FCDO and the future of UK Aid
The UK international development sector is facing significant changes following the proposed reduction of UK Aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income and the merging of DFID with the FCO. On Tuesday 12th January, the Development Studies Association hosted a forum to discuss the challenges posed by such changes for the future of UK Aid and also for development research (the focus of a separate blog here).
Our panel included Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for International Development Preet Gill, Ranil Dissanayake from the Centre for Global Development, Melissa Leach from the Institute for Development Studies and Stephanie Draper, Chief Executive of Bond. The event was co-chaired by DSA President, Sam Hickey (GDI, University of Manchester) and DSA Council member Annalisa Prizzon (ODI) and attracted nearly 300 participants.
The webinar opened by exploring the effects of the proposed cut to UK overseas aid budget that were announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in November 2020. Preet Gill and Stephanie Draper both noted significant cross-party opposition to the cuts, which have yet to be enshrined in new legislation. However, Stephanie Draper highlighted that despite the “good chance that cuts will not make it through parliament” the government may “retrospectively claim that the 0.7% target couldn’t be met”, and enact the cuts regardless.
While it is unknown exactly which areas of aid funding may be affected, the reduction undoubtedly poses severe challenges to overseas aid and international development projects, particularly amidst the difficulties faced globally due to Covid-19. Preet Gill described the proposed cuts as “absolutely devastating” and highlighted the potential detriment of cutting aid funding to the UK’s international standing. She hoped that the inauguration of the Biden administration may “push the UK Government into thinking through its priorities on development”, albeit expressing worry that reneging on aid commitments will undermine the UK’s position as a leader in development on the global stage.
The importance of international aid to the UK’s position as a global ‘neighbour’ was echoed by Stephanie Draper, who described the funding cut as “a real tragedy”, and emphasised the severity of aid cuts on “marginal communities and vulnerable people throughout the world”. Stressing the on-the-ground impacts of the decision, particularly during a pandemic in which marginalised communities have disproportionately suffered, Melissa Leach said: “Covid has laid bare deep inequalities, intensified poverty and shown the problems that are also related to environment and climate … post-pandemic, aid is more vital than ever”.
Preet Gill was also critical of the cuts given recent polling demonstrating UK voter support for aid, particularly when ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. Challenging the Chancellor’s claim that it was hard to justify high-levels of aid expenditure to the British public, Melissa Leach pointed to a poll of ‘red wall’ voters, which revealed a much more nuanced picture. Stephanie Draper argued public support for aid needs to be much better communicated … there is a sense that people are not concerned about Britain’s role in the world, and we don’t think that is the case”.
While it remains unclear exactly where and how the cut will come into effect, Ranil Dissanayake said that when considering the future allocation of aid funding, the “what, how, and where [of spending] is a lot more important [than amount]”. He suggests cutting areas of the UK’s development portfolio that have proven ineffective, such as the Prosperity Fund and the Home Office’s use of the ODA budget, and to focus aid spending on low-income countries where it can be of most benefit. Funds that focus predominantly on middle-income countries offer less ‘value for money’ in development, a proposal Dissanayake detailed in a recent blog. Ranil also identified some modes of development research funding that should be cut, including GCRF and the Newton Fund (see forthcoming DSA blog).
The merger of the FCO and DFID couldn’t have come at a worse time for the development sector, argued Preet Gill: “rather than focusing on tackling the pandemic and reducing the number of direct deaths”, the merger presents “a very costly Whitehall restructure in order to distract the public from the Government’s mishandling of the virus”. Melissa Leach also expressed concern for the loss of a “culture of expertise that was so much a part of DFID, fought for and won over many years”.
Ranil Dissanayake shared optimism that while we are still unaware of what the new FCDO will look like, the merger may present “a possibility for doing more with a new kind of machinery, using diplomatic pressure, non-aid tools and pressuring across Whitehall to develop new tools”, but stressed “you did not need a merger to achieve this”.
The reduction in the UK international aid budget and the merging of the FCO and DFID both present challenges to the development sector during a time when international aid and cooperation is under enhanced strain and is undeniably incredibly essential to ensure vaccine equity. In this context, the DSA will continue to work with other leading development actors to ensure that the government’s approach to international development is kept under close scrutiny and subject to critical discussion and debate.
A blog on the panel’s discussion of the implications of these changes for development research can be found here.
By Ellie McLaughlin
Master’s student at the Global Development Institute.