Opinion: How UK aid can retain its poverty reduction focus under the new FCDO

Humanitarian assistance packages distributed to people fleeing violence in Burma. Photo by: Anna Dubuis / DFID / CC BY

In the queen’s speech last December, it was announced that the U.K. government would undertake an integrated review of international policy, billed as being the biggest rethink of the country’s international policy since the end of the Cold War. The prime minister stressed that U.K. foreign policy must work as well for those at home as it does overseas. With this national interest in mind, the government must ensure that poverty reduction remains at the core of its international policy work.

 As a country, we have been personally moved to donate generously to global campaigns … If this government wishes to represent people across the country, it should ensure this strength is supported.

The International Development Committee, which I chair, has now concluded its deep-dive inquiry into the effectiveness of U.K. aid — and the overwhelming outcome is that U.K. aid is effective. It is effective at flying the flag for Britain overseas. It is effective at fighting poverty and other global injustices that poverty facilitates and exacerbates. It is effective at enhancing the U.K.’s clout on the international stage.

Our interim report, published in June, argued for the Department for International Development to remain independent due to its outstanding global reputation. A week later, the government announced the merging of DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. We must now consider how the new department will embed the principles DFID championed.

The government has insisted that development remains an important policy priority in the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, or FCDO. To ensure this remains the case, the government must demonstrate it is a staunch defender of poverty reduction in its international policy.

In my mind, there are three overarching arguments why this should be the case.

First, the U.K.’s global standing is enhanced by championing poverty reduction. It is an invaluable “soft power” tool. IDC heard how working toward the common good extends U.K. diplomatic influence at both bilateral and multilateral level, and Frances Guy, former U.K. ambassador to Yemen, commented that the U.K.’s international aid commitments gave the U.K. a bigger voice in multilateral meetings.

And it is not just Brits singing the praises of the U.K.’s reputation in this area. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has said that DFID’s contribution to international development enhances British leverage.

It would be an incredibly poor decision for a government, which is seemingly all about enhancing the national interest, to allow its status to be eroded by failing to recognize this important asset.

Second, lifting other countries out of poverty creates a more resilient world, from which the U.K. benefits. Whether supporting the peace process in Colombia, or strengthening national health care systems in West Africa, U.K. aid tackles the drivers of instability and conflict, fights inequality, and boosts global health. It delivers benefits for local communities and creates a safer, more secure world for all.

 Finally, and the one that resonates most with me, is that the U.K. is a country of humanitarians who see global injustices and feel compelled to help. As a country, we have been personally moved to donate generously to global campaigns — ranging from tackling famine to building classrooms. If this government wishes to represent people across the country, it should ensure this strength is supported.

The world’s most vulnerable communities will need our help more in the coming months and years than ever before amid fears that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out the development gains of the past 30 years. We are already hearing horror stories from countries with health care systems on the verge of collapse — if indeed they do exist — and slum-like living conditions that make social distancing impossible and where poor hygiene is commonplace.

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It is welcome that the U.K. recently donated more than any other country to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance's replenishment summit, ensuring countries can continue vaccinating their citizens against common diseases to ease the pressure on healthcare systems to focus on coronavirus.

However, government departments have also been asked to identify 30% cost savings in their aid budgets — equating to a £2 billion ($2.5 billion) reduction in the aid budget — cherry-picking which aid programs can continue.

This comes at a time when the monetary value of the U.K.’s 0.7% of gross national income target to spend on development looks set to be drastically reduced as the domestic economy shrinks.

This is worrying, and continuing life-saving programs with poverty reduction at their core must be prioritized. The government must rapidly demonstrate long-term strategic thinking around which projects survive and why, as a poorly communicated, piecemeal approach will cause untold harm to both the sector and beneficiaries.

What next?

With a stand-alone international development department gone, what can we do to ensure its central tenet of poverty reduction lives on?

Today, we urge the new FCDO to take a number of steps to ensure a focus on poverty reduction and offer reassurance to the aid sector and its recipients. The new department must take forward the existing legislative framework, particularly the International Development Act 2002 which permits U.K. aid money to be spent on poverty reduction. This reinforces a U.K. aid strategy with tackling global poverty at the top of the list.

We also urge the government to reconsider appointing a minister responsible for development, who attends cabinet, maintaining its profile and showing, globally, that targeting aid toward vulnerable communities remains a U.K. priority. Finally, being transparent and entrenching independent audit arrangements will demonstrate the government’s serious intent.

These elements must work together in the new FCDO if the U.K. is to maintain its reputation as a development superpower.

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

About the author

  • Sarah Champion

    Sarah Champion MP is the chair of the House of Commons International Development Committee.