FCDO and the future of UK Aid: Implications for international development research
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 merger of DFID with the FCO. The Development Studies Association hosted a forum of development professionals to discuss the challenges posed by these changes for the future of UK Aid, which we discuss here, and the specific implications for development research, which is the focus of this blog.
Our panel of development professionals included Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for International Development Preet Gil, Ranil Dissanayake from the Centre for Global Development, Melissa Leach from the Institute for Development Studies, and Stephanie Draper, Chief Executive of Bond.
While it remains unclear exactly where cuts will occur, research is often considered an easy target, and whilst most panellists saw this as posing a real threat to understanding effective development processes, other participants suggested that certain modes of development research funding deserved to be axed.
Melissa Leach from the Institute for Development Studies recently spoke of the importance of retaining and strengthening the evidence-based foundations of UK Aid if the UK wishes to continue the DFID’s success in tackling poverty as part of the new FCDO. In the discussion, Leach made the case for the protection of DIFD’s strong commitment to development research: “research and evidence are vital for good development and value for money”. It helps by “ identifying the key challenges to make sure that they’re properly focused and prioritised, informing actual policies, practices and programmes on the ground – including identifying important innovations from multiple people and places to make development really happen, [and] how processes can be adapted to suit local realities and the learning that goes along with programmes.”
“The UK CDR set of 11 impact case studies showed that science and research have been critical in all of these areas, making huge contributions to improving the lives of people globally … we’re now seeing with Covid-19 that research crucially is not just about technical issues, but also about the social science intelligence that is helping us understand things such as secondary impacts, the governance dimensions of a Covid response, and information exchanges and how to manage those well.”
Leach also highlighted the importance of research in fostering an interdisciplinary, partnership focused approach to development to strengthen the UK’s response to global challenges, “It’s about building research and evidence into the process of development itself, it’s about equitable partnership and making sure evidence is mobilized for action in real time.”
“It’s also about mutual learning. Often we think of development as only applying to countries in the Global South and developing countries, and I think what global interconnections are demonstrating is that actually there’s an awful lot that the UK and middle-income countries can learn from the poorest countries as well as vice-versa.”
Questions regarding the allocation of remaining aid funds are heightened in the face of an impending budget that will place greater onus on ‘efficiency’. Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for International Development Preet Gil emphasised the importance of building partnerships for the effective translation of development research into solutions to provide the greatest possible benefit.
The effectiveness and ethics of ‘tied’ research funding that requires UK institutions to be the primary applicants is a particular point of contention in funding allocations. Responding to an audience question on whether the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) should be untied, Ranil Dissanayake argued, “far too much research is led by people from the Global North, without much participation from local researchers who will have very different insights as to what the most important questions are … absolutely all research should be untied, and we should be actively encouraging greater input from researchers in the Global South”.
Dissanayake described the Newton Fund and GCRF as funds that he would be “quite happy to see cut, if it means protecting some of the more effective parts of the portfolio”. However Leach argued that while in support of a full un-tying of funding, the GCRF is a huge and complex fund, “it’s an unfair accusation to tar all of GCRF with the same brush, I think it has helped to build capabilities among researchers in low and middle-income countries which will now enable them to step forward and lead these programs.”
What the future will look like for the UK’s development research remains uncertain, however it is clear that research, learning and plurality must remain central to development and be defended through both the FCDO restructuring and cuts to aid.
Read our blog on the panel’s discussion of the implications of these changes for the wider development sector here.
By Ellie McLaughlin, master’s student at the Global Development Institute.