U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo by: Jay Allen / Crown Copyright / CC BY-NC-ND

Concerns are being raised about the United Kingdom’s government’s commitment to spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid, after the prime minister appeared to repeatedly dodge questions about it ahead of a snap election on June 8.

The Conservative Party’s commitment to maintaining the U.K. Department for International Development as a standalone entity — separate from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Trade, for example — may also be vulnerable.

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The U.K. parliament voted yesterday to approve the early general election proposed by Prime Minister Theresa May — who is expected to be re-elected — more than three years ahead of schedule, offering political parties the opportunity to amend or cut previous manifesto commitments. That includes the current government’s pledge to spend 0.7 percent of GNI on foreign aid.

Former Labour Party Foreign Secretary and former Head of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband suggested yesterday that he is expecting the commitment to be dropped, although the party has not yet made its position clear.

“I think there is a danger that where the U.S. reins back, others will follow,” he said during a panel discussion at the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C. “In my own home country, there’s an election coming up and it looks like the governing party is going to break with the commitment to 0.7 percent of income going to international aid.”

The Conservative Party included the United Nations-recommended benchmark in its manifesto in 2010 — alongside the opposition Labour Party — when then Conservative Leader David Cameron was elected prime minister. The U.K. became the first G7 country to meet the benchmark in 2013, and, two years later, parliament enshrined the commitment in law as part of the International Development Act 2015.

However, asked by The Sun newspaper about what commitments might be made on the aid budget in the upcoming election campaign in an interview published yesterday, Prime Minister May responded: “You’ll have to wait, and read the manifesto when it comes, won’t you?”

She gave another evasive answer in parliament yesterday. When asked about whether she would maintain defence and aid benchmarks in the next government, May replied:

“Obviously we have committed to meet our NATO pledge of 2 percent of GDP being spent on defence every year of this decade. We are delivering on that. We have got a 36 billion pound defence budget that will rise to almost 40 billion pounds by 2020-21 — the biggest in Europe and second largest in NATO. We are meeting our U.N. commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GNI on overseas development assistance. I can assure [the speaker] that we remain committed, as a Conservative party, to ensuring the defence and security of this country and to working for a stronger world.”

While removing the commitment from the manifesto would not affect the benchmark’s legal status, many in the aid community worry that it would open the door for repealing the law in the next parliament.

Members of the community said that the 0.7 percent benchmark is vulnerable. However, head of the U.K. Aid Network, Amy Dodd, told Devex that such a move would contradict May’s previous rhetoric around a “Global Britain,” which prioritizes the safety and welfare of the nation both at home and abroad.

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“It’s definitely at risk and we certainly aren't being complacent about it,” she said, but added that such a move “would also distract from the things [May] wants to talk about, like Brexit.”

Although aid commitments can be controversial with the British public and media, Dodd added that reneging on them could also “cause [May] some possible problems.”

“It would be catering to exactly the wing of her party she might want to rein in,” she said, referring to right-leaning factions of the Conservative Party who often campaign for cutting foreign aid in favor of increasing the defence budget, or spending the money domestically.

In an interview with The Guardian yesterday, philanthropist Bill Gates said dropping the commitment would reduce Britain’s influence in the world and put lives at risk.

In December 2016, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told reporters that: “Later on in the parliament we will have a spending review,” in which government would look “at all the commitments that have been made for this parliament, tax commitments, spending commitments, ringfences and so on,” sparking speculation that the aid budget could be cut after a future election.

Changes last year to the definition of ODA — set by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with input from member countries including the U.K. — also allowed for a shift in the U.K.’s aid budget from traditional aid spending to more security-related expenses, specifically in humanitarian contexts.

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The U.K. subsequently increased the amount of aid spent through departments other than DFID, and through hybrid funds, such as the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund. The move was seen by some as a concession to hawkish defence and austerity-bent members of May’s party.

Some within the aid community worry that this could signal intent to secure a mandate in the upcoming election to further push the boundaries of DFID’s independence, as well as to continue to blur the lines between aid and security.

The new Conservative Party manifesto is likely to be released next week, a Whitehall source confirmed to Devex.

Reporting was contributed to this article by Adva Saldinger.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.