Why a new report on UK aid reform is contradictory, evidence free and full of holes

February 18, 2019 2 By Duncan Green

Since the UK’s commitment to the international aid budget was set in law at 0.7% of Gross National Income, debates have shifted from ‘how much?’  to ‘how should we spend it?’ A new report calls for a seemingly radical shake up of how UK aid should be spent. Oxfam’s Gideon Rabinowitz explains what’s at stake, and why simplistic solutions are not all they seem.

The latest salvo in the debate about the future of UK aid was fired last week by a report, co-authored by Bob Seeley (Conservative MP) and backed by Boris Johnson (former UK Foreign Secretary, and Conservative MP), which called for a significant shake-up of UK aid spending.

The Report – “Global Britain: A 21st Century Vision” – published by the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), calls for the UK Department for International Development (DfID) to be re-integrated into the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), for UK aid to increasingly promote UK strategic interests and for the UK to apply its own definition of Official Development Assistance (ODA), breaking with the rules applied by the OECD for more than half a century.

In common with similar recent interventions on this agenda, the Report does not explicitly call for dropping the 0.7% aid target (although one could view its proposals to fundamentally change the definition of aid as an effort to do just this). This suggests that the battle lines on UK aid are moving from a debate about how much we spend on aid to questions about these resources are used globally.

Generally, this Report displays some major contradictions, a paucity of evidence to support some its of its major claims and proposals, some significant blind spots and a self-defeating approach to reforming UK aid policy.

Nevertheless, it’s part of a valuable conversation about how we shape a vision for Britain’s place in the world’.  It calls for Britain to continue to play a leading global role post-Brexit.  It makes a passionate case for Britain to take a values driven approach to foreign policy – include promoting “Freedom from Oppression” and “Freedom of Thought”. It also robustly champions the global rules based system.

So, why am I ultimately unconvinced by the HJS’ analysis and proposals?

Contradictory visions for Global Britain

A number of the Report’s central proposals contradict its vision for Global Britain.

In calling for a watering down of the development focus of UK aid (an inevitable outcome of reorienting UK aid towards better addressing Britain’s interests), it undermines efforts to address basic human needs, reduce poverty and empower the poor and marginalised, which are surely a key element of the goals to secure freedom from oppression and freedom of thought.

Also, in calling for a break with the OECD’s (largely flexible and well governed) rules on ODA, it undermines an important element of the rules-based global system that it seeks to so vigorously defend.

Should that read ’19th Century’?

Where is the evidence?

Then there are a number of notable sweeping statements made with little or no evidence to back them up.

Perhaps most significantly, there is the conclusion that the move to “establish DfID as a separate department in the late 1990s was an error”, a statement made without reference to evidence and ignoring DfID’s significant successes and its status as one of the premier global development agencies.

There is also the statement that the OECD’s ODA rules only allow for aid to be used for economic cooperation and there is significant UK spending unreasonably excluded from ODA figures. However, in reality cultural and political cooperation is a major element of UK ODA (the British Council’s budget is almost wholly reported as ODA) and most of the exclusions are due to departmental spending not taking place in a developing country and not being focussed in any way on development! UN peacekeeping contributions are arguably an exception and do deserve more discussion.

Significant blind spots

For a Report that claims to be setting a 21st century vision it fails to address a number of important issues.

There is one very general reference to climate change, which surely has to be one of humanities greatest challenges during this century and should have been kept in mind when discussing the the role of the UK in the world in the coming decades’

There is also an unwillingness to in any way recognise and respond to the challenges of those left behind by current economic models and global inequality. The defence of the current economic model and free trade is unequivocal. However, the evidence and consensus is growing that these systems and policies need adapting to spread their benefits.

Self-defeating approach to aid

The proposal to re-absorb DfID into the UK Foreign Office and re-orient UK aid spending towards better addressing UK strategic interests is self-defeating for a number of reasons.

Firstly, such an approach could easily undermine public support for aid, given that the UK public overwhelmingly want aid to be spent on the poorest people.

Secondly, watering down the brand of DfID, a global development leader, could undermine the UK’s ‘soft power’ – the moral authority and leadership it can exert elsewhere in the international system because of its reputation on aid.

Thirdly, this step could undermine the effectiveness and value for money of UK aid. DfID is a global leader on issues such as aid transparency and the FCO a laggard (a point well made by Huw Merriman MP – see tweet), and there is research suggesting that independent and/or specialised development agencies promote high quality aid.

Finally, weakening the development focus of UK aid undermines its ability to support countries to find their own solutions to development challenges over the long-term, which is surely not in the UK’s national interest.

The key question addressed by this Report – how the UK should deepen its engagement in a changing world post-Brexit – is one that needs more air time, so that we can limit the risks of Britain’s global ambitions waning at this critical juncture in its history.

But this report does not deliver that; the theme requires much more open, evidence-based and comprehensive treatment, and an honest acknowledgement of what is at stake and at risk in a radical shake-up of UK aid spending.