The UK needs a deeper, and more ambitious, approach to development

Even when the government takes a step in the right direction, there are problems. To meet the Sustainable Development Goals, we must step up and lead

November 05, 2019
António Guterres has called for a more ambitious development response. Photo: PA
António Guterres has called for a more ambitious development response. Photo: PA

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, is clear: “a much deeper, faster and more ambitious response” is needed if the world is to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The UK has, until recently, been leading the way.

In 2015, the UK became the first G7 nation to enshrine in law a commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on development assistance. A Liberal Democrat achievement in government, enshrining the ODA budget in law has helped ensure that those who are most vulnerable receive the support they need. It was a hugely progressive step that we should be immensely proud of. The UK has consistently ranked as one of the world’s largest aid donors, and we should be proud of that fact. Protecting and maintaining our ODA budget is the right thing to do.

But despite the importance of this commitment, since the Conservative party has governed alone, the aid budget has been constantly under attack from senior Tory MPs such as the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and of course the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Earlier this year, he endorsed a paper by the Henry Jackson Society calling for extensive, multi-billion-pound cuts to our Overseas Aid budget and for the closure of the Department for International Development (DFID). The paper dismissed the crucial role this budget has played in ensuring sustainable development and lifting people out of poverty.

This ideological shift has had consequences. Earlier this year, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact published its findings on the current state of UK aid from 2015 to 2019. Its conclusion was stark: “The government has clearly signalled its intention to use the aid programme to pursue direct UK national interests, in particular, by helping to position the UK as a key trade and investment partner with frontier economies. While the pursuit of mutual prosperity is not necessarily in conflict with good development practice, the focus needs to remain on building long-term opportunities, rather than securing short-term advantage.” Aid should first and foremost be about transforming people’s lives, not posturing, profit margins and box-ticking.

Even when the government takes a step in the right direction, as with the recent announcement that it will give £1bn of aid funding to create new technology to assist in the response to the climate emergency, there are problems. The resulting Ayrton Fund raises questions of transparency and accountability. To date, there is no website outlining the procedures according to which the fund will operate. Falling under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it reinforces a pattern of diverting crucial aid funding away from those who need assistance and giving it to private companies in the UK.

International Development Secretary Alok Sharma’s August announcement of a new Infrastructure Commission to help make investment in infrastructure in developing countries more attractive to businesses also encounters similar transparency and accountability issues. It, too, has no website and no great detail has been provided regarding its accountability procedures. A Liberal Democrat government would ensure oversight over all international development spending.

Brexit, too, threatens the UK’s ability to have an impact. UK-EU cooperation on international development is invaluable and must continue. The best way for this to happen is for the UK to remain an EU member state. Currently, roughly 10 per cent of the UK’s core ODA funding goes via the European Commission each year. The UK is also a significant contributor to the voluntary European Development Fund, supporting programmes in economic, social and human development. Brexit developments have created major uncertainty about what arrangements will be after 2020. As a non-EU member state, the UK would most likely not be part of the EU’s new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument to be introduced with its 2021-2027 budget. As the European Centre for Development Policy Management has stated, “under any scenario, UK and EU aid will be affected.”

Liberal Democrats are internationalists—we understand that the best way forward involves strong partnerships with European and international partners. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, “we are all in the same boat.”

Read the rest of the pieces from our special Future of Aid report here