Examining the UK’s New International Development Strategy: What’s in, what’s not?
The UK government’s long-awaited International Development Strategy signals a further alignment of UK development policy with its foreign, trade, and defense objectives. At the heart of the strategy is a UK offer to support economic development in partner countries, through UK investments and trade partnerships, particularly in support of sustainable infrastructure. Other policy priorities include women and girls, humanitarian leadership, climate change, and global health. The strategy sets out a significant shift in resources towards country programs and bilateral channels with a commitment to provide only 25% of total UK ODA to multilaterals by 2025. In terms of regional focus, the UK confirms its earlier desire for an Indo-Pacific tilt and acknowledges European neighborhood funding is likely to increase due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also notes that it will sustain its support on the African continent. Importantly, the strategy commits the UK to continue to provide the majority of its ODA to low-income countries.
UK civil society, while welcoming the publication of the strategy, has been highly critical, suggesting it signals a return to the UK using its development assistance to establish lucrative trade relationships with key partner countries and will divert precious money from those that need it most. Civil society groups are also critical of the cut to multilateral ODA, given that this funding often represents more value for money and can deliver results at scale. Some NGOs have also criticized the strategy's framing of its focus on gender equality. Finally, others have signaled that without a scale-up of funding and a return to 0.7% ODA/GNI, the new strategy will fail to have any impact.
New direction for the UK in a changing geopolitical environment
The strategy is the UK’s first since the 2020 merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and comes after a turbulent couple of years with changes in senior leadership and significant budget cuts.
The strategy opens by setting out a changing geo-political environment with increased threats to freedom, democracy, and self-determination, and it calls for UK ODA to focus on ‘unleashing the power of people and countries to take control of their own future.’
Not shy of controversy, the FCDO Secretary of State Liz Truss pitched the strategy to the press as the UK’s alternative offer to low- and middle-income countries of ‘reliable and honest investment’ in a world where ‘malign actors treat economics and development as a means of control, using patronage, investment and debt as a form of economic coercion and political’. The strategy itself notes the challenges facing partner countries that often must rely on funding with strings attached and a heavy debt burden. While no malign actors were named by Truss, many UK newspapers have labeled the strategy as the UK’s attempt to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, albeit at a much smaller scale. The Belt and Road Initiative has been criticized by some as leaving low-income countries with high levels of debt.
Slimmed-down set of policy priorities
The strategy identifies just four key policy priorities:
- Supporting economic development through 'British Investment Partnerships’: This pillar is a top priority for the UK government moving forward, given the amount of detail described in this part of the strategy. Partnerships are aimed at delivering honest and reliable investments to partner countries and the strategy commits the UK to mobilize £8 billion (US$10.2 billion) a year by 2025 in UK-backed financing for low-income countries, from the private sector and beyond. The partnerships include a strong focus on sustainable infrastructure and trade mobilization. The partnerships will leverage UK expertise through the establishment of new centers of knowledge to help partner governments deliver sustainable economic growth in high-potential sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, and technology. Many UK NGOs worry that the strategy signals a focus on ‘aid for trade,’ which they believe would prioritize assistance measures linked to investment opportunities and result in additional debt for partner countries;
- ‘Providing women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed’: The strategy elevates tackling gender equality as a core priority for UK ODA moving forward, and this has been welcomed by many. The strategy focuses on three key areas: 1) education, 2) empowerment (including a commitment to addressing sexual and reproductive health and supporting women’s economic empowerment), and 3) ending violence. The strategy re-instates Truss’s commitment to restore UK funding to gender equality and commits the UK to publish a new UK ‘Women and Girls Strategy’ by 2022. NGOs hope that the upcoming strategy will provide more concrete details on the UK’s broader gender equality efforts and address the structural barriers to gender equality;
- Delivering humanitarian leadership: The strategy commits the UK to provide £3 billion (US$4 billion) in humanitarian assistance over the next 3 years and to use its diplomatic strengths to continue to reform the international system to be more proactive in anticipating and managing future humanitarian crises; and
- Tackling climate change, nature, and global health: The strategy reiterates the UK’s commitment to double its International Climate Finance (ICF) contribution to at least £11.6 billion (US$15.6 billion) between 2021-2026 and commits to ensuring that this funding is equally split between mitigation and adaptation finance. It also commits the UK to ensure all new bilateral ODA is aligned with the Paris Agreement. For global health, the strategy focuses on supporting the COVID-19 response and preparing for the next pandemic; strengthening health systems; integrating the One Health approach; ending preventable deaths of mothers, babies, and children; and improving research and development (R&D). GAVI; the Vaccine Alliance; and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are specifically mentioned in the text as important partners moving forward.
