Opinion: What does spending in the ‘national interest’ mean for UK aid?

DFID aid distribution in Burma. Photo by: DFID / CC BY

U.K. aid is in a state of flux, although few outside the aid bubble may have noticed. Aid is increasingly being spent in “the national interest,” through departments other than the U.K. Department for International Development. Aid in the national interest is nothing new: Globally, donor interests have long been a key driver of aid spending. But in the United Kingdom, the emphasis on it has accelerated since the 2015 U.K. aid strategy, and it has been a consistent theme of recent speeches by DFID chief Penny Mordaunt.

But what does spending aid in the national interest mean for Britain’s role in the fight against poverty, what trends are starting to emerge, and should we be worried about them?

The increase in national interest rhetoric has dovetailed with the increase in aid spending outside of DFID, with other government departments looking to official development assistance to plug gaps where other funds have dwindled.

In 2017, more than one-quarter of U.K. aid went to other government departments, including £1 billion ($1.3 billion) to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and £769 million to the U.K. Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This cross-government spending is on track to increase to one-third of all U.K. ODA by 2020.  

In principle, there is nothing wrong with aid being spent by different parts of government. It is arguably a necessity in an era of complex global challenges and the Sustainable Development Goals. The issue arises when aid spending — whoever it is spent by — is not sufficiently poverty-focused, effective, or transparent.

Take the Prosperity Fund, for example, which will spend £1.3 billion of ODA over 2016-2021. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact criticized the fund for not targeting poverty reduction — even though 97 percent of its funds count as ODA. A look at some of the Prosperity Fund projects highlight these concerns: In India, financial services projects focus not on the micro-savings and loans that might benefit those disadvantaged, but on international trading of the rupee and the development of the Indian bond market.

DFID too has shown signs of deprioritizing spending on the world’s most disadvantaged, with the share of its spending on least developed countries falling from 66 percent in 2011 to 54 percent in 2016. DFID has been seeking to make the national interest case for aid by looking for ways to increase business opportunities for U.K. firms and increase collaboration with the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

It is all very well for British businesses to take up opportunities offered by U.K. aid — but if they are shown favoritism over businesses from other countries, this risks a return to tied aid, which increases costs and reduces effectiveness.

Part of the purported rationale for packaging aid in the national interest is to sell aid to a skeptical public. Efforts to build popular support are laudable and making the case that U.K. aid benefits the beneficiaries and the British taxpayer makes sense from this standpoint.

“Having a sense of fair play has always run deep in British identity, and showing how aid aligns with this cultural norm has more effect in shoring up public support. If anything, polls suggest that national interest actually leads people to having more concerns about aid being wasted for short-term strategic gain or even corruption.”

However, scratch beneath the surface, and this argument appears ineffective. Research shows that the public is skeptical of the idea that aid benefits them, and instead support the moral case for ending poverty.

Having a sense of fair play has always run deep in British identity, and showing how aid aligns with this cultural norm has more effect in shoring up public support. If anything, polls suggest that national interest actually leads people to having more concerns about aid being wasted for short-term strategic gain or even corruption. It is striking that aid spent in India and China is often the first to be criticized.

This is a point made by civil society in our interactions with the U.K. government and this — along with a wider concern that aid in the national interest can undermine the core purpose of aid in fighting poverty — is a key message in the advocacy of many U.K. NGOs.  

Aside from using this framing as a device to build support, going out of the way to show how aid is in the national interest misses a key point; aid is already in the national interest. The U.K.’s role in helping the world be a safer, healthier, and more prosperous place helps everyone.

Investing in conflict prevention provides excellent value for money: For every $1 invested, between $2 and $7 is saved through the costs of conflict. Health and economic development similarly provide key returns on investment in the form of fewer global health risks and more opportunities to trade with strengthened economies. Promoting development in other countries can bring benefits to the U.K. through export and investment opportunities — the EU’s ODA expenditure over the last seven years was expected to have been recouped in full as a result of higher developing country growth, bringing benefits to EU exporters.

Let us not pretend that the challenges aid faces — and the wider global context it sits in — are easily dismissed. Discussions on aid spending take place against the backdrop of Brexit, and the imperative to show Global Britain is more than a slogan. The U.K. needs aid to do this. Taken together with the worsening public opinion on aid, it is no surprise that aid has been dressed up in the Union Jack.

But it’s important not to lose sight of aid’s purpose — fighting poverty — and the degree to which the public support this laudable objective. And let’s not also forget that it is by tackling poverty — and its underlying causes — that we can make the world a healthier, more peaceful, prosperous world that is in all our interests.

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

About the author

  • Romilly Greenhill

    Romilly Greenhill is the U.K. director of the One Campaign. Romilly has 18 years of experience of working in international development, including in leadership roles at the Overseas Development Institute and DFID. She has also worked for ActionAid UK and Cambodia, the Ugandan Finance Ministry, and the New Economics Foundation.