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Panning for gold: what’s to like in the new UK strategy for international development?

Panning for gold: what’s to like in the new UK strategy for international development?



It is fair to say that the new UK strategy for international development did not land to universal acclaim, when it was published on 16 May.

Romilly Greenhill, the UK Director of the ONE Campaign, was quoted by Devex as having ‘sincere concerns about a strategy that disproportionately prioritises aid for trade’ and worrying that the strategy might be ‘all mouth and no trousers’. Mark Miller at ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) commented that ‘while UK interests are at the front and centre of the document, concerns around the current constraints to development are consigned to the background’. BOND talked about big gaps and a lack of detail, bemoaning the fact that poverty had only two references, compared to 27 for trade. Gwen Hines, ceo of Save the Children UK, welcomed the commitment to women and girls, but worried about the lack of references to targeting poor people directly. And many others have piled in: see e.g. Twitter threads by Ian Mitchell (@EconMitch) and Ranil Dissanayake (@scepticalranil), both from CGD. Ian – ‘we think (the shift away from multilateral) is unnecessary, unhelpful, and may create significant VfM risks’.  Ranil – ‘big promises without much substance’.

Liz Truss was also given quite a hard time at the International Development Select Committee on 18 May, especially on the geopolitical focus of the document. It is definitely worth reading the transcript, with Liz Truss talking about ‘coercive finance’ disbursed by authoritarian states. And: ‘We have seen authoritarian actors increasingly use aid funding and investment as a way of exerting control and coercion over countries, pushing them in what we think is a negative direction.’ The MPs, led by Sarah Champion, tested Truss on the geopolitics, but also the poverty focus, the balance between bilateral and multilateral aid, the geographical allocation, the additionality or otherwise of new aid for Ukraine, and the likelihood – or not – of the UK returning to 0.7.

And finally, it is worth noting a series of tweets by Moazzam Malik, who stood down the other day as a DG in FCDO, sowing this series of bomblets relevant to the strategy:

  • FCDO needs clear, stable, long term objectives - pursuing "national interest" doesn't mean anything. Without clear objectives (eg conflict/insecurity, climate change, poverty, and prosperity), FCDO cannot build the expertise or evidence necessary to be credible or effective.
  • FCDO must focus on touching peoples' lives - securing meaningful real world change to benefit people in our partner countries and the UK - not grandstanding conferences or declarations or chasing news headlines.
  • Development cooperation has a major role to play in helping achieve real world outcomes - but if it is used as a bargaining chip in a transactional geopolitical game, it will deliver poor value, weak impact, lead to scandals, and damage the UK's credibility internationally.
  • In all its work, FCDO must seek to smooth the path to a multi-polar world. That means new alliances (esp emerging powers, EU), internationalism (not bilateralism), and some deep humility. Answer to a more contested world isn't endless contestation but endless collaboration.
  • Dialling back to a "uni-polar" or G7 dominated world isn't a viable option. International misadventures over 20+ years have eroded trust irretrievably and the global challenges of the future (conflict, pandemics, inequality, climate change, etc) require new approaches.
  • The UK's future security and prosperity in an interconnected world - as a medium sized European country, post Brexit, with economic and political power shifting east - requires an effective international affairs ministry. We need a serious debate about the shape of that.

So, are we all agreed? Well, yes, but in a spirit of constructive engagement, let’s see whether we can find any positives. There might be eight.

First, it’s good to have a strategy, however imperfect. This one has been a long time coming, and was badly needed after the Integrated Review a year ago (my comments here), and various ministerial statements abut aid priorities (including Dominic Raab’s list of six priorities, from January 2021, commentary here). The concatenation of current crises makes an uptodate strategy even more necessary.

Second, this strategy is explicitly (a) whole of government, and (b) whole of international development, which is as it should be:

‘This strategy is a whole of government approach to international development which will see us working closely with UK businesses, civil society, academia, research centres and beyond to bring together the UK’s full capability for mutual benefit. In addition, the Ministry of Defence and UK Armed Forces play a significant role identifying and addressing the root causes of instability, as well as helping partner nations build their own security and resilience capabilities. It is essential that defence, diplomacy, and development activities are mutually supportive wherever there are implications for international development, and this strategy will enhance crossdepartmental coordination. It gives a clear signal to our partners about what they can expect from the UK offer and how this will strengthen in future.’

