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

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo by: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The U.K. government launched its far-reaching integrated review of its foreign, defense, security, and development policy on Wednesday — sparking concern among development experts, despite assurances by the government that it was committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid.

“DFID's days as a standalone professional development department are potentially numbered.”

— Former DFID official

Although the Department for International Development survived the recent Cabinet reshuffle largely intact, many believe the review means it is not safe yet, and that it is likely to impact how the U.K.’s £14.5 billion ($18.6 billion) aid budget is spent.

Branded the biggest review of the U.K.’s outward-facing policies since the end of the Cold War, the much-vaunted project will mark a key moment in the U.K. 's “Global Britain” agenda — a realignment of how it positions itself in the world post-Brexit.

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“As the world changes we must move with it — harnessing new technologies and ways of thinking to ensure British foreign policy is rooted firmly in our national interests, now and in the decades ahead,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.

The review’s aims are to “define the government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy; set out ... [how] the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation; examining how we work more effectively with our allies; [and] determine the capabilities we need for the next decade ... to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face.”

It will also “identify the necessary reforms to government systems and structures to achieve these goals.” There are fears that could finally lead to DFID being merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, a move long advocated by some in the ruling Conservative party.

While DFID has a strong track record on aid spending, transparency, and impact, FCO is regarded as a more opaque department with interests that often conflict with development.

“I think many of us can see the logic of a more joined-up approach, particularly if diplomacy is better used for developmental ends, but history … performance evidence and limited competence makes it hard to have faith in the process or outcome,” said one DFID staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their job.

A former DFID official called the review “worrying,” saying “It may well provide cover for … [the current aid skeptical government] to recolonise the aid programme and budget and turn it to their own ... interests.”

Speaking anonymously to maintain professional ties, he said Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the department’s newly-appointed secretary of state, was “hardly [DFID’s] most effective champion defending their interests and continued independence in these discussions.” Trevelyan has previously made social media comments criticizing aid.

“I would say that DFID's days as a standalone professional development department are potentially numbered,” he added.

A previous aid strategy was published in 2015 in parallel with the strategic defense and security review, which provided the basis for the government’s controversial shift to spending less aid through DFID, noted professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director‑general of the Royal United Services Institute.

Alastair Russell, senior public affairs adviser at Save the Children, said the government’s commitment to retaining spending at 0.7% was “really pleasing” but was “only useful and impactful if it remains defined by the OECD-DAC rules,” the guidelines for aid spending set by the world’s major donors.

But he welcomed the prominence that development was given in the review’s announcement, and called for civil society to be properly engaged in the process.

“We can bring a dual role: We can bring on-the-ground experience and practicalities of working around the world. But we can also represent the views of a big swath of the British public ... It's an opportunity to really define the language of Global Britain,” he said.

Others in the sector were less enthusiastic. “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. “At best they might make us slightly better prepared for the next crisis but they rarely, if ever, ask the truly important question of how to avoid these crises in the first place.”

“If Boris Johnson really wants to relaunch the U.K. on the world stage then he needs this review to look hard at the biggest issues facing the world at the start of this decade — spiraling inequality and entrenched poverty, increasingly complex global health threats, the mass movement of people, and the climate crisis, as well as the impact they all have on our collective security — and ask how Britain can continue to play a leading role shaping the global response to these challenges."

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.