The publication of the British government’s long-awaited and much-delayed Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was last week met with dismay by much of the country’s aid sector.
The review had been billed by the government as providing a development strategy for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office that would be integrated with other foreign policy objectives. It claimed to “provide handrails for future policy-making.”
But the development aspect was conspicuously nearly absent from the review, and critics said it heralded the end of the U.K.’s “development superpower status” — as it also followed the merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the abandonment of the legally mandated aid spending target of 0.7% of gross national income.
All the sources Devex spoke to for this article highlighted inconsistencies in the review and voiced caution — particularly about the status of development policy and the review’s ambition to increase the U.K.’s nuclear weapons stockpile. They also stressed it required proper resourcing and implementation, which is far from guaranteed in the uncertain political climate. But they also found some room for optimism.
The document’s declaration that the government would make “tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority” was a good thing, according to Ian Mitchell, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development think tank — “if you believe what it says,” he added. He highlighted the U.K.’s “reasonable record” internationally on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, despite some domestic inconsistencies, such as freezing taxes on fuel.
A major government foreign policy review pays relatively little attention to development, raising questions from aid advocates around the country's future in the space.
“Climate change is a major issue to [low-income countries] … as a development community we should be glad it’s front and center, and if the UK is successful in that then that will make a very big difference to the world’s poor,” Mitchell said.
A “new approach to conflict, particularly … to prioritize a commitment to atrocity prevention,” was a review highlight for Dr. Kate Ferguson, co-executive director of Protection Approaches, an NGO working to end identity-based violence.
The review announced that the government would place “greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict … We will focus on political approaches to conflict resolution, harnessing the full range of government capabilities, with clearly-defined political goals and theories of change.”
The review's emphasis on grievance and marginalization as contributors to conflict was welcomed by Ferguson, who said these were key factors in modern conflicts. While Ferguson said she expected more to be announced to build out the policy, she added: “If we take this in good faith … it’s an excellent sign.”
The formation of a Cabinet Office “situation center,” promised by the review, “has the potential to center atrocity prevention at the heart of government,” Ferguson added.
Another key thread running through the Integrated Review was the link between international policies and domestic politics.
“There is a clear recognition that foreign policy, development policy does need to be linked to the interests of voters in this country, and if one departs too far from the other, problems are going to arise,” said Mark Miller, director of the development and public finance program at the Overseas Development Institute think tank.
He said there was an “important recognition” that the U.K.’s previously “unmoored” development policy — which enjoyed an increased aid budget even as the British public experienced austerity under the government of former Prime Minister David Cameron — was “problematic.” Miller said it was “central” to the review that any foreign or development policy “requires the support of the domestic public … and I think that probably represents something of a shift from what happened in the early 2010s.”
Another departure from this era was the “greater focus on global challenges,” and the different ways the U.K. can influence areas such as global health, rather than thinking purely in terms of aid volume, Miller said.
The review also promised to focus on and invest in science and technology. “Our aim is to have secured our status as a Science and Tech Superpower by 2030,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in the review’s forward.
While Miller noted the review came around the time of aid cuts to U.K. research and innovation — and was short on detail — he said this could be a step forward. “For the big game changing technologies, such as a COVID vaccine or hydrogen power or a malaria vaccine, aid-funded research and development might not be the best tool for that,” he said. “Big, risk taking, more … mission-oriented investments in research and development might be a better way to achieve those.”