Third, there is recognition that the UK can’t do everything and needs to play to its strengths – or, as we might say, and I have said, make best use of its comparative advantage. As Liz Truss said to the Select Committee:

‘We cannot do everything. One of the exercises with our G7 partners is looking at where we are best placed to focus. Clearly, Canada and the US are best placed to focus on the Americas region overall, although we have a specific interest in the Caribbean. Japan has its own interest. Expanding this concept is very important.’

Sophia Gaston from the BFPG makes a similar argument about the focus of the strategy, arguing that

‘What is striking about the themes prioritised within this strategy is their alignment with established areas of British national excellence, including medical and scientific research, renewable energies, innovation, biodiversity protection, and the administrative bread and butter of standards, regulatory frameworks, finance and the rule of law. This is the ‘integration’ agenda in action, which began with the merger of the departments and was advanced with the publication of the Integrated Review in March 2021.’

Fourth, on priorities, the SDGs are name-checked, though only briefly, and then there are four, viz:

  1. Deliver honest and reliable investment for sustainable growth;
  2. Provide women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed;
  3. Provide life-saving humanitarian assistance; and
  4. Take forward our work on climate change, nature and global health

That is really five, not four, since climate change and nature are different to global health. But we can work with that. It is especially good to be reminded that ‘the Integrated Review made tackling climate change and biodiversity loss the UK government’s number one international priority.’ But a small number of priorities is good.

Fifth, the strategy commits to taking a long-term view and a patient approach: ‘Taking a patient approach which helps our partners to tackle the structural problems they face, building the strong economic and social foundations that underpin long-term development.’ The influence of Stefan Dercon can be seen here, and the extensive political science analysis on which he builds the  argument in his new book (review here).

Sixth, the Strategy confirms the commitment to establish a post of DG Development within FCDO – a partial answer to the disruption and lack of leadership caused by the DFID-FCDO merger. This is not quite the additional Permanent Secretary that was one of the nine tests I set for a successful merger, and it’s not quite clear how far the remit stretches of the new DG, but it is a step in the right direction.

Seventh, the Strategy promises greater decentralisation to field offices and faster project approval. Thus: ‘we will reduce the time it takes FCDO to approve a business case, for programmes under £40m in value, to less than 6 weeks – currently it can take many months.’ I am reminded that in the dark ages, in 1977, I led an evaluation of the UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme Programme in India, which we titled ‘Towards Field Flexibility’; it was also focused on cutting stages in the project approval process.

Eighth, some of the proposed new instruments and policies look like they might have legs: just energy transition partnerships, building on the South African model; UK Centres of Expertise, possibly (subject to not reverting to tied aid); the Developing Countries Trading Scheme, maybe; the multi-faced commitment to women and girls; and the various financial commitments, for example to international climate finance and to humanitarian assistance.

None of this is to pretend that there are not serious problems, of policy and implementation. The shift away from multilateral aid is ill-judged, even after allowing for the run-down of EUEuropean Union funding: Moz Malik is eloquent on this. The geographical allocation looks to be problematic (is giving aid to 131 countries really something to celebrate?). There is obviously a lot to say about how the investment push will both benefit poor people and safeguard the environment. And proposed staff cuts, along with the merger still being work-in-progress. Mark Miller has highlighted other issues, including the problem of managing the resource budget and scaling up bilateral investment. CGD researchers have also written about the problem of getting back to 0.7 in a coherent way.

But being able to cite eight positive take-aways is not to be sniffed at. Is it?


P.S. Added later. I've thought of a ninth! 

A commitment to evidence. Para 42: 'To make sure we can continue to lead with expertise and maximise the impact of our ODAOverseas Development Assistance spend, we will increase our investment in research on ‘what works’.

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