Opinion: The UK is undoing its good work on international development

Shelter kits and other forms of U.K. aid are unloaded in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by: Jason Connolly / DFID / CC BY-NC

We recently marked six months since the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office was created from the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office merger. Billed by the government as “an opportunity for the UK to have even greater impact and influence on the world stage,” the merger presented both opportunities and risks for the U.K.’s leadership on aid and development.

The new department is taking shape. There are areas to be commended, including the focus on climate change and the intended shift to bilateral programming as a default in recognition of its effectiveness, local ownership, and strategic impact. But the decision not to reference poverty reduction and gender equality in FCDO’s new strategic framework was concerning, as was the stated intention to focus only on countries where the U.K. has security, economic, and development interests.

Needless to say, the merger has largely been overshadowed by the scale of the cuts to U.K. aid, the lack of transparency and consultation around government decisions, and the government's stated intention to renege on its manifesto commitment to the 0.7% U.N. target.

A lack of genuine engagement limits FCDO’s access to development expertise, diverse insights, and real-time information from hard-to-reach places and communities.

Leaked documents reveal the disappointing amount of funding pledged by the U.K. during a high-level pledging event on Yemen, which means that Yemen, a country on the brink of famine, will be among the first casualties of the aid cuts. Suddenly, it becomes much clearer why Bond’s recent Freedom of Information request, seeking details on the 2020 aid cuts, was rejected on such tenuous grounds. The aid cuts are ending programs worldwide: from health clinic closures in Somalia to the potential end of the charity Voluntary Service Overseas.

None of this should come as any surprise when you look beyond the government’s rhetoric instead of its actions. The lack of any mention of poverty in Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab's strategic framework, set out in his letter to the International Development Select Committee, marks a departure from the initial warm words last year about reducing global poverty.

Sadly, it hasn't come as much of a surprise that the U.K. Integrated Review of “Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy," released earlier this week, is missing all but one “D”: development.

The cold fact is that poverty reduction is no longer at the heart of the U.K.’s overseas agenda. Raab has stated that U.K. aid will only be spent in countries where the U.K.’s development, security, and economic interests align. This approach prioritizes aid to middle-income countries, leaving the poorest countries behind.   

One bit of good news is that aid scrutiny bodies will continue to exist. The change of heart to retain both the International Development Committee and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is hugely important for ensuring accountability of the U.K.’s work overseas. This was a relief for many across the development sector because it means there are some mechanisms by which we can continue to hold the government to account.  However, the problem NGOs now face is a lack of transparency around the aid cuts.

The government's lack of transparency and consultation over the aid cuts has left many in the sector shouting from the sidelines and risks damaging the government's relationship with the U.K. NGO sector for good. Consultation with the development sector and local communities on critical aid policy decisions has been at an all-time low since the merger, but this is not just problematic for us.

A lack of genuine engagement limits FCDO’s access to development expertise, diverse insights, and real-time information from hard-to-reach places and communities. It also prevents NGOs from engaging and informing decisions that directly impact the communities we seek to support.  

As the scale of aid cuts is increasingly revealed, it is going to be impossible for the U.K. to claim any leadership on international development, leaving a gaping hole that other countries, such as France and China, will strive to fill. Global leadership does not come from words alone.

It’s ironic that we are talking about global leadership and hosting two important global summits — the G-7 and COP26 — when we are about to dismantle our own aid budget. Announcements about existing money committed to tackling climate change will not hide how the U.K. is giving with one hand but taking with the other.

The U.K. desperately lacks a comprehensive international development strategy focused on poverty reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals, so we were pleased to see the need for one mentioned as part of the Integrated Review. It would be a welcome step if FCDO included consultation with civil society from the global south, as well as the U.K., at a strategic and policy level with meaningful, inclusive, and effective engagement as part of developing and delivering this strategy.

This would demonstrate a desire to be transparent and accountable about how decisions are being made and who is being consulted. Hopefully, it will provide a chance to refocus the purpose of U.K. aid back toward helping those who need help the most.

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

About the author

  • Simon Starling

    Simon Starling is the director of policy, advocacy, and research at Bond. He was previously head of policy and U.K. campaigns at Concern, where he led a team of advocates and campaigners influencing the U.K. government and the public on international development issues including hunger, nutrition, resilience, and humanitarian crises.