Shift away from multilateral ODA
The strategy also sets out how the UK will deliver its ODA:
- Provide more bilateral ODA: The strategy commits the UK to allocate 75% of its total ODA via country and bilateral programs by 2025. The UK allocated 38% of its ODA via multilaterals in 2021 and only 62% was allocated bilaterally; the new commitment would represent a 13% decrease in the share of multilateral ODA between 2021 and 2025. This is one of the most significant shifts within the strategy, given the UK’s historical emphasis on multilateral support in the past. The cut in multilateral spending aims to better ‘control exactly how taxpayers’ money is used’ and that ‘a proportionate burden-share with partners’ is achieved. A break from multilateralism is of great concern for many development advocates that fear the impacts of reduced assistance toward shared priorities;
- Adopt a more patient approach: The strategy highlights that it will tackle the root causes of the challenges development partners face and recognizes that this will take time. It also notes that the UK will champion openness, predictability, and the rule of law in its approach moving forward;
- Increase the use of British expertise: The strategy commits to using the full range of UK expertise within government, the private sector, and civil society to support partner countries; and
- Reduce bureaucracy: The strategy commits to giving UK Ambassadors and High Commissioners greater control over decision-making and speeding up UK program delivery time.
Indo-Pacific tilt, but legacy country partnerships will remain top priority
In terms of priority countries and regions, the strategy commits the UK to channel the majority of its ODA towards low-income countries where there is a clear commitment to making progress. It also commits the UK to continue to support the global goal of providing at least 0.2% of GNI to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
The strategy also affirms the recent push by the UK government to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region, noting that the region will be critical to the UK’s development partnerships. The strategy also signals a new drive for partnerships in Europe following the invasion of Ukraine. However, it states that the UK will sustain its commitments on the African continent with a particular focus on South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Ghana.
Commitment to return to 0.7% restated
Finally, the strategy restates the UK’s commitment to return to providing 0.7% of its GNI as ODA, as soon as the fiscal conditions permit, noting that the government will continue to monitor and review the fiscal situation to assess when a return is possible. The government has signaled that it expects to return to 0.7% ODA/GNI by 2024-2025, but many development experts remain skeptical. Preet Gil, the opposition Labour Party Cabinet Minister for International Development, speaking to the Financial Times, notes that without more funding the strategy is “barely worth the paper it is written on” making a direct call for an immediate return to 0.7% ODA/GNI or risk having the aims of the new strategy fall short.
The jury is out on whether the strategy represents a step in the right direction. For many, there are major concerns that the strategy is overly focused on trade and economic investment, and that this will come at the expense of addressing other development issues. Its aim to cut vital multilateral ODA is also viewed as a major step backward for those most in need. However, the strategy has been praised for its aspirational goals and its focus on leveraging UK assets in R&D, finance, and rule of law to provide new offerings to partner countries. Some have reacted positively to the strategy’s renewed focus on women and girls, climate change, humanitarian assistance, and global health. However, for the strategy to succeed and have a positive impact on those most in need, it will require financial resources and long-term commitment along with consistent monitoring, especially in the wake of compounding crises that can divert attention and funding, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With the strategy’s ambitious aims, Romilly Greenhill, UK director at the ONE Campaign, expressed the sentiment well, stating that the UK’s strategy "will only be successful if it is matched by real investment and political will."
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