THE Government has just published its first strategy paper on overseas aid since it merged the Department of International Development into the Foreign Office almost two years ago (News, 19 June 2020). I wish it could be said that it was worth the wait.
The dissolution of Britain’s separate development department coincided with a raft of hasty cuts to our spending on combating world poverty and ill health at the height of the pandemic. Five months later, the National Audit Office published a report that showed that ministers forced through £4.2 billion in aid cuts so rapidly that they did not allow time for a review of the impact that the reductions would have — or of whether the changes would be good value for money.
Ironically, the harshest cuts, 53 per cent, were made in bilateral aid — grants given directly to individual nations — which has long been considered the most effective form of UK spending on global poverty. Humanitarian aid, child nutrition, health, and education were among the top areas of bilateral spending.
The problem for ministers was that British aid earmarked for use via multilateral bodies — United Nations agencies, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization — could not be cut without violating international obligations. All that has now changed. The strategy paper sets out a plan to give billions less to these international bodies by 2025, and instead spend the money in countries deemed to be British foreign-policy priorities.
There may have been a case for rebalancing spending between the bilateral and multilateral budgets, but slashing both is not the way to go about assisting the world’s poor.
What is good about the strategy paper is the commitment to prioritising girls’ education and healthcare; and the proposal to give greater autonomy to UK ambassadors to make decisions on the ground has benefits as well as risks. But the paper gives no country-specific spending allocations. Nor does it give a date by which the aid budget should return to 0.7 per cent of our national income, a commitment enshrined in law by a previous Conservative Prime Minister.
None of this will be surprising to anyone who heard the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell recently reveal in the House of Commons that development structures have now been “completely dismantled” inside the Foreign Office, something that even Margaret Thatcher did not do.
Britain’s aid policy is switching focus from fighting poverty to the promotion of British trade and investment — which is why, next year, the Commonwealth Development Corporation is to be renamed British International Investment.
Ministers are now briefing that this latest change of direction is intended to rival China, which uses aid shamelessly as a tool of economic coercion and political power in the developing world. Britain should offer an alternative to this model rather than make aid conditional on a trade deal or agreement to investment partnerships.
Until two years ago, Britain had a proud reputation as a development superpower. Pioneering bilateral aid projects were part of that. But so was our contribution to multilateral programmes under which aid could benefit from economies of scale.
Brexit was advertised as enabling Britain to play a bigger part on the global stage. Instead, we appear to be bent upon a Little Englander abdication of our responsibilities to the world’s poorest people.