UK aid — in the national interest?

Last week, the House of Commons’ International Development Committee (IDC) released a report providing the first official scrutiny of the government’s proposed framework for future UK development spending. The new aid strategy, entitled ‘UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest‘, was originally released in November 2015. The publication of this joint Treasury and Department for International Development (DFID) document signified the most important change in national development policy since the passing of legislation to commit to spending 0.7% GNI on aid earlier in the same year. While praising many of the changes laid out in the strategy, the report also highlights a number of issues of concern among the government plans.

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Photo credit: DFID https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/10826275235/in/album-72157637609086384/ (CC BY 2.0)

The strategy document builds on four thematic objectives: strengthening global peace, security and governance; strengthening resilience and crisis response; promoting global prosperity; and tackling extreme poverty. These aims are brought together around a narrative of aid spending benefitting the UK’s ‘national interest’. With this new strategy, “Britain can be proud to be a country that not only meets its responsibilities to the world’s poorest, but in doing so best serves and protects its own security and interests.” Core announcements in the strategy document include that 50% of DFID spending is to be allocated to “fragile states and regions,” while official development assistance (ODA) funds are to be made more widely accessible to other government departments.

The IDC report reached a number of conclusions about the changes brought by the strategy. The Committee described the strategy document as a “welcome restatement of the UK’s strong commitment to international development,” while “its focus on fragile states and regions shows the Government’s willingness to work in the difficult environments where levels of extreme poverty are highest.” The Committee called for adequate scrutiny of spending, particularly where ODA funds were to be spent outside of DFID, and raised questions about the absence of references to human rights in the document.

Most significantly, the IDC expressed concerns about the reduced emphasis on poverty reduction — the core requirement of national legislation regulating development spending. “The most important principle of allocating UK aid should always be that it is allocated where it can most effectively be used to reduce poverty,” said Committee chair, Stephen Twigg MP. The report suggested that prioritisation of national interest may detract from this, stating: “The strategy’s status as a Treasury-led document with little explicit focus on poverty reduction risks creating an impression that the objectives regarding the UK’s national interest, and therefore security and prosperity, were drawn up first, with DFID left to connect the dots with poverty reduction.”

The risks of foregoing the commitment to poverty reduction have also been echoed by advocacy organisations. Saira O’Mallie of the ONE campaign commented: “By underlining that poverty reduction must be the primary purpose of aid, the IDC have shown that the new UK aid strategy puts us in dangerous water, and risks diluting the UK’s position as a leader in international development.” An earlier submission by Development Initiatives likewise argued that a “focus on aligning aid spending with ‘the national interest’, national security priorities and the interests of UK companies could result in UK aid (a scarce and unique resource) being directed to different priorities less focused on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people.”

New or amended national legislation may now be necessary to ensure that cross-departmental ODA spending is implemented in line with existing commitments to poverty reduction. The report called on the government to “make reducing poverty a legal obligation for the spending of all ODA, regardless of which department is spending it.” Simon Maxwell, former head of the Overseas Development Institute(ODI), wrote prior to the 2015 election that the next government must “revise the legislation that mandates the poverty focus of UK aid … to be explicit that the poverty mandate applies to all development cooperation — including the rising share entrusted to other government departments.”

This cross-departmental spending could be further spurred on by a recent revision of the international rules governing the classification of ‘official’ development assistance. As of January 2016, updated regulations from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) allow greater inclusion of private sector and military spending towards ODA calculations. These redefinitions too have been subject to civil society criticism, with Sara Tesorieri, deputy head of Oxfam’s EU office, stating: “development aid is meant to empower poor people — rich countries shouldn’t be diverting it to fill their budget gaps or advance their security agenda.”

The shift towards an aid narrative based around national interest is, at least partially, a response to trends in public opinion. The British public is, on the whole, relatively sympathetic to aid spending; a recent EuroBarometer poll found that 86% of respondents felt that helping those in developing countries was important. As detailed in this LSE policy blog, arguments based on national interest are most likely to attract majority support in public polling. When broken down by voting preference, UKIP, Conservative and Labour voters tend to support spending ‘in the national interest’, while SNP, Liberal Democrat and Green voters prefer the notion of ‘helping those most in need’.

While this narrative appears to be palatable to the electorate, in the longer term it may serve to weaken the case for the UK’s development commitments. Amid on-going cutbacks to domestic spending, it is difficult for aid advocates to make their case based on notions of ‘national interest’ alone. Vociferous critiques of current spending levels continue to draw attention, with a recent Mail on Sunday petition requesting that the Government repeal the 0.7% target attracting over 100,000 signatures in its first 24 hours. The national interest narrative relies heavily on public confidence in political assurances of what is ‘in the national interest’. If the UK’s role as a global leader in development assistance is to be maintained in the face of doubt, a robust, moral case for support to the world’s poorest must continue to be strongly made.

This article was originally published on the WhyDev blog in March 2016.

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LLM Qualifying Law Degree student @BirkbeckLaw

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