The International Development White Paper: 10 Key Insights

Today, the UK Government released its latest White Paper – ‘International Development in a Contested World: Ending Extreme Poverty and Tackling Climate Change’. The first International Development White Paper for 14 years, it is designed to provide a roadmap for the UK’s international development agenda through to 2030. The central premise of the White Paper is that the current geopolitical landscape – characterised by the impacts of conflict, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic – has made international development more important but also more difficult than ever before. The White Paper is designed as a blueprint for how the UK and its partners can, and should, do things differently on international development.

Below are BFPG’s key takeaways on the White Paper and its implications for the UK’s international development activities and wider foreign policy agenda.

1. Development is back at the heart of UK Foreign Policy 

Foreign Secretary David Cameron only took office a week ago, having been out of frontline politics for seven years. It is remarkable then that the White Paper has still been released on schedule – a testament not only to the hard work of FCDO civil servants who must have done some frantic last-minute rewriting, but also to the importance David Cameron places on international development. Prime Minister Cameron led the first Government to reach the target of spending 0.7% of GNI on international development and was a fierce defender of the UK’s international development activities, even in a time of austerity. His foreword to the White Paper is one of the most illuminating parts of the whole strategy, arguing that international development is both part of the UK’s “moral mission” and “essential for our own security and prosperity”. Cameron’s appointment, his foreword and the timely release of this strategy suggest that development is, once again, recognised as a key part of the UK’s international agenda.

2. Partnerships are the new leadership

The most substantive difference between the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review and its 2023 refresh, was the demise of the focus on ‘Global Britain’. Instead of the UK ‘going it alone’ post-Brexit, the 2023 Refresh focused much more heavily on building and strengthening the UK’s global partnerships. This shift in tone and focus is reflected in the International Development White Paper. There is no mention of Global Britain, and even the broad concept of British leadership barely gets a mention.  

Mirroring the concept of patient diplomacy in the UK’s wider international relationships, the White Paper focuses on the need for ‘long-term reliable and equitable relationships’ in international development. The White Paper advocates for a move away from donor-recipient models of aid towards partnerships built on mutual respect, which place greater value on the voice, perspectives and needs of developing nations. A central part of this is the movement towards localisation, with the White Paper committing to releasing a Strategy on how the UK will support local leadership on development, climate, nature and humanitarian action.

3. Unlocking (non-governmental) funding for International Development

The UK aid budget has been under significant scrutiny in recent years with very public debates around the decision to move away from spending 0.7% GNI on aid and development. Heading into a likely election year it is unsurprising that the White Paper does not recommit to 0.7% in the immediate term, given such a spending commitment has very little public support. Nonetheless, the sector is struggling with very real resource constraints. Having peaked in 2019 at £15.1 billion, the aid budget fell to £12.8 billion in 2022, with 29% of the aid budget now being spent on housing refugees in the UK.

The White Paper therefore looks to address some of these resource challenges without mobilising any additional Government funds. To do this it advocates for a range of initiatives including reforms to Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) in line with the G20 Review of MDB Capital Adequacy Frameworks, scaling up of International Financial Institutions, making better use of pre-arranged finance schemes, and championing increased access to climate finance for the regional risk pools. 

The White Paper also advocates for smarter use of the UK’s own funds. One of the biggest announcements in the White Paper is a commitment to spend at least 50% of all bilateral ODA in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). This will help ensure development assistance is better targeted at poverty alleviation. Meanwhile, a new “resilience and adaptation fund” will take up to 15% of the UK’s humanitarian aid provision, facilitating investment in longer-term development solutions.

4. The Sustainable Development Goals are front and centre

The Sustainable Develoment Goals (SDGs) are barely mentioned in both iterations of the Integrated Review, the International Development Strategy, and the International Women and Girls Strategy. However, they re-appear with force in the White Paper, as the core theme underpinning the UK’s development priorities. Their importance, and the constraints facing their achievement, mark the opening of the strategy, and the practicalities and pledges for delivering them run throughout. With only 15% of the SDG indicators currently due to be met, the entire SDG framework is in dire need of renewed impetus, which this paper seeks to provide.

A strong clarity of purpose and commitment to the SDGs cuts through, and within that an authentic commitment to a whole-of-UK-approach. From the private sector to civil society, academia, NGOs, cities and regional administrations, the Government looks set to utilise its full armoury to push towards the 2030 goals. The global focus of the SDGs have been consciously harnessed within the White Paper to mark the start of a more inclusive approach to international development, based on a clear and universal vision. 

