UK election 2019: How do parties' promises on aid measure up?

U.K. party leaders debate climate change ahead of the election at ITN Studios in Holborn, London. Photo by: Kirsty O'Connor / Pool via REUTERS

LONDON — With the campaign now in full swing for the United Kingdom’s general election on Dec. 12, aid experts are welcoming promises from all three main political parties to maintain aid spending levels and increase funding for climate and the environment.

While domestic policy and Brexit are top of the agenda, the manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrats parties also discuss — in varying degrees of detail — the fate of the country’s £14.5 billion ($18.7 billion) aid budget.

Advocates gave a sigh of relief after all three parties recommitted the U.K. to spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance, something that reflects “relative consensus on international development across the parties … in an election of big divides,” according to Alastair Russell, senior public affairs advisor at Save the Children UK — despite a pledge from the Brexit Party, which is expected to pick up only a small share of the vote, to halve the aid budget.

Such cross-party consensus also suggests that the conversation about the aid budget has “moved on” since the contentious 2015 decision to enshrine the 0.7% target in law, said Jonathan Pell, CEO at British aid contractor Adam Smith International.

“It’s heartening to see … we seem to have got over the rather crude debates about how much aid is spent … and moved on to talking about what’s the best way to spend the money,” Pell said.

The new politics of aid

More than any time in recent years, the main U.K. political parties are locking horns over how and why the U.K. should pursue its development goals.

Climate change and the environment also get significantly more airtime in all three manifestos than in the past. While generally seen as positive, some in the sector are concerned about the drain on the aid budget.

“We can see that across the board, climate change has risen up on the agenda, which is welcome … [though] we would argue that additional funding should not come from the aid budget,” argued Claire Godfrey from Bond, the network of U.K. development NGOs.

Despite the consensus on spending levels and the importance of climate, there remains much the parties disagree on when it comes to aid.

The Conservatives

Entitled “Get Brexit Done,” the Tory manifesto is relatively scant in detail when it comes to aid spending, dedicating only a few paragraphs to the issue. The party — which is currently predicted to win about 42% of the vote — reiterates its support for the 0.7% target and for existing programs introduced by the Conservative government on girls’ education and maternal, new-born, and child health. The party also promises to increase support for “marginalized communities in the developing world” by hosting an international LGBT conference.

But what the document doesn’t say is perhaps more significant than what it does.

“The Conservative manifesto marks a shift and is markedly different from the last one. While it doesn’t give much detail on what they want to do with international development, it doesn’t mention ‘national interest’ at all,” according to Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. The national interest agenda has been pushed heavily by successive Conservative development ministers in recent years. However, it is not clear whether the change in rhetoric will impact policy, Mitchell added.

The manifesto also departs from the 2017 version by making no reference to trying to change the international aid rules, which are defined by the Development Assistance Committee, part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The controversial idea had previously been put forward repeatedly by former Conservative development secretary Penny Mordaunt.

On the independence of the Department for International Development — which has been a key concern for the sector under aid skeptic Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the Conservatives are silent. However, the significance of this is unclear as it would be unusual to include departmental changes in a manifesto, according to both Russell and Mitchell.

Finally, the Conservatives are pledging more money for tackling climate change both domestically and internationally. The current Conservative government has increased aid spending on climate and the environment and, if elected, will add a £500 million “Blue Planet Fund” to protect the oceans, according to the manifesto. However, it is not clear whether this will be funded from within the aid budget.


Of the three parties, it is Labour’s manifesto — “It's Time for Real Change” — that offers the most detailed, wide-ranging, and ambitious reimagining of U.K. aid. With the party currently polling at around 30% of the vote, it puts “social justice” at the heart of development policy and emphasizes inequality alongside the more traditional poverty reduction goal.

The manifesto also promises to strengthen the role of DFID, which the party set up in 1997, hinting that it will have a bigger budget and more oversight over ODA spent by other departments — last year, 25% of ODA was spent outside of DFID. Labour also explicitly promises to maintain DFID’s status as a standalone department amidst concerns that Boris Johnson could merge DFID with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

But the party’s most headline-grabbing proposal is to overhaul CDC, the U.K. government’s development finance institution to which the Conservatives have given an extra £2 billion from the aid budget since 2016. With CDC's development impact recently coming under scrutiny, Labour plans to turn it into a “green development bank mandated to fight poverty, inequality and climate change.”

That would include halting CDC funding to fossil fuel infrastructure, for-profit health or education companies, and private equity funds. Instead, CDC would open up to public sector investments and align with the Paris Agreement.

While some have welcomed the rethink, others questioned the practicalities, including the set-up costs and scope of CDC’s “resources to both fight poverty and mitigate climate change,” according to CGD’s Mitchell, who also questioned the potential for climate mitigation in the world’s poorest countries.

The CDC revamp is part of Labour’s ambitious domestic and international climate targets, which are much tougher than those of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Labour promises a “green revolution,” including £4 billion of new and existing aid funding to international climate finance — approximately 20% of the total aid budget. On domestic efforts, Labour commits £400 billion compared to approximately £2 billion outlined in the Tory manifesto.

Unlike the other parties, Labour also pledges to reorient the Foreign & Commonwealth Office toward “human rights, climate diplomacy and conflict prevention.” This will be paid for by scrapping the controversial Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and replacing it with a “new human rights based peace fund,” according to the spending plans.

On working in conflict-affected countries, Julian Egan, advocacy lead at NGO International Alert, said he was disappointed to see Labour separating out peacebuilding and conflict prevention where the 2017 manifesto included a commitment to develop an integrated plan.

“Divorcing peacebuilding and conflict prevention from development is a high-risk strategy given the majority of the world’s poor live in conflict affected countries,” Egan said in an email, adding that “without a deliberate effort to address the drivers of conflict that keeps people poor, the SDGs will not be achieved and millions will be left behind.”

Other aid policies include setting up a food sovereignty fund to support small-scale farmers in the global south; establishing a unit for public services within DFID to help recipient governments deliver education, health, and clean water to their citizens through direct budget support; and reviving plans to establish an international safeguarding ombudsman to respond to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto — “Stop Brexit: Build a Brighter Future” — also supports the 0.7% aid target and commits to spending more on climate change but does not say how much. The 100-page document is much more vocal than the others about supporting the “rules-based international order” through multilateral institutions and also champions the Sustainable Development Goals.

In their development strategy, the Lib Dems — who are currently expected to pick up a 15% share of the vote — commit to gender equality, highlight anti-corruption efforts, and emphasize global education, including a promise to develop a strategy to address the 263 million children who are currently out of school worldwide. The party also promises to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, and people persecuted for their religious beliefs.

If in power, the Lib Dems also pledge to transfer responsibility for asylum policymaking from the Home Office to DFID as part of a commitment to end the current “harsh” system around immigration.

While moving the issue to DFID could lead to the desired cultural shift, Mitchell said he questioned whether asylum policymaking is within DFID’s skill set or capabilities.

And on peacebuilding and conflict prevention, Egan said that the Lib Dem manifesto offers the most integrated approach of the three main parties — making conflict prevention 1 of 4 aid priorities and mentioning the role of trade, diplomacy, and military cooperation in strengthening U.K. efforts to prevent violent conflict. However, it stops short of making specific commitments, he said.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.