UK elections: Is #GE2015 the moment of truth for DfID?

The flag of the United Kingdom. Devex asked the movers and shakers within the British aid community to have their say on how election results will affect U.K. development policy. Photo by: Chris Colhoun / CC BY-NC-ND

Voters in the United Kingdom go to the polls May 7 in what is widely seen as the most hotly contested general election race in decades.

David Cameron, the country’s incumbent prime minister, warned voters Monday that they face a “stark choice” on whether he or Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will be the next head of the British government. On the same day, Cameron was whisked up to Buckingham Palace to formally request permission from Her Majesty the Queen to dissolve parliament. With formalities completed, all bets are off between the Conservative Party and its erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

Many expect another formal coalition — only the second since 1945 — will be necessary to form the next government too, with neither the Tories nor Labour likely to win enough parliamentary seats to form a stable majority on their own. But where do the runners and riders stand on the issue of international development, and what impact will the vote have on the U.K. Department for International Development?

While it seems unlikely that neither Cameron nor Miliband has plans to follow the Australian or Canadian model of aligning aid with trade and integrating the development portfolio into the department of foreign affairs and trade, many within the British aid community argue this is as good a time as any to start looking into DfID reform.

How can the U.K. aid agency move “beyond aid” — particularly in fragile states — to increase its development impact and provide more value for money? How can it foment new forms of cooperation and forge better links with British institutions in areas such as health, education, law, culture and science? And will there be a move toward more formalized policy coherence for government’s approach to global development over the next four years?

For the special Devex “Future of DfID” series, we recently canvassed the views of a stellar cast of global development luminaries and political representatives from all main political parties in the United Kingdom, inviting them to outline their respective positions on the future of DfID and U.K. development cooperation.

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening told our London correspondent Gabriella Jóźwiak that under a new Cameron government, the government department would maintain its independence, although she asserted that trade and job creation are crucial for the overall long-term success of DfID's work.

“I think we’re very clear as a department that our core objective is tackling poverty, but we recognize one of the primary ways you can do that is through helping to create jobs,” Greening explained in an exclusive interview.

Nirj Deva, a Conservative member of the European Parliament and current vice chair of the European Parliament's Development Committee, agrees and celebrates DfID’s “truly laudable efforts over the past few years to secure stability and prosperity in some of the most underprivileged and dangerous regions.” In a series op-ed, Deva discusses the importance of shared value as something that is “increasingly viewed by the sector not as philanthropy, but as the route to economic success,” and asserts the need for DfID “to rely upon the private sector to help mobilize domestic resources, the foundation of any aid program.”

For Undersecretary of State for International Development and Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords Baroness Northover, DfID is “a superb, thoughtful and strategic department, attracting high-caliber people.” But she also writes in a guest column that “ministers must ensure that DfID continues to spell out what it does, why, how, with what results, and how this is evaluated, both internally and through rigorous external independent examination.”

Mary Creagh, the Labour Party’s shadow secretary of state for international development, believes DfID has “lost its way” under Cameron, becoming in her opinion “the charitable arm of government, and its reputation has slipped from global innovator to aid administrator.”

“We will put DfID back on the world stage to achieve justice for the world’s poorest people,” Creagh notes in a Devex op-ed. “We will lead and inspire other countries to do more — and deliver aid in better ways to ensure value for money.”

Jean Lambert, a Green Party MEP and vice president of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group in the European Parliament writes in a guest commentary that DfID plays “an integral role” in international development and that “its importance shouldn’t be understated: It is a positive part of our national image abroad.”

Outside of Whitehall and Westminster, external observers such as Overseas Development Institute Director for Governance, Security and Livelihoods Marta Foresti acknowledges the debate on the future of U.K. aid and DfID is a cause for concern.

“I worry that, on one hand, we know that the aid industry needs urgent reforming and, on the other hand, that the political space to make the case for aid is shrinking — and so is the opportunity to rethink the way aid works,” she writes in a series op-ed.

The question, according to former ODI director and special adviser to the U.K. House of Commons’ International Development Select Committee Simon Maxwell, is what DfID needs to change its mandate, organizational structure, competences and accountability to adapt to the rapidly evolving global development landscape.

“It would be a mistake to think that DfID exists solely to deliver aid — or that aid exists solely to deliver traditional services to very poor people,” he writes in a guest commentary. “The development agenda is changing. DfID itself is changing. But is it changing fast enough?”

Polls close up and down the country on the evening of May 7. Before the U.K. public casts its ballots and the next government is unveiled, we encourage you to browse our special “Future of DfID” series to delve deeper into the issue — and then have your say.

Stay tuned for more U.K. election coverage and news, views and analysis on how this impacts DfID. To explore additional content, visit the Future of DfID series site, follow us on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

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About the author

  • Richard jones profile

    Richard Jones

    In his role as Partnerships Editor Richard oversees editorial content for partner and client campaigns, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously an associate editor, he covered the full spectrum of development aid in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Devex. Currently based in Barcelona, Richard brings to bear 14 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. His development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.