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May 18, 2022
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.
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.
The strategy identifies just four key policy priorities:
The strategy also sets out how the UK will deliver its ODA:
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.
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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