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Where Should the UK’s International Development Programme Focus and Why?

October 4, 2021

The UK Government is developing a new strategy for its international aid programme through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Here’s where we at Abt Global think the UK’s aid programme should focus and why. A copy of our full response can be found here.

How will the UK’s development programme be affected by recent global trends?

We are seeing a divided world based on extremism and identity-based conflict. Bad governance and inequality are fueling political instability. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates these trends and increases inequality within and between countries. As the impacts of climate change increase, we face the prospect of future humanitarian crises with floods or drought triggering famine. While scientific advances – such as the development of COVID-19 vaccines – can transform our world, new technology has spread hate speech and disinformation while providing authoritarian governments with new tools for surveillance and exclusion.

The FCDO is producing the International Development Strategy (IDS) at a time when the international rules-based system is under unprecedented stress. Political elites in developing countries pick and choose what will work for them to maintain power as China and Russia project alternatives to liberal political systems. Models of international co-operation that have held since Bretton Woods are being challenged by state-sponsored direct investment in infrastructure and extractive industry (China, Turkey). These bring new tensions to the dynamics of aid diplomacy.

How should the UK respond to these trends?

The IDS is an opportunity to reset the UK approach, building on the strengths of a new department, which brings the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s understanding of politics and power together with the former Department for International Development’s (DFID) understanding of institutions and how change happens.

The IDS should start with what we have learned:

(i) Development is a political rather than a technical process. Historically, sustainable poverty reduction has been achieved when coalitions of different interests in a country press for changes that redistribute power and wealth more equitably.

(ii) While the ability of the FCDO to influence these internal processes of change will be at the margins, diplomacy and development can help nudge institutions in a more open, inclusive, and tolerant direction.

(iii) The FCDO should watch for unintended consequences. In more authoritarian or predatory states, aid can sometimes take the heat out of the social contract, fuel patronage, and provide international legitimacy to illegitimate regimes. In more open political systems, it can undermine political accountability by removing the discretion of elected leaders through earmarking funds to deliver ‘results’ funders want.

(iv) The UK should be humble and guard against promoting ‘perfect institutions’ or a Westminster model. Instead, the FCDO should privilege a deep understanding of context and how the UK, with its limited resources, can influence the kinds of changes that will ensure the country’s own resources are used for poverty reduction.

(v) Inclusive growth is a (if not the) critical driver of poverty reduction. However, development assistance can unintentionally underwrite unproductive, unsustainable investments. The IDS should consider innovative financing models that can attract private-sector funding. [1]

(vi) The UK public’s growing appreciation of supply chain issues around corruption and abusive labour practices has raised the visibility and associated reputational risk for UK trading partners. Smart audit and monitoring systems supported by the private sector will be an increasingly important part of the solution.

How can UK aid best support a wider set of trade, foreign policy, and security objectives?

The UK has a strategic choice in the balance it strikes between using its development programme to respond to immediate threats to UK interests overseas (e.g. short-term public diplomacy projects) versus tackling the deeper but more intractable causes of conflict, inequality, and economically and fiscally unsustainable growth.

Our overarching message is: focus the majority of aid and development on the long game – tucking in behind endogenous forces for positive change and ensuring the country’s own resources help reduce poverty. Develop and use country and regional strategies to address the causes, not symptoms, of threats to the UK’s interests overseas. Do not be drawn into using aid only to transact short-term diplomatic or trade outcomes (e.g. buying personal protective equipment vs. also investing in pandemic preparedness).

If designed and delivered according to a strategic, long-term (10 year +) agenda – the UK’s aid programme can become one of its greatest comparative advantages in Africa and the Indo-Pacific. There are five ways to achieve this:

1. Preserve the UK’s globally respected technical development expertise and end the structural inequality that limits the careers of staff hired in the countries where the FCDO works. The FCDO has world-class diplomatic expertise matched by unrivalled depth of technical development know-how. The experience of other aid agencies following integration (notably Canada and Australia) is that development was seen as secondary, and this precipitated a huge departure of technical specialists. In all countries, effective aid strategy, delivery, and diplomacy will increasingly depend on opening up senior leadership positions to staff from the countries where the FCDO works. Right now, career progression and opportunities are limited. With few exceptions, country-based staff do not have opportunities to work in third countries or in the UK. Unfortunately, this replicates the kind of structural inequality we should all be challenging.

2. Focus on the four drivers pillars of growth, political transition, and stability: effective governance and economic reform, service delivery, equality, and environmental protection, including disaster preparedness. Conflict is lower, gross domestic product and trading capacity are higher, and political systems are more open when (i) women and vulnerable groups participate in public and private life; (ii) countries have strong preparedness, emergency warning, and response systems; (iii) states have the capacity and legitimacy to manage budgets, include citizens in decision making, and enforce rules; and (iv) health and education systems are strong and effective, leading to better health and employment outcomes for people.

3. Establish long-term, flexible partnerships in every country that focus on the problems partner governments want to address. Partners do not want to be told that UK aid is being provided in the UK’s interests. They want to know that the UK is a reliable partner that will provide aid over decades (not just years), adapt aid to changes in priorities, and focus on the key issues in partner government development plans.

4. Take a differentiated approach to lower-income and fragile contexts, as opposed to middle- and upper-middle income economies. In fragile or low-income contexts, the UK may need to supplement government capacity and support direct delivery of essential services. In higher-income countries, the focus is on helping partners mobilise their own domestic resources. The caveat to this is that any investment in direct delivery by the UK must be accompanied by a clear transition plan. Otherwise, the UK risks entrenching itself in expensive, long-term, state-building endeavours.

5. Refocus the aid programme on the Indo-Pacific, but not at the expense of Africa. Global poverty is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia and the Pacific Islands. Asia is also the locus of growth, technological innovation, and geopolitical power. Thus, while it is in the UK’s interests to concentrate aid by sector, it is in the UK’s interests to spread its aid over several regions.

[1] See the FCDO-funded SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) programme.

Sarah Dunn is the Managing Director for Abt Global in Britain.

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