Making Sense of the UK’s New International Development Strategy

The Foreign Secretary published the UK’s International Development Strategy on Monday 16th of May 2022, a long-awaited document that has been in the pipeline since the merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office, now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

This is the first major strategic publication since Liz Truss took the reins as Foreign Secretary in September 2021, and is therefore significant beyond its own vital utility as a substantive expression of her vision for the UK’s wider international positioning – building on the architecture she began to draft in her recent Mansion House speech.

What strikes me about this document is the sharped-edged nature of its focus on making the UK more competitive as an international partner, and the more expansive understanding of what ‘development’ investments can and should seek to target. Indeed, it makes bold reference to the UK’s “offer”, emphasising the UK’s special expertise as much as its funding commitments, and highlighting trade as a priority lever for sustainable growth. It is ambitious – urging ‘patience’ in the pursuit of long-term structural change – but it is also focused and nimble. This is a strategy that places values at its heart, but they are projected from a position of confidence and a quite sober, hard-nosed assessment of the geopolitical landscape. It is constructed with an eye to the UK’s strategic rivals and in the spectre of an existential battle to ensure the future of the liberal world order in the face of a rising global authoritarian influence.

Some in the traditional development community may balk at this framing. It makes no apologies in asserting that our values and interests should be aligned and working in symbiosis. One of the natural consequences of this strategy’s successful implementation would be the opening up of the development sector to a wider range of actors, including a stronger role for the private sector, and other organisations that have typically focused more on the nuts and bolts of international security. This would reshape the composition of the Government’s stakeholder base for international development, and could potentially redistribute the balance of power and influence within this sector.

This is not a strategy without compassion. For all the focus on the temporary reduction in the UK’s 0.7% GNI development commitment, the UK remains one of the leading global donors across a range of essential areas – perhaps most significantly, in the field of women’s rights and security, and girls’ education. These areas are singled out as particular priorities in this strategy, and we know that the Foreign Secretary has successfully secured a funding restoration for these programmes. There is also a clear intent to position the UK as a leading humanitarian crisis response partner, and global health and climate resilience are prominent priorities backed up by tangible initiatives.

What is striking about the themes prioritised within this strategy is their alignment with established areas of British national excellence, including medical and scientific research, renewable energies, innovation, biodiversity protection, and the administrative bread and butter of standards, regulatory frameworks, finance and the rule of law. This is the ‘integration’ agenda in action, which began with the merger of the departments and was advanced with the publication of the Integrated Review in March 2021. Such an approach in fact corresponds with the very strong sentiment being conveyed by the British people in the BFPG’s focus groups and polling, which we will be publishing more research on in the coming months. The idea is to create a more holistic approach to enhancing the UK’s domestic economic resilience while also deploying these same capabilities to support our international partners. It’s an efficient calculation, but also one that recognises that many of these areas of collaboration and knowledge-exchange become important foundations through which more explicit security and geo-strategic agreements can be forged.

It is important that we debate and critique this document and monitor the Government’s practical progress against its objectives. As with many other areas of the UK’s foreign policy apparatus, the primary obstacles to its successful implementation will be internal bandwidth and funding, as well as a fast-moving and increasingly fractious geopolitical environment precipitating a ‘crisis status quo’. Certainly, while this strategy reaffirms the intention set out in the Integrated Review to restore the nation’s 0.7% of GNI development commitment, it is obvious that HMG’s fiscal situation has deteriorated further since this pledge was made. It is also clear that the conception of development is fundamentally evolved by this document and therefore such a restoration would not necessarily see programmes that have been affected by the temporary reduction reinstated.

This International Development Strategy reflects some difficult choices that are being made in a climate of constrained resources. The UK Government will focus on the areas it believes that we are best-placed to succeed in – in large part, because of our established domestic expertise – and in the areas in which we can be most competitive against our strategic rivals. There are many regions and individual programmes that will necessarily be de-prioritised within this process, and which will have to be reframed as areas of burden-sharing with our allies. I have no doubt that this will ruffle some feathers, and that many compelling cases can be made for alternative priorities. In the spectre of the shocking invasion of Ukraine, it is also reasonable to expect that urgent new issues will be thrust into vision and that an appetite for flexibility and adaptation will remain essential.

There will be much renewed focus in the aftermath of the publication of this document on the Indo-Pacific, which clearly compels the Foreign Secretary’s interest and focus as an economic and security theatre. I would also argue that there will be many aspects of this strategic framework that can and should be activated in the planning we undertake to support the gargantuan humanitarian, governance and geopolitical task of the reconstruction and stabilisation of Ukraine in our own neighbourhood. Working closely with our allies, there will be an opportunity and an imperative to demonstrate both the British and wider Western ‘offer’ to support economic growth, open and cohesive societies, and a flourishing democracy, in a case study that we cannot afford to pass with anything less than flying colours.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.