How did UK aid fare in 2020? Photo by: © UK MOD Crown Copyright 2020.

LONDON — It’s been a year of crisis for the United Kingdom’s development sector. On top of the pandemic, it lost its two sacred cornerstones — the Department for International Development and the 0.7% aid spending target — within six months of each other.

As the end of the year approaches, development professionals have been left reeling by the speed and severity of their sector’s defeats, having enjoyed broad political support for decades.

“It was remarkable how fast it happened in the end,” said Laurie Lee, chief executive at Care International UK.

So what went wrong for U.K. aid? Devex spoke to more than 20 development professionals at mid and senior levels, in a bid to gauge perspectives from across the sector. Because of the sensitivity of the question, many spoke on condition of anonymity, some without the authorization of their employers.

“What the government have done this year isn’t a result of what someone in the sector did wrong this year, it’s a by-product of what we’ve all been getting wrong for decades.”

— Richard Darlington, campaign director, Campaign to Defend Aid and Development

The interviews highlighted a significant divergence of opinion within the sector on how it has conducted its work — some defending the insider approach of lobbying politicians, while others thought that had come at the expense of winning vital public support.


The politics of 2020 was, of course, crucial. The year began with a newly-elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson and an 80-strong Conservative Party majority, having won an election to “get Brexit done” — which some sources described as a “populist” mandate. A key constituency of Conservative members of Parliament were newcomers from the north of England, from areas known as the “Red Wall” after their longtime affiliation with Labour MPs. Many are aid sceptics.

Johnson himself had begun expressing a wariness of aid. In 2019, he endorsed a report calling for the merger of DFID with the Foriegn & Commonwealth Office. His erstwhile chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was also believed to be hostile to DFID and the Civil Service at large, having threatened a “hard rain” to fall on officials.

If the U.K. were to “get Brexit done,” it also needed a new international stance. This was dubbed “Global Britain” and was to be guided by an “integrated review” of the government’s international policies

But then the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, delaying the review — it is now expected next year — and bringing with it an unprecedented health, social, and economic emergency.

Even before the merger and subsequent cuts to the aid budget, the pandemic was hugely demanding for development organizations, as they scrambled to understand the consequences and adapt programming. Few saw the DFID merger coming in June, and even after, ministers from the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that replaced it continued to insist the legal 0.7% aid spending target — measured as a proportion of gross national income — was secure, prompting a false sense of security.

In reality, it wasn’t safe. In November, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the government would only spend 0.5% of national income on aid “until the fiscal situation allows.” Soon afterward, the government said it would introduce new development legislation to ease the aid spending target, which many took as a sign the cut may not be temporary.

“As a sector, we’ve just not had the direct lines into the people who mattered most,” said a major NGO executive. “This group [in government] just isn’t interested and doesn’t care, and it matters because I think that’s why we were caught so unawares about the speed of which some of this moved.”

Bond, the network for U.K. development NGOs, repeatedly called out a government lie that the group was consulted on the merger. “We don't talk about consultations because it’s nice to have tea and biscuits, but because we know if you take [into account a] range of views for a decision, you get to a better decision,” said Stephanie Draper, Bond’s chief executive. She cited development skeptic politicians as a reason it was easy for the government to bypass a consultation.

Another NGO leader also said the “new political dynamic,” created by the introduction of a new cohort of northern Conservative MPs, had been a key challenge for the sector. “We wouldn’t have expected it, NGOs are not heavily concentrated in the Red Wall, we don’t have a lot of supporters [there] and it had become incredibly important,” the executive said. “We haven’t built up over years the strength we would need in those places.”

Lobbying, advocacy, and storytelling

The pandemic has also prevented advocacy groups from lobbying MPs in person, sometimes by taking them on trips to demonstrate the benefits of development.

