Simon Maxwell

Keep in touch!

UK comparative advantage: the missing chapter in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

UK comparative advantage: the missing chapter in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy




The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was published on 16 March. It is hard to concentrate on the detail when a battle is in full swing about cuts to the aid programme, and with the row still rumbling about the merger of DFIDDepartment for International Development and the FCO. However: (a) development is about more than aid; (b) the IR has value as a high-level strategic framework in its own right; and (c) it is a bridge to a development-specific policy paper, promised by the Foreign Secretary on 26 January. I’ve written about that and about the aid cuts here. I restrict myself here to a key point about a missing chapter in the IR, on the comparative advantage of the UK in the development field.

Development issues are threaded through the IR: in a context chapter, in four chapters on the strategic framework, and in a concluding chapter on implementation. The full table of contents is in Figure 1. You really need to read the whole document to put together all the points relevant to development. The box on aid is pasted in at the end for ease of reference.

Figure 1

Table of contents of the Integrated Review


Others have commented in detail on the development aspects (e.g. here from BOND, here from CGD, and here from IDS). People have largely welcomed the initial horizon-scanning, the reference to the SDGs, the priority given to climate change and biodiversity, and the commitment to science. There are complaints about the lack of coherence between different strands, and about the lack of detailed prioritisation (see e.g. Lord Peter Ricketts, here). The Indo-Pacific tilt causes a few raised eyebrows. And of course, aid cuts feature prominently in all the comments.

Comparative advantage is a key question for any Government or agency carrying out a strategic review. Yes, there are many global challenges, but which ones is the UK best equipped to tackle – and what is the evidence base for making that judgement? To put it crudely, what is it that the UK development programme can do that the Luxembourg programme cannot? Or, since the framework is ‘comparative’ advantage, what is the UK’s role in the development division of labour, and what is Luxembourg’s?

I have had occasion recently to ask this question with respect to another development agency. We looked at different ways of framing the question: comparative advantage, dynamic comparative advantage, competitive advantage, USP, or distinctive competence. Similar issues arise in each case. When we have asked recipients what they think, they give the kind of answers in Figure 2: scale, speed and efficiency, of course, but also flexibility, predictability, and adherence to the core principles of the Paris Declaration, like ownership, alignment and the use of national public accounting systems.

Figure 2

The OECD/DAC has asked the question with respect to UN organisations, and returned similar criteria, with some additions: for example a normative role, and political neutrality (Figure 3).

Figure 3

DAC members on UN strengths


These all play out in decisions the UK might make: about allocation of aid, as between bilateral and multilateral channels, and as between countries, sectors and projects; and also with respect to other development instruments, like trade, migration policy, or the deployment of the armed forces.

What does the Integrated Review have to say about what the UK is better or best at? There are not so many examples, and mostly no evidence to back up the statements, but here are a few:

  •  ‘(The UK’s) (is) a Science and Tech Superpower’ (Preface)

  • ‘The UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments.’ (Pg 46)

  • ‘We (are) at the heart of a network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings, committed to protecting human rights and upholding global norms.’ (Pg 6)

  • ‘The UK will continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction. . . .  a model for an integrated approach to tackling global challenges, integrating our resources for maximum effect.’ (Pg 7)

  • ‘Our diplomats and legal experts will maintain their significant contribution at the heart of multilateral institutions. And the UK will play an important convening role on issues of consequence to our shared security and prosperity.’ (Pg 45)

  • ‘A soft power superpower’ (Pg 49, referencing media and culture; education; sport; and people-to-people links.

  • ‘The UK is a global leader in financial services’ (Pg 51)

  • ‘Among European countries, the UK has uniquely global interests, partnerships and capabilities. As one of five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council, and with a leading voice in organisations like the G7, G20 and Commonwealth, we have a global perspective and global responsibilities.’ (Pg 60)

Most of that rings true, discounting just a little for hyperbole or hubris. It is good to have what Robert Zoellick has called a ‘full service capability’ of diplomatic, development, defence and security resources, of high quality. It is important to be fully engaged in the multilateral system. Soft power is a great asset. Science and Technology strengths for sure, though the superpower bit might be contested. And a leading development actor, of course. I would have added the strength of the UK in social science research related to global issues (a round of applause for the Development Studies Association); and the extraordinary depth and competence of the NGONon-governmental organisation sector (represented by BOND), in delivery of development and humanitarian aid, but even more important in policy analysis, campaigning, and the people-to-people links celebrated in the IR.

It is also worth noting the references in the IR to the link between trade and development, a priority, if not identified as a specific comparative advantage: the UK will ‘enable developing countries’ integration into the global economy, creating stronger trade and investment partners for the future – in particular, through economic partnership agreements and an improved unilateral trade preferences scheme that will contribute to poverty reduction and strengthen our supply chains.’ (Pg 55)

In terms of geography, the IR does not claim unique UK competence in any region, but does run through the atlas to identify priorities: the Commonwealth; the Indo-Pacific, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; in Africa, the AU and South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan; in the Middle East, Jordan, Oman, Iraq and Syria, Egypt, Morocco; in Latin America and the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.  I don’t know how much it matters not to be mentioned by name, but Bangladesh is a notable omission, as are DRC and Tanzania: all three were among the top 10 recipients of bilateral oda in 2018.                                                                                 

None of this is explicitly related back to the criteria in Figures 2 and 3, and none of it is comparative. And there is not much of an evidence base. For example, is UK aid better than others at supporting primary education, as compared, say, to supporting universities? Who knows? There is not nearly enough comparative, multi-donor evaluation in the development field.

