Time for an urgent shift in the UK’s development agenda

By Jon Barnes

As an event, today’s World Humanitarian Day may pass largely unnoticed by the UK media and public but the life-threatening issues at stake in real life will not. The vertiginous unravelling of the Afghanistan crisis, following the withdrawal of US troops and the return of the Taliban to power, is poised to unleash a humanitarian disaster.

A chastening humanitarian legacy

Speaking to a TV camera three days ago, Labour leader Keir Starmer said people would see the situation as a tragedy in which “20 years of progress” were in danger of being lost. His somewhat policy-distanced immediate reaction to unfolding events contrasted with the strikingly honest assessment of Polly Toynbee. While not dismissing the value of international aid supporting the lives and rights of Afghan women and girls,the Guardian columnist starkly questioned how much the UK- and US-led state-building project, undertaken on the back of the military intervention to remove the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, had achieved, and whether the social development gains would last.

Without clear political strategy, she concluded, the supposed “moral power” of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism policy unveiled at the new millennium had turned into a “grotesque delusion” in Afghanistan, admitting that “saving women” – invoked as an invasion objective – had been a reason for many like her to accept on balance the need for military action.

In response to the collapse in Afghanistan, the Stop the War coalition has urged “politicians of all parties to learn the lessons of the failed wars of intervention and turn to international cooperation as the means of resolving disputes and tackling problems of poverty and underdevelopment”. But how the chastening legacy of yet another foreign policy disaster will affect public attitudes to Britain’s role in the world, including the part played by international aid not overshadowed by military and security concerns, remains to be seen.

The case for aid having beneficial uses and impact will not have been helped this week by Tory Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab’s bizarre intervention on Afghanistan on return from holiday. He reportedly suggested that any future UK aid for the country might be used to exert best-practice “leverage” over the approach of the new Taliban regime.

The UK and development: from past ascendancy to a year of cuts and setbacks

Foreign policy debacles aside, it has been a year of seismic crisis and setbacks for those involved in the UK’s international development sector.

A celebrated achievement under the Labour government elected in 1997 was the creation of the Department for International Development (DfID) as a specialised ministry with the potential to champion this cause. Thanks to pressure by UK-based international development NGOs, successive Labour governments significantly increased public spending on aid, generating enough momentum for David Cameron’s coalition government to uphold Labour’s pledge to meet the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) annually on aid by 2013. In 2014, the 0.7 commitment was enshrined in law, making the UK the first G7 leading rich nation to do so.

At the start of this seemingly upward trend, I heard some suggest a bipartisan settlement was being reached whereby the UK’s aid effort was recognised as a core part of the country’s statecraft. This seemed optimistic at the time with the onset of austerity and is unmistakably in question now.

Indeed, last September, Boris Johnson announced with barely scant consultation that DfID would be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the overarching FCDO supposedly aligning foreign and development policies. In a flourish feeding political meat to Tory right-wingers long hostile to DfID and the ring-fenced aid budget, his Commons statement dismissed aid as a “giant cashpoint in the sky”. He was also playing to the right-wing media with its dark role in fanning blanket public perceptions of most aid as a wholesale waste of money sorely needed at home.

Next have been the drastic cuts to the aid budget. With Covid affecting GNI in 2020, aid spending was always going to fall and it did. But under the cover of Covid, Johnson’s government launched another assault, aimed at crippling de facto the legally binding 0.7 commitment once and for all, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November 2020 that overseas aid spending would be cut to 0.5 per cent of GNI. The move faced widespread high-level opposition from across the political spectrum as well as from NGOs. It sparked parliamentary furore, with Conservative former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, leading opposition within Tory ranks.

Following a debate sprung on MPs at short notice, however, Johnson and Sunak thwarted the rebellion through a sleight of hand presenting the cut to 0.5 as temporary. They promised to lock-down restoration of 0.7 aid spending when the government was no longer borrowing to cover current expenditure and reducing underlying debt – an unlikely situation in view of current Covid-related public spending. The 0.7 pledge, retained in ghost form, has been pushed indefinitely into the political long grass.

Defending or disintegrating development?

The cut to 0.5, amounting to around an annual £4 billion a year or 30 per cent loss in aid spending, coincided with Johnson’s plans for a £16.5 billion surge in defence spending over the next four years, making clear where the government’s priorities lie.

The increase, also pre-emptively announced in advance of the government’s supposedly integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy finally published in March 2021, made a nonsense both of its arguments that the 0.7 aid level was unaffordable because of the UK’s tight economic circumstances and BBC coverage suggesting aid savings would be spent domestically on Covid recovery.