“If there’s one thing … we as a sector do need to think a bit more about, [it is] how we replace that MP engagement … we don’t know how to do it in a virtual world,” the leader said, adding that engaging with MPs directly was “absolutely” how the sector should continue working. “Over the long term I think you need a groundswell of supportive MPs.”

But this approach, adopted by many large NGOs, was criticized by others as having led to timidity and complacency.

We put together a tracker on key issues surrounding U.K. aid. Check out the latest news.

“The sector thought the best way to maintain this [0.7%] budget was to … drain the issue of aid from any kind of politics or context that might build broader support in society,” said Nick Dearden, director at the Global Justice Now campaign group.

“I think they’ve been heavily, heavily focused on the insider lobbying strategy for a very long period of time and they’ve been naive, really, as to the politics that were driving some of the politicians they were talking to, and their own ability to influence those politicians behind the scenes,” he said.

A lengthy political consensus on development meant the sector became “guilty of focusing far too much on how much aid is spent and not enough on where it’s being spent, how it’s being spent,” echoed Aisha Dodwell, head of campaigns at CAFOD and a former Labour development adviser.

She said lots of NGOs are “really coming out now when the aid budget is being cut, but the same level of outrage … where’s that been for the last few years when aid has been literally spent on opening up markets for British companies and funding security forces overseas … Why are we silent on the substance of the aid budget and so vocal on the amount?”

Dodwell argued the sector has “become devoid of politics, it's become technocratic” but also acknowledged the 2014 Lobbying Act, which introduced complex regulations around campaigning, “changed things.”

The 2015 Aid Strategy, which was co-produced by the Treasury and placed less emphasis on poverty reduction, instead prioritizing “prosperity,” was mentioned as a key turning point by several sources.

“[The development sector has been] heavily focused on the insider lobbying strategy for a very long period of time and they've been naive, really, as to the politics ... and their own ability to influence."

— Nick Dearden, director, Global Justice Now

Lee said there was a sense the sector “shouldn't ask the toughest questions because they [the government] are meeting 0.7, whereas that was the opposite of what we should have done.”

As NGOs had formed close relationships with previous governments with leaderships more sympathetic to aid and moved “from mass campaigning to insider lobbying,” development groups hired more ex-political staff, according to Dearden. He said: “At a very deep level it affected how they thought they made changes in society.”

“The people at the very top, who cut their teeth on the [2000] Jubilee Debt campaign [which called for the debts of the lowest-income countries to be cancelled] … their understanding of the world is pre-Twitter and internet,” agreed an NGO staffer.

“Their understanding was that to achieve real change, we’ve got to talk to politicians. That’s true to an extent but it’s not everything … power resides as much in TikTokers and YouTube conspiracy theories.”  

Many of the staffers Devex spoke to bemoaned the sector’s inability to publicly capitalize on the momentum of the massive climate and social justice movements of recent years, particularly Black Lives Matter.

But it’s not just international movements the sector failed to tap into. “The development sector were largely quiet during austerity,” said Lorriann Robinson, co-founder of The Equity Index, referring to the period of public spending cuts under Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Over the last 10 years, we did not say anything as rates of child poverty were increasing here in the U.K. … What that means is we have not been sufficiently vocal or that we are associated with issues of injustice,” she continued. “So those people who are motivated to campaign against injustice … we haven’t been on their radar.”

A hard-won fight for development had, until recently, become political consensus, embodied by the Conservative government passing the 0.7% target into law in 2015. “There’s a real problem campaigning for the status quo, people go, ‘it's a bit boring,’” said one of the NGO leaders, a view echoed by at least one other executive.

Whether by causation or correlation, the problem has coincided with a significant decline in public support for aid and development — a concern of nearly everyone Devex spoke with. Many contrasted the current predicament with the massive 2005 “Make Poverty History” campaign, and a common tendency to view development in oversimplified terms, exacerbated by frequently hostile newspapers and dumbed down political discussions.