It should be a priority for FCDO and agencies like ICAI and the National Audit Office, as well as parliamentary committees, to help improve the analysis before the development strategy paper is written.

And then, there is one more task, which is to look at the basis for the UK’s thematic priorities. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, identified 7 priorities back in December (here), and these are repeated in the IR: ‘climate and biodiversity; global health security; open societies and conflict resolution; girls’ education; humanitarian preparedness and response, especially food security and famine prevention; S&T; and trade and economic development’. Climate change and biodiversity loss are explicitly identified as the ‘number one international priority’ (Pg 4).

Personally, 7 priorities strikes me as quite a lot. It would also be interesting to know ‘why these’? Is it because they are big global challenges, which of course they are? Or because the UK is uniquely well-placed to lead on them, compared to other countries? That question is not addressed. Nor is the opportunity cost explicit: what is the UK not going to prioritise?

The main question, though, is what it really means to take a topic as a priority. Action on climate change is a case in point, and draws on many of the UK’s strengths in diplomacy, research, public engagement, and delivery. It is no small task to mobilise the UK’s development resources on big global challenges like this, as I have argued elsewhere. In 2019, I suggested that the then DFIDDepartment for International Development should

  • Adopt the concept of climate compatible development, as recommended by the International Development Select Committee;

  • Revise the Single Departmental Plan and introduce a new Strategic Objective on climate compatible development;

  • Set up a new DFID Climate Change Advisory Committee;

  • Support countries better in building climate compatible development into national plans;

  • Insist on a climate change lens in country diagnostics;

  • Earmark a larger share of oda to work with middle (and low) income countries on Grand Challenge Missions which will benefit the climate;

  • Commit to encouraging, incentivising and enforcing higher ambition climate plans and lower carbon intensity of exports by developing countries;

  • Assess the scope for increasing climate funding through multilateral channels;

  • Advocate for stronger UK Government structures and processes on the international dimensions of climate change, for example via a Cabinet Committee on climate change, and a wider remit for the UK Climate Change Committee.

  • And practically, consider five big shifts in DFID’s approach:
    1. From the SDGs to Grand Challenges;

    2. From projects and programmes to budget support;

    3. From ownership to conditionality;

    4. From fragile states to climate vulnerable countries; and

    5. From bilateral to multilateral

UK engagement on climate change has ramped up considerably since 2019, not least because of having the Presidency of the COP. Alok Sharma, the COP President, has set out priorities, including adaptation, Nature-Based Solutions, energy, and finance. New initiatives include the Energy Transition Council.

But these points illustrate the kind of planning that ought to be central to the development strategy paper. Should there be a chapter on each of the main priorities?




The integrated Review on UK oda

UK ODA: increasing our impact as a force for good

The UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments.

As one of the world’s largest providers of ODAOverseas Development Assistance – well above Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages – we will focus our aid work on those areas which are important to a globally-focused UK and where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term. We will maintain our commitment to Africa, with a particular focus on East Africa and on important partners such as Nigeria, while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

We will set out our approach in a new international development strategy, which will ensure close alignment of UK aid from 2022 onwards with the objectives in this Strategic Framework. This strategy will build on our strategic priorities for ODAOverseas Development Assistance in 2021-22: climate and biodiversity; global health security; open societies and conflict resolution; girls’ education; humanitarian preparedness and response, especially food security and famine prevention; S&T; and trade and economic development. It will also consider the competitiveness of our trade and development offer to developing countries.

We will ensure that all UK ODAOverseas Development Assistance is aligned to the Paris Agreement, reflecting our commitment to tackling climate change and its effects as a driver of future instability and poverty. We will maintain a liberal approach to economic development, creating greater opportunities for all and modelled on open societies. We will more effectively combine our diplomacy and aid with trade, working with our partners to adapt our offer. As governments become able to finance their own development priorities, we will gradually move towards providing UK expertise in place of grants and using a variety of financing models to tackle regional challenges in our mutual interests.

The UK will continue to champion International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian access, and provide principled humanitarian assistance at moments of crisis. We will maintain our capacity to respond to unanticipated events, fund bilateral and multilateral programmes in humanitarian hotspots and lead a global campaign to protect 20 million people from catastrophic famine. To support this, we will seek to reform and strengthen the international humanitarian system, and promote the use of digital technology to provide faster and cheaper support to those affected by crises.


Add comment

Security code
Security code:


latest pollVote now: 

Is the concept of 'fragile               states'                   over-                   burdened?


Follow me on Twitter