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Lord Cameron shifts government tone on international development

23 November 2023


The Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, with the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, in Downing Street last week

The Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, with the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, in Downing Street last week

THE UK has a “moral mission” to help the world’s poorest people, the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, said this week, marking a shift in government tone and rhetoric on international development.

He was speaking as a White Paper on international development, which sets out a roadmap for the UK’s international-development agenda for the next decade, was published. It pledges to focus support on the lowest-income countries, women and girls, those with a disability, and members of the LGBT+ community.

In his foreword to the paper, International Development in a Contested World: Ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change, Lord Cameron wrote: “Development has the capacity to save and improve lives. It is part of a moral mission. And in a world of illegal migration, climate change, instability, and conflict, it is essential for our own security and prosperity as well.”

Charities have welcomed the change in tone and focus from the government, which abandoned its 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to aid, and merged international development into the Foreign Office. But they continue to call for a reinstatement of the 0.7-per-cent pledge, which was introduced by Lord Cameron when he was Prime Minister.

The reneging on the 0.7-per-cent pledge led to drastic cuts in funding for humanitarian projects in some of the world’s most conflict-affected and vulnerable countries. It has also emerged that 29 per cent of the aid budget was spent on dealing with refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK in 2022, a 20-per-cent rise on 2021. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office did not respond to requests to say whether this would continue to be the case.

The new White Paper does not recommit the government to moving back to 0.7 per cent in the near future. The Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said that, instead, the traditional model of doing international development “needs to change . . . at a time of domestically straitened budgets”. The paper advocates, instead, reforms to development banks, and leveraging private funds for aid.

It also calls for more countries to follow the UK plan for debt repayments to be paused when vulnerable countries are hit by extreme wealth or health emergencies. “This is simple innovation that will make such a huge difference,” Mr Mitchell said.

The document also refocuses attention on the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030, of which Lord Cameron was a champion when he was Prime Minister. It also commits the development-finance arm of the UK Government, British International Investment (BII), to spending a minimum of half of its annual investment in the poorest and most fragile countries.

A committee of MPs slated the investment decisions of BII earlier this year (News, 29 September), after finding that its portfolio was concentrated in middle-income countries, and that it invested in companies owned by wealthy individuals, which did little to improve inequality.

The White Paper sets out a shift in focus on to working in partnership rather than on the “Global Britain” of its 2021 iteration. It advocates a move away from donor-to-recipient models of funding to partnerships based on mutual respect and localisation.

“We need to work together as partners, shaping narratives which developing countries own and deliver,” Lord Cameron wrote. “Development cannot be a closed shop, where we try to help other countries and communities without heeding their vision for the future.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury contributed to the foreword: “Partnership lies at the heart of this White Paper on international development. Working together, across faiths and nations is essential so that we can deliver change that benefits our future generations.”

Gideon Rabinowitz, from Bond, the UK network for NGOs, said that, although the change in tone and direction was welcome, the paper still lacked ambition. It failed to address the debt crisis or the UK’s part in corporate tax-dodging through UK-linked tax havens.

Also, although the paper outlines its policy commitments on the impact of climate change, and sets out a “resilience and adaptation fund” to help poorer countries to prepare for climate disasters, it makes no mention of addressing loss and damage.

The chief executive of Christian Aid, Patrick Watt, also criticised the limited ambition of the paper. “Without mobilising more public finance through debt cancellation, through tackling the broken global-tax system, and through restoring the aid budget, then the good intentions of the White Paper cannot be realised,” he said.

World Vision UK welcomed the paper, saying that it had the potential to create a better world for all children, “so long as they are recognised as key partners and actively consulted”.

World Vision’s chief executive, Fola Komolafe, said: “When we invest in the whole child — their education, safety, health, nutrition, and futures — the payoff continues throughout their lives, benefiting both the children themselves and society. They can be a measurement for the sustainable success of this approach.”

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