Coronavirus spreads, 'Global Britain' takes shape, and France sets aid priorities: This week in development

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has been appointed to lead the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by: REUTERS / Oliver Contreras / SIPA USA

Health systems brace for a growing threat, the U.K. launches a sweeping foreign policy review, and France looks to set priorities around increased aid spending. This week in development:

The novel coronavirus — COVID-19 — continues to spread, with more than 81,000 cases now reported, spanning all continents except Antarctica. Development of an approved vaccine for the virus is expected to take at least a year, and global health leaders have raised concerns that global demand for a drug could make equitable distribution — to low-income countries, for example — difficult. Health institutions around the world are ramping up preparedness activities amid growing fears that a rapid spread of the virus could overwhelm health systems, particularly in countries and regions where those systems are already weak. Global health and development organizations are hoping that recent experiences with other outbreaks such as Ebola, as well as previous investments in global health security infrastructure including laboratories and supply chains, will help position them for a more effective response. The virus has already thrown a wrench into the development community’s plans, with the World Bank on Wednesday postponing a high-level Fragility Forum that was set to take place next week in Washington and acknowledging contingency plans for the institution’s Spring Meetings, which are scheduled for April. Also on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. government’s response to the outbreak. On Thursday, Pence announced that U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Deborah Birx, who leads the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, will serve as the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator.

The U.K. government launched what it calls the largest foreign policy review since the end of the Cold War on Wednesday, prompting renewed questions about how development programs will fare under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit administration. The review aims for an integrated look at foreign, defense, security, and development policy, with the aim of aligning them all under the U.K.'s “Global Britain” agenda. While the government has affirmed that it remains committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and initial fears that Johnson might merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have not yet materialized, some U.K. aid advocates worry the review could finally lead to such a merger. “I would say that DFID's days as a standalone professional development department are potentially numbered,” a DFID staffer told Devex. Others hoped Johnson would use the review to drive a forward-looking approach to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges. “Too often, these reviews simply end up preparing us for the last war or crisis we faced,” said Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of the ONE Campaign.

The French government is moving forward with legislation to outline how it will meet President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise French aid to 0.55% of gross national income by 2022, up from 0.38% in 2016 and closer to the 0.7% benchmark set by the United Nations. The new bill, currently making its way through Parliament, would replace an existing development law from 2014, and it would formally adopt the priorities established at a 2018 meeting by the country’s interministerial development committee. Civil society groups have expressed some concern over the amount of funding directed to least developed countries and over language that links development assistance with migration. They say they worry that previous statements about the benefits of migration might be replaced with endorsements of using official development assistance as international leverage to prevent it or to compel countries to accept the return of their citizens. The bill would also create an independent commission for aid oversight similar to the U.K.’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact. In France, this would fall under the purview of the Court of Auditors, leading some to question whether that body will have sufficient development expertise to evaluate policy.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.