The Election Debate on…International Development and Aid

The next UK government is set to inherit an international development function that is deep in recovery. The reduction in aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of the UK’s GNI in 2021, and the merger of DFID and the FCO to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in 2020, have left the UK scrambling to redefine and rediscover its ambitions for international development. 

No doubt the appointments of staunch development champion Andrew Mitchell as Minister of State in 2022, and Lord Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary in 2023, have brought some much needed stability, with the pair looking to put development back at the heart of UK foreign policy. Moreover, the release of the much-anticipated and broadly well-received International Development White Paper (IDWP), with its commitment to women and girls, authentic partnerships, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the desire to return to 0.7%, indicated that international development is, slowly, regaining its feet.

But just as it does so, the UK has been plunged into a general election. So what do the parties believe when it comes to development? And what could the election mean for the UK’s international development ambitions?

When it comes to development spending, Labour and the Conservatives are broadly aligned. At the top level, both the Conservatives and Labour have stated a desire to return the international development budget to 0.7% of GNI in their manifestos, but recognise the current fiscal constraints and remain vague in regards to deadlines, pledging only to do so when “fiscal circumstances allow”. Plaid Cymru is the only party that demands the 0.7% be reinstated immediately, while the Green Party goes the furthest and pledges to increase international development spending to 1% of GNI by 2033.

In their overarching priorities, there is a lot of consensus too. Poverty alleviation is a top priority for both. It is a major focus of the International Development White Paper, which advocates for better targeting of spending to maximise poverty alleviation, pledging to spend at least 50% of all bilateral overseas development aid (ODA) on the least developed countries (LDCs). Meanwhile Labour – Lisa Nandy in particular – has been pushing a poverty-focused approach to development, with a pledge to take a “more strategic approach” and to reduce the number of foreign countries receiving international aid, focusing in turn on the LDCs. One way Labour will look to free up funding for poverty reduction is by preventing the development budget being “raided” by other departments, such as the Home Office using ODA on refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. 

Women and Girls also remain high on the UK development agenda for both main parties. The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, the 2024 UK’s International Women and Girls Strategy, the International Development White Paper and now the Conservative manifesto all present women and girls as a key theme for development moving forward under the Conservatives. Lisa Nandy too has been vocal in her support for women and girls and the Labour manifesto flags empowering women and girls as a priority area for its ambitions for international development function, suggesting that we are now at a stage where this is a priority firmly embedded in UK foreign policy. 

Looking beyond priority themes, inevitably, discussions of the Conservatives’ decision to merge DFID with the FCO have resurfaced in the campaign. The Conservative manifesto clearly states that no demerger will take place. Labour too, while formerly very vocal in its critique of the merger, going as far as committing to reverse the merger in 2022, has largely backed away from any recommitment to demerge. Labour is, however, rumoured to be exploring whether a separate agency within the FCDO itself could be set-up in an attempt to repair the UK’s “tarnished” development reputation, without going through the clunky and potentially destabilising process of de-merging the two departments again. What that might look like in practice remains to be seen.

Finally, closely entwined with international development is the broader approach to UK soft power, and its usefulness in cultivating a stronger UK image abroad. The Conservatives have pledged a new Soft Power Strategy, whilst Labour will look to introduce a new Soft Power Council, both aimed at enhancing the UK’s reputation abroad. While their plans are largely unsubstantiated, the references to soft power do indicate both parties’ recognition of its important role in the UK’s international offer, and by association, its development offer. Effective government prioritisation of international development will go a long way in strengthening the UK’s soft power – from exhibiting leadership on climate and the energy transition, to more effective development finance – and as such, both potential administrations would benefit from an integrated and joined-up approach to the UK’s multiple internationally-focused functions.

Despite cross-party recognition that international development must return to the heart of UK foreign policy though, there has been little discussion of development during the election campaign. That is perhaps unsurprising – 61% of UK citizens believe that spending on international development distracts from issues at home – and it is hardly therefore a vote winner. Nevertheless, any new government will quickly have to grapple with how the UK should position itself on the world stage, and in turn, how it should prioritise its development spending, and how much to spend on it. With a difficult fiscal environment and growing geopolitical challenges, that will be a challenging task.

View BFPG’s full Election Watch series here

Max Twyman

Max Twyman is the Programmes and Events Manager at British Expertise International