Shelter packs being deployed in the worst-hit areas of the British Virgin Islands after the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma. Photo by: LPhot Joel Rouse / Crown copyright

LONDON — As the United Kingdom’s main political parties meet for their annual conferences over the next two weeks, there should be plenty for the aid community to digest — from ministerial speeches to topical fringe events — at a time when the key parties are taking divergent approaches to international development in both policy and rhetoric. More than any time in recent years, aid has become a political battleground, with politicians from the right and left making very different cases for how and why the U.K. should pursue its development goals.

As recently as last month, the Conservative government doubled-down on its strategic commitment to “aid in the national interest,” a phrase long used at the Department for International Development, though with evolving meaning. Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated the message last month during a trip to Africa, where she linked it to the benefits aid spending can bring to British businesses, as well as her party’s belief in international development driven by “free markets and free trade.” The secretary of state at DFID, Penny Mordaunt, also used a keynote speech this April to announce stronger partnerships between her department and private sector financial firms.

The Labour opposition, by contrast, has increasingly adopted language attacking international financial markets for damaging low- and middle-income countries and pledging to end support for public-private partnerships. It has placed greater emphasis on human rights, and advocated replacing the government’s focus on poverty reduction in development with an approach that would focus equally on poverty and inequality.

“The global economic system … has made a few people very rich,” Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor told an audience at the Overseas Development Institute last year, “but in the process, it has brought the planet and the many to their knees.” Osamor promised that Labour would look beyond using “British aid as a sticking plaster” and would instead “drive serious, systemic change.”

The belief that Labour, in particular, has started taking a much more combative approach to the politics of development is widely held in the sector. “There is a clear move from Labour to differentiate itself from the government on development policy,” said Save the Children’s government relations adviser, Alastair Russell.

This sort of differentiation is both new and “really positive” for thinking about the future of aid, Russell argued, suggesting it has encouraged both parties to move beyond narrower debates about spending. “People are talking about policy a bit more than talking about budgets,” he said.

The U.K. aid budget is estimated to top £16 billion ($21.1 billion) by 2021. As it has risen, more and more government departments have taken a role in spending it, and both parties have started to view development policy not just as a way for the government to do good around the world but also as a way to sell their distinct visions of the future.

For many years, development policy was an area of quiet consensus in U.K. politics. It may have attracted controversy in some sections of the media, but until relatively recently, aid professionals could go into conference season confident that politicians agreed on the essentials, such as the 0.7 percent and the poverty reduction focus.

That has changed. The Labour Party, driven by a more left-wing leadership under Jeremy Corbyn since late 2015, has approached international development as further proof that economic systems are rigged to benefit the better off, whether that is in the U.K. or in developing countries. Meanwhile, by reiterating the importance of free markets and global competition, the Conservatives have found a message equally suited to their own supporters.

Simon Maxwell, development economist and commentator, agreed the parties have staked out different positions, but suggested that neither has got the balance of policies quite right.

“Economic policy and social policy have to go hand in hand” in international development, he said. When it comes to Labour, he suggested their plans lack a clear sense of how aid spending can be used to encourage economic growth. 

“If you are going to be serious about development, you need to think about where jobs are going to come from — 18 million a year in Africa alone, just to keep up with demographic change,” and that in a world where the nature of work is changing, Maxwell said.

But if Labour has focused too little on the potential of economic growth, Maxwell worries the Conservatives have not said enough about social policy, and supporting those who don’t benefit when the economies around them are growing.

“I don’t think either of them [Theresa May or Penny Mordaunt] talk enough about the disruptive impact of action on climate change, and nor do they really address the question of how do you make globalization work for everybody,” he said.

Nonetheless, experts do not expect Mordaunt to depart from existing Conservative rhetoric during her conference appearances. The aid sector should expect her to “have another go around on national interest,” not least because this will help bolster her role in the party ahead of any future leadership contest, said one aid insider who has written conference speeches for ministers in the past.

Labour has similarly found a message to resonate with its supporters, with a focus on regional inequality that echoes moves by some major development international NGOs. New ideas such as this are essential, according to Jesse Griffiths, head of development strategy and finance at ODI, since “business as usual” isn’t managing to pull communities out of poverty fast enough.

The same insider who expects “aid in the national interest” rhetoric to continue during the Conservative conference predicts that Osamor will find a very different tone. “The political frame for Osamor will be about justice at home and abroad, and human rights and the policy expression of this,” they told Devex.

Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at the development umbrella charity group Bond, is intrigued by how one of these ideas might change the machinery of government. “Right now, the protection of human rights primarily sits in the Foreign Office and not DFID,” she said, “despite the fact that the lack of basic human rights is a fundamental driver of poverty.”

But while the new politics of aid has reinvigorated the policy debate, it also comes with risks. One of those is the influence of populism. For example, there are different ways to approach the concept of the “national interest,” said Griffiths: “Principled national interest, which looks at the long-term interests of the U.K. in a world without poverty where climate risks are reduced,” and “populist national interest, which is short-term and interested in cutting migration numbers rapidly and directing aid towards our own companies.”

It is “definitely a worry” that May and Mordaunt may be heading down the populist route, Griffiths said, diluting the focus on the most effective ways to help developing countries. Godfrey warned against any moves that leave aid spending “weighted in favor of U.K. trade or U.K. private investors, at the cost of helping the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized people in the world.”

On the other side, Maxwell has written about his frustration that Labour’s plans, in establishing a political dividing line on global inequality, don’t always provide the “nuanced analysis” the issue of development merits.

Mordaunt and Osamor are both booked into appearances at smaller events on the margins of their conferences, which will present the aid sector with a prime opportunity to dig into the new politics of aid. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the U.K.’s role in it, is the sort of human rights issue on which Labour is demanding answers from the government; Osamor may face questions herself, for example, over how to maintain vital work in the field in countries where governments don’t agree to human rights demands by a future Labour government.

And there will be some issues where both parties come under pressure. “The climate ought to be at the top of the political agenda at all party conferences,” Griffiths said, with some experts maintaining that neither party has articulated a clear enough plan for combating global warming.

About the author

  • Russell Hargrave

    Russell Hargrave is a freelance journalist and political consultant, with a special interest in development, migration, and finance. As well as Devex, he writes regularly for Public Finance, the Church Times, and He is the author of "Drawbridge Britain," a book about immigration since World War II, and advises the Liberal Democrats on refugee policy.