Government statements continue to highlight the incoherence of Britain’s international policies.
At the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, Rishi Sunak called for a “global mission for clean growth”.
His enthusiasm for low-carbon growth is welcome. But the government has curtailed its funding for helping poorer countries with that as part of wider aid cuts in recent years. Progress will only be made on this objective if it forms part of a wider strategy for addressing the multiple problems facing poorer countries. Britain used to have such a strategy, implemented by the Department for International Development (DfID), and enabled by an aid budget which met the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP.
This made the UK a global leader, with long-term programmes in many countries tackling poor governance, human rights abuse, the education of women and girls, public health and humanitarian relief, as well as climate change. All this formed an important part of Britain’s soft power and built relationships with many leaders which were useful when we asked them for support on issues important us.
In recent years, British governments have squandered our leadership role. The merger of DfID and the Foreign Office has failed to produce a strong and self-confident Department with clear objectives. The abrupt cut in the UK aid budget in 2021 from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent brought programmes in many countries to a grinding halt, undermining confidence in the UK’s reliability. The government has also been playing fast and loose with the widely accepted OECD guidelines on what constitutes Official Development Assistance (ODA). These were drawn up to ensure that aid spending meets genuine needs in poorer countries rather than simply serving the political interests of donors. Britain has been playing dubious accounting tricks with these guidelines, on issues like the cost of Covid vaccines, support for the IMF and funding the costs of refugees in the UK, opening the way for others to spend their aid budgets not on the world’s poorest but on domestic priorities. Despite modest relief announced in the budget statement on 17th November, these decisions still leave the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) having to implement new cuts running into billions of pounds in this and coming years.
The new Minister for Development at the FCDO Andrew Mitchell has a proud record of achievement as a former DfID Secretary of State. He has inherited a mess. He earned warm applause when he told a professional audience earlier this month that he has two priorities as minister: to improve morale and fix the structural issues. Here are three goals he could pursue which would contribute to that, and start to restore some of Britain’s battered reputation in this area:
First, bring the UK back into alignment with the intent of the ODA guidelines.
Second, centralise what remains of the FCDO’s ODA spending and apply the culture and systems which previously allowed DfID to select high-quality projects, and manage them efficiently on a multi-year basis.
Third, work across government to join up overseas development and low-carbon policies so that they reinforce each other in supporting the poorest countries. That would be a practical contribution to Sunak’s mission for green growth.
Many of our international friends welcome the new tone from Rishi Sunak. But they have learned over the last few years to watch what the UK does, not what we say. Actions now need to speak louder than words.