5. A Warm(ish) Welcome from Labour

A White Paper is meant to be a long-term strategic document and the success of this White Paper is contingent as much on securing buy-in from the next government (widely expected to be Labour) as on securing support from the current government. The cross-party engagement involved in the writing of the White Paper is clear and much of its content aligns closely with Labour’s views on international development. Shadow International Development Minister Lisa Nandy’s focus on ‘respect’ and ‘partnership’ is reflected very clearly in the White Paper, not least through the focus on equitable partnerships. Furthermore, given Nandy’s emphasis on focusing aid on those most in need, the commitment to spend at least 50% of all bilateral ODA on the least-developed countries, and the focus on global poverty will no doubt be welcomed by Nandy. This is a White Paper designed to survive a change in Government and it looks like it will be able to do so.

6. Limited Concern about Public Opinion

Upon taking up his role as Minister for International Development, Minister Mitchell placed a significant focus on public opinion on international development – pledging to increase support for the UK’s international development activities from 50% to 70%. Given public support for international development is notoriously low, it is very vulnerable to electioneering, particularly at times of economic challenge. Heading into a likely election year, securing public support and consent for the UK’s international development activities is more important than ever and it is disappointing therefore that Mitchell’s commitment around building public support does not feature in the White Paper. Indeed, while the White Paper references public support in regard to the rebrand of UKDev, very little attention is given to how to engage the British public on the strategy or on how to build support for international development more broadly. 

7. A Focus on Conflict and State Fragility

During his time as Prime Minister, David Cameron allocated 50% of his administration’s aid budget to fragile states and regions. Since leaving office he has made conflict and state fragility a key part of his work, co-leading the Council on State Fragility and chairing the LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development. It is unclear how prominent the focus on conflict and state fragility was in the White Paper before Cameron became Foreign Secretary but it is notable that it has a prominent role in the final draft of the paper, with a whole chapter dedicated to the topic. The White Paper strongly reiterates the UK’s commitment to tackling the causes of conflict, instability and radicalisation, championing peace and stability and adopting a whole-of-society response to Ukraine. Given the strong focus on conflict and state fragility in the White Paper and Cameron’s own commitment to this issue, this is likely to be a prominent theme in the UK’s international development and wider international activities moving forwards.

8. Focus on Women and Girls Firmly Embedded in UK Foreign Policy

The International Development White Paper further embeds the UK’s focus on promoting the rights and safety of women and girls internationally, which are described as “universal and should be non-negotiable” by Minister Mitchell. Amongst other things, the paper commits to leading a ‘Rights, Freedom, Potential’ campaign to counter the rollback of women and girls rights globally, and to changing the UK’s approach to partnerships with local organisations to enable women and girls to drive the change they want to see in their communities.

Having been a particular priority for Prime Minister Johnson, any concerns that women and girls’ rights would fall down the UK’s international agenda were alleviated by the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh and by the release of the UK’s International Women and Girls Strategy earlier this year. But the prominence, once again, of women and girls in yet another foreign policy strategy makes clear that, even amidst domestic political turbulence, women and girls remain high on the agenda. Strikingly too, Lisa Nandy has been very vocal in her support for women and girls in the UK’s international development work, suggesting that we’ve now reached the stage where the focus on women and girls is firmly embedded as part of the UK foreign policy, rather than viewed as a Johnson passion project.

9. Growing Recognition of the Importance of AI

The UK hosted the first ever global AI regulation Summit earlier this month, which produced an international declaration to work together on AI safety research, signed by 28 nations. As the UK looks to cement itself as a leading regulator in this emerging field, it is notable that a whole chapter of the White Paper is dedicated to harnessing innovation and digital transformation, within which AI consumes significant attention.

The White Paper outlines the need for innovative multi-stakeholder approaches and international partnership efforts to leverage AI solutions that safely and inclusively accelerate progress towards the SDGs. The White Paper pledges to promote responsible and inclusive AI, including through the Global Partnership on AI and a new flagship programme on AI for Development. The elevated position given to AI and the wider digital environment in the White Paper sends a clear signal that AI and technological innovation is seen to be a growing international priority for the UK, across the full suite of its international activities.

10. Another very long document!

Not for the faint hearted, the White Paper is a mammoth 149 pages long and does not (currently) include an executive summary. Given the turnaround for this White Paper was remarkably short, its length seems to reflect a lack of time to edit down, an important process for any strategic document. The paper itself is at times hard to follow and in turn, it can be hard to discern what exactly the message and priorities of the White Paper are. This poses a challenge for potential partners in engaging with and understanding the priorities of the White Paper – very few will have the time and energy to read the full report. Of course, in time, articles like this will hopefully help to distil the key messages of the paper and make them accessible to a wider audience. However, and this goes for Government strategies across the board, the White Paper could have benefitted from a longer process of refinement, a narrower scope and a clear set of priorities and commitments, to maximise its impact.

BFPG hosted a panel on the 21st November, to discuss the White Paper and its recommendations. A recording of the event is available here

Evie Aspinall and Eliza Keogh