The cuts are inflicting serious damage on the UK’s development role, including in relation to conflict resolution and peace-building, which might have been expected to be a priority, given the security focus of the review. NGOs involved in this area are having to suspend or close programmes with local partners in several conflict-affected countries such as Myanmar and Somalia. NGOs, already reeling from existential funding uncertainties during 2020 in the context of Covid are now facing further retrenchment, as in the case of the UK’s development NGO network BOND.

The cuts also come at a critical time for other issues of supposed concern to the UK government. The Covid-19 crisis is corrosively exposing and compounding the vast range of long-standing problems already affecting the living conditions of people in the global South.

They include the increasingly visible damage of the climate crisis, brought into devastating relief by this month’s release of the latest Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s report with its last-chance warning of global catastrophe if carbon emissions are not drastically cut over the next 20 years. The aid cuts render hollow the government’s claims to moral authority and global political leadership in hosting November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Given the vast challenges facing the world, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals approved in late 2015, setting out the need for integrated policy action to benefit people, planet and peace through international partnership and coordination, are supposed to be an overarching framework for all governments to use to achieve full progress by 2030. The “integrated” review, however, while containing nods to the SDGs, makes clear that the UK’s approach to development, yet to be set out in a specific strategy so far not open to consultation, will be harnessed to the UK’s wider “national” interests and its ongoing competitive pretensions of being a “soft power superpower”.

The review acknowledges the need to uphold the OECD’s aid effectiveness principles, but the mounting nationalist approach of Tory governments has long endangered the requirement that aid be poverty-focused. There are major risks of a return to tied aid with all its corrupting effects. Even before the 2020 abolition of DfID and creation of the FCDO, major chunks of UK aid money were being channelled through other ministries as well as agencies such as the CDC, the UK’s private sector development finance body. The latter’s greater role has been the target of thinktank scrutiny and NGO criticism.

Coherent policies beyond aid?

The struggle for sustainable development, of course, does and must transcend the role of aid. In the absence of supportive policies in other arenas to tackle structural problems, aid cannot be a magic wand by itself. Civil society organisations across the world have long called for the policy coherence of all state endeavours with development progress.

Nonetheless, as Jonathan Glennie argues, it is crucial that the recent “beyond aid” narrative, surreptitiously deployed by aid donor governments to engineer the cutting down of their global responsibilities, does not cause this source of development finance to be whittled away. In calling for the term “aid” with all its paternalistic connotations of charitable Northern donors and grateful Southern beneficiaries to be dropped, he calls for proper levels of high-quality “global public investment” centred on achieving the ambition of the SDGs, with all countries having a fair say and making a contribution.

For now, the push to protect, increase and reform aid remains crucial. As the global Reality of Aid civil society network argues in its excellent latest annual review of trends, the effectiveness of aid and the overall aid system, along with largely stagnant aid flows, continue to be hampered by the pre-eminence of the geo-political and economic interests of rich country donors in shaping aid priorities and strategies. UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and their devastating impact on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen provide a particularly repugnant illustration of the contradiction with aid. Similarly, in recent years, UK Export Finance put £2 billion into fossil fuel projects, locking in carbon emissions.

Humanitarian assistance and resistance to change

The Reality of Aid report observes alarmingly that while the number of protracted humanitarian crises has doubled over the last five years, the international aid regime is still resistant to change. It cites as an example the so-called Grand Bargain originally launched at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit whereby aid donors and agencies pledged to better coordinate aid and boost its responsiveness through the much greater resourcing and participation of local organisations and affected communities. Along with other observers, it finds that the promise of new ways of working, also linking people-centred humanitarian action more coherently with broader efforts to promote sustainable development and peace, has largely not been fulfilled in practice.

With all eyes now on the challenges of Afghanistan, it remains to be seen how effective responses will be to countries perceived to be of lesser geopolitical significance such as Haiti, afflicted by yet another devastating earthquake now the focus of emergency appeals by UK solidarity groups and development NGO agencies still active in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region no longer a feature of the UK’s official aid map. Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 episode yet it is unclear whether the lessons of the thorny insufficiencies of the official international response to the event have been learnt.

Glasgow: a pivotal moment?

The UK’s development movement stands at a pivotal moment and how effectively it will rise to the challenging political environment described above remains to be seen. For all the problems, it can take heart from the fact that the UK’s contested role in global development co-operation has again been at the centre of political debate and made front-page headlines. This attention will continue as the Tory government prepares for the climate summit in Glasgow.

Jon Barnes is a freelance writer, editor and researcher who has worked with several international development and human rights NGOs. He recently wrote A Record of Change in a Changing World, a history of CIIR-Progressio, which closed after 76 years of work for international peace and rights-based sustainable development. Follow him on Twitter: @JonBarnes3

Image: Street traders go about their business in north-east Haiti as the country strives to recover from the 2010 earthquake. Photo credit: Jon Barnes.