Poverty reduction missing from new UK aid strategy

Shelter provided by U.K. aid for displaced people in Dalal, Iraq. Photo by: Florian Seriex / Action Against Hunger  / DFID / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Development advocates have expressed concern over the apparent absence of poverty reduction as a focus of the United Kingdom’s new aid strategy.

On Wednesday evening, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that the U.K. would focus its foreign aid on seven “global challenges” where it could “make the most difference,” but reducing poverty was not among them. In a letter sent by Raab to politicians about his plans, the word “poverty” was mentioned only once, in relation to the “science, research and technology” focus area.

In addition, instead of those countries most in need, Raab said future aid would be focused on countries where the U.K.’s “development, security, and economic interests” align.

Also conspicuously absent from Raab’s letter was a commitment to poverty reduction among the “bottom billion,” which he had previously highlighted as a priority area in a similar letter sent in July.

The revelations came after the government announced it would be cutting the U.K.’s aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income and would be introducing new laws to overturn previous legislation on international development.

Under the 2002 International Development Act, U.K. aid must be “likely to contribute to a reduction in poverty” and this goal is also the defining ideal for many in the development sector. While the new legislation is being brought in to avoid legal problems for the government under the separate 2015 International Development Act — which binds aid spending to the 0.7% target — it is not yet clear what form this will take, and if it might also seek to change the 2002 act.

“We’d want to make sure that [2002 law] is not opened up when they do start fiddling around with legislation,” said Alistair Russell, public affairs adviser at Save the Children.

Alan Harding, a development economist formerly at the Department for International Development, said because poverty reduction will no longer be “the lens through which decisions about allocations of U.K. aid will be made,” Raab’s talk of improved aid effectiveness “becomes meaningless.” In the letter, Raab claims “the reforms will make aid more effective.”

Harding added: “That's why the 2002 International Development Act and its clear, unambiguous focus on poverty reduction is so important.”

Omitting poverty reduction as a core aim is “just bad,” according to Laurie Lee, chief executive of CARE International UK, who noted that until now, U.K. aid spending had been increasing ever since he began his development career in 1997.

He said: “The money we spend on aid is supposed to [be] for helping [the] very poorest in the world, and for that not [to] be squarely at the center of this letter is very worrying.” 

Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, the network for U.K. NGOs, said: “The Foreign Secretary ... seems to have forgotten the ‘bottom billion’ … Though we hope he makes good on his commitment to abide by the OECD-DAC rules, ‘targeted foreign aid’ seems to mean taking aid away from the most vulnerable and directing it towards short-term, self-serving priorities.”

There was also disappointment among academic experts. “The priorities laid out are all crisply important but need to be interwoven with a focus on poverty reduction and leaving no one behind,” said Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies.

“Whether one is addressing climate change, health, or any of the other issues, we need to retain a focus on addressing what these issues mean [for the] poorest and most vulnerable.”

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. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.