement as “global leadership on development, backed by spending 0.7 percent of our national income with new rules to spend it more effectively.”

In 2016, the OECD DAC amended the rules for spending ODA, in particular blurring the lines slightly between what can be defined as aid versus security spending. The changes have ushered more cross-sector, spending namely in humanitarian crises, where military and humanitarian operations find themselves in need of better coordination on the ground. The U.K. was reportedly a strong advocate of the shifts among the DAC member countries.

Conspicuous absence

New changes to the definition could include a further softening of this distinction — timely as all parties ramp up the “overseas aid in the national interest” and “soft power” rhetoric in their manifestos. Or, as other members of the aid community suggest, the statements may harbinger a change in the independent status of DFID.

Early in the Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel’s tenure, she told reporters she hoped to usher in a greater focus on trade at DFID, suggesting a merger between DFID and the Department for International Trade as one option. The Conservative manifesto’s mention of shifting the rules around aid spending have reignited among aid professionals the rumours that such a merger is on the table.

“It’s encouraging that three major parties have committed to maintain the U.K.’s spending on international aid,” said a coalition of U.K. aid organizations in a joint press statement.

“It’s also vital that this money delivers for the world’s poorest people in the poorest countries, and is spent where it is needed most. For U.K. aid to be as effective as possible, we need the highest levels of transparency and accountability, an independent DFID as the primary body delivering U.K. aid, and an unequivocal commitment to helping the poorest people and communities. The OECD rules exist to ensure that this is the case and any changes risk a dangerous dilution of their impact,” the statement reads.

But the lack of any mention of the OECD or the DAC — the manifesto neglects to mention the body anywhere in the document, neither in the sections related to aid nor “international institutions” — strikes a mysterious note in an otherwise relatively thorough document, compared with previous manifestos.

“What is particularly interesting is that they have each taken a different approach on the OECD-DAC rules on aid spending, Joanna Rea, head of Public Affairs at the Overseas Development Institute told Devex. "While the Liberal Democrats have said they will spend aid in line with the OECD definition, Labour didn’t mention the rules and the Conservatives said they will seek to change them.”

The Department for International Development unloads humanitarian aid in Manila. Photo by: Ray Leyesa / IOM / CC BY-NC-ND

Encouraging consensus

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats all agree to maintain the 0.7 aid commitment in their pledges, but these three parties (the fourth most popular group, the Scottish National Party has yet to release its manifesto) agree on little else beyond the 0.7 commitment.

In all three manifestos, the Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Sustainable Development Goals feature prominently. This was especially encouraging for those aid groups who fretted over the conspicuous absence of the SDGs in the most recent UK Aid Strategy. All three also committed to continuing the U.K.’s work on education, promoting the rights of women and girls, increasing the accountability of aid and improving the system for registering asylum seekers. This was surprising from the Conservatives, who made little mention of asylum seekers in the previous manifesto, but who may feel under pressure after it was revealed that the Dubs scheme for admitting child refugees was mismanaged.

“Now the critical thing is what does that SDG commitment actually look like?” asked Griffiths. “It’s about making sure there’s a recognition that when you say you’re implementing the SDGs, you include a very strong element of inclusion, for disabilities for example. This really gives us something to talk about with [whomever] wins, in how that translates from the manifesto,” he said.

However, examining how the parties diverge offers some clues about how a post-election DFID might look, possibly shedding some light on current and future funding patterns.

“British scientists and inventors have helped to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world’s poorest people,” the Conservative manifesto reads. “A global Britain should aspire to do even more: We will significantly increase our funding of U.K.-led medical and technical research into the biggest threats to global health and prosperity.”

The current Ross Fund — introduced in the 2015 UK Aid Strategy — sets aside 1 billion pounds ($ 1.3 billion) for medical research, particularly in the area of neglected tropical diseases and antimicrobial resistance. A further 350 million pounds ($453 million) was announced earlier this year for research and development in the global health field. The new UK Aid Connect funding channel — also introduced in the most recent aid strategy, but with bidding still postponed from March of this year — seeks to connect aid implementers both in the U.K. and overseas with British institutions, such as universities, think tanks, government institutions and researchers. The introduction of even more funding in the global health space seems a timely reaction to pushes on the international stage — namely the G-20 and at the United Nations — to improve international coordination of efforts to combat neglected tropical diseases and microbial resistance; a good sign that the U.K. wants to stay in step.

For their part, both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos placed a strong emphasis on curbing tax evasion and ending tax havens, in an effort to mobilise domestic resources in low and middle-income countries, and reduce global inequality. Both pledge to work closely with international institutions efforts to establish stronger rules around corporate tax reporting and pressure large economies to do their part in regulating activity; another OECD wheelhouse where the Conservatives fell short.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.