Where to Next as the UK Government and the Aid Sector Face Off?

The Foreign Secretary’s appearance at the International Development Committee on Thursday 22nd April came at a fraught moment, with the aid sector still reeling from the decision to temporarily reduce the UK’s aid commitment from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%, and the consequences of this decision – and other cost-saving efficiencies – starting to become more visible and better understood.

The Foreign Secretary has emphasised that the decision to reduce this commitment was taken with a heavy heart and “sorrow”, and that it is driven entirely by the economic realities of the pandemic rather than an ideological mission. Nonetheless, despite the PM’s vision statement in the Integrated Review pledging to restore this commitment, the political outrage around the decision to reduce it in the first place has dominated much of the local and international coverage around the publication of the Government’s flagship foreign policy strategy. Despite considerable public support for the reduction – endorsed by 72% of Britons in the BFPG’s most recent surveys – the breadth of the diverse and often unlikely coalitions of support towards the 0.7% commitment is ensuring that the issue remains a subject of live debate in Westminster.

The concerns within the sector, and amongst the many Members of Parliament and former political leaders on both sides of the aisle incensed by the choice to reduce the 0.7% commitment, are varied in nature – which makes it more difficult for the Government to effectively and decisively diffuse the heat and attention circling around this decision.

Certainly, many in the aid sector will instinctively baulk at any effort to reduce the nation’s international development spending, regardless of the circumstances, and will question whether the decision to integrate DFID into the now-FCDO was ultimately driven by a desire to reduce aid budgets. Some are concerned that the pandemic only strengthens the arguments for robust investments in international aid. Others recognise the challenges inherent in the Government’s financial position and begrudgingly accept the need for a temporary reduction, but take umbrage at the vague expression of the tests for restoring the commitment, and wonder whether the Government is forging a loophole for itself that could tide it through to the next election.

Dominic Raab’s appearance at the IDC, alongside the FCDO’s Permanent Undersecretary Sir Philip Barton, was therefore always likely to be dominated by questions about the 0.7% reduction and its real-world consequences for our development programmes. The appearance itself yielded relatively little new insight, but it is the documents prepared to support the Foreign Secretary’s appearance at the Committee, leaked to the media, and/or submitted to its Chair in the aftermath of his evidence session, which have attracted feverish attention on social media.

The calculations are stark: budgets are being dramatically reduced across a range of programmes and regions, including in areas which have long been considered the ‘bread and butter’ of our aid expenditure, such as sanitation, reproductive health and family planning. The cuts feel especially deep, because the decision to reduce our commitment from 0.7% to 0.5% was trimming a budget that had already fallen substantially, as our GNI to which the commitment is pegged took a battering during the pandemic.

In the face of tough lines of questioning from Committee members, the Foreign Secretary kept himself steadied during his evidence session, continually referring to the dire situation with domestic finances – which the Government correctly recognises is its strongest hand to play with the British people. We know from our BFPG research that the activation of this zero-sum framework in pitting domestic and international spending against one another in a battle over scarce resources can be transformative in shifting otherwise ambivalent or even positive sentiment towards international development into a negative position.

Dominic Raab also took the opportunity to push back towards the aid sector itself around the issue of the potential impact of the spending reductions on the broader ecosystem of NGOs and other third sector delivery partners. As Committee members highlighted that jobs could be lost in both the UK and abroad, the Foreign Secretary made clear that the UK Government’s focus is directly on the individuals and communities we are seeking to support overseas, not to the charitable sector. This construction essentially separates one of the key dividends from international development – creating employment opportunities for Britons, and British private and third sector organisations – from the rationale underpinning development investment, grounding aid in a distinctly moral frame and implicitly questioning the motivations of parts of the industry.

Many Britons also share the view that foreign aid is essentially an act of benevolence, and indeed arguments of moral responsibility are often the most compelling to the population as a whole. The distinction between foreign aid itself and the sector that facilitates it, however, is not one that is often made for other areas of our international policy, such as trade, where these benefits in terms of employment both in the UK and abroad are made explicit. One could discern the inference that a well-paid and self-interested development sector is acting as a cumbersome middle-man between British tax-payers and individual aid recipients.

It will be interesting to watch whether this framing of the aid sector evolves over time, or becomes emblematic of a deterioration of relations. After months of bruising headlines, this tough line likely reflects an air of frustration on the Government’s side, which perhaps feels as though many international development actors are disconnected from the realities of domestic governance. In turn, the aid sector – which has been navigating the choppy waters of the DFID merger and must now recalibrate its operations again – believes the Government has failed to recognise the tangible costs of this decision on the UK’s soft power and its diplomatic capabilities.

Certainly, there are concerns that the 0.7% commitment was a powerful basis on which to forge relationships in developing nations, which are becoming increasingly important for our diplomatic, trading and strategic interests – particularly when our competitors and adversaries are seeking to make inroads to serve their own interests. A number of allied diplomats have raised questions about whether the UK’s Cop26 objectives could be affected. There is also the sense that the 0.7% commitment has been a powerful cover for all sorts of turbulence as the UK has navigated its way through the bruising Brexit years – a totem of our intentions that felt certain, immovable and resilient through even times of political upheaval.

As ever, the costs often scaling back commitments are often considerably larger and more painful than the direct reputational benefits that would be gained from having moved from 0.5% to 0.7% in the first place. The fact is that even after these spending reductions, the UK remains one of the most generous global aid donors. Our development programmes are regarded as impactful, of high quality, and empowering for communities, and we will continue to play a leading role in delivering humanitarian support to many vulnerable people around the world. The challenge for the Government is to be able to persuasively make this case through the noise of the critical headlines, which show no signs of letting up as the programme-by-programme fall-out makes itself known.

Certainly, the UK Government has not been especially ambitious in its efforts to engage with the British people on international development, and has historically shied away from speaking about our aid programmes – fearful of the tendency of the UK tabloids to focus on waste, not achievements. The irony is that, in this painful moment, the British people are being faced with the hard numbers of our spending reductions, which make for difficult reading, regardless of where you sit on the question of aid spending more generally. It is not outside the realm of possibility that there could be an opportunity in this financial crisis to give greater visibility to the valuable work that the UK development sector has been undertaking, and the incredibly positive impact that these initiatives have had on our reputation and wider strategic interests.

The relationship between the UK Government and the aid sector appears to be in an especially difficult stage of its evolution, and one suspects there are no quick fixes to these disagreements. It is important to recognise the diversity of opinion within the sector: no doubt, there are many aid and development organisations who appreciate the pressures of the pandemic, and are keen to work constructively with the Government to ensure our hugely valued investments continue to transform lives and communities. It is in everyone’s interests to work towards a détente and point of mutual understanding, so we can ensure that the very good work that is being done by many committed individuals and organisations can receive its proper recognition, and both the Government and the sector are able to work hand-in-hand as allies on an agenda for which Britain has the right to be proud.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.