“One of the mistakes NGOs and government have made over the last 20 years is … we tried to present the idea that aid’s perfect,” Lee said. “That’s a very brittle reputation because you only need one counter example to say ‘that’s not true, so none of it works.’ In reality, challenging the power structures that create poverty is hard. It won’t all work. A lot does.”

Robinson cited, among other factors, “outdated and one dimensional” fundraising adverts used by NGOs which “reinforce this idea to the U.K. public that despite decades … of showing these adverts and people giving, nothing has changed,” undermining wider development successes.

She also highlighted the sector’s lack of focus in engaging the U.K.’s many diaspora communities, which she said could be “mobilized” as supporters with “deep and meaningful” engagement.

Despite long-standing complaints about how some NGOs advertize, Robinson doesn’t believe the issue has been sufficiently addressed. “There is a small group of people who are seen as the leaders in the development sector and that group just needs to be widened out, diversified and expanded,” she said. “The movement will be stronger for doing that ... it needs to be more of a movement.”

Those in favor of an insider style of campaigning defended their approach. “We’re always having active conversations with ministers and officials, trying to understand what is happening,” Draper said, highlighting the “amazing” range of voices who came out in support of the 0.7% prior to its cut.

The sector was “right to focus” on DFID’s independence and the 0.7% budget, despite its ultimate failure, according to Draper. She said the two things were “indicative of the U.K.’s commitment to being outwardly facing, playing its part in the world and [making] us stronger in terms of international development and tackling global challenges.”

“Why are we silent on the substance of the aid budget and so vocal on the amount?”

— Aisha Dodwell, head of campaigns, CAFOD

Much influencing work was done on behalf of NGOs through the discreet Campaign to Defend Aid and Development, through which 25 organizations coordinate and contribute funding. Campaign director Richard Darlington declined to be interviewed for this story, but wrote: “What the government have done this year isn’t a result of what someone in the sector did wrong this year, it’s a by-product of what we’ve all been getting wrong for decades.”

Others echoed this, with a sense of inevitability. “Realistically, a big part of this stuff is outside anyone’s control,” one campaigner said.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, chief executive at Oxfam GB, also highlighted a longer-term decline in the sector’s political status. After the end of the Programme Partnership Arrangements in 2016, which had provided long-term core funding for NGOs, “the development sector feels like we’ve gone from really strategic partners in sustainable development to subcontractors in a delivery chain, so both the quality and quantity of resources have suffered,” he said.

Keeping DFID and 0.7% for so long under Conservative governments, particularly after the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, was seen by many as a significant achievement. The spending target was a Conservative manifesto promise at the last election, which some said was a result of insider campaigning. That could also be a key factor in how MPs decide to vote on the development legislation set to be introduced next year, with some said to be reluctant to break a manifesto pledge.

Aid accountability

With Brexit and hosting the G-7 and COP26 conferences, 2021 is a big year for the U.K. government on the world stage. The Integrated Review and full FCDO development strategy are yet to be published, but there will be less money to tackle big global challenges.

Despite the government’s eventual decision to maintain the International Development Committee of MPs and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact watchdog, some development professionals are concerned that well-established systems for accountability might not be suitable for dealing with a government that apparently cares little for the sector’s opinion.

“We got comfortable that as long as we kept an eye on the pennies, the pounds would be OK, said Gary Forster, CEO at Publish What You Fund, an aid transparency campaign group. “And then everything changed at [the] top and [now] I feel like we're still playing football and they've moved to rugby.”

But 2021 will also bring fresh attention and opportunities for the sector. A rebellion of Conservative MPs sympathetic to aid is being organized to vote against the new development legislation. If the government were to lose the vote, it would not only be a major humiliation, but would also mean that legal safeguards on development — even if some question their usefulness — remain in place.

Outside Westminster, NGOs are discussing their own plans for a fightback — there are already plans afoot to capitalize on the big events of next year, including by working with groups outside the sector.  

2020, development advocates say, was not the end.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at