The UK’s new development strategy is a good start but should be bolder

The white paper should help restore confidence in the UK’s approach to international development, but it ducks some central questions.

Expert comment Updated 5 December 2023 Published 27 November 2023 4 minute READ

The UK government has published its first white paper on international development in 14 years. A key goal is to restore confidence in the UK’s approach to international development since the tumultuous merger of DFID and the FCO and the 2021 cuts to the aid budget (which involved some contracts being broken mid-project). 

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s international development minister, has also sought to attract widespread support for his approach so that it might have a life beyond the next election, regardless of the outcome. However, meeting these goals has been constrained by a decision at the outset that the white paper should not involve any new public spending commitments.

What the paper does

The paper details the enormous scale of the development challenge now facing the world following the pandemic and global energy price shock, and in the context of accelerating climate change and rising conflict.

The development gains of recent decades are now under threat of reversal, but geopolitical tensions are hindering an effective international response

The development gains of recent decades are now under threat of reversal, but geopolitical tensions are hindering an effective international response, including through the multilateral institutions.

The paper sets out the UK’s response to this challenge built around pursuit of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). There is much to recommend it.

It sets out unambiguously that the goal of UK international development is to end extreme poverty and tackle climate change. Indeed one of the paper’s central commitments is to spend 50 per cent of bilateral overseas development assistance (ODA), and 0.2 per cent of gross national income (GNI), in the poorest countries. 

The paper also recognises that public finance will be scarce and needs to be used in the most effective way possible. It commits to supporting climate mitigation and adaption in developing countries through capacity building and initiatives which address the shortage of bankable projects, and by participating in new financing packages focused on just transition (JETPs).

It also largely avoids the boosterism of previous government statements. It implicitly frames the goal of the UK’s development efforts as a stable and prosperous global environment – which, in the long term will underpin UK security and prosperity – rather than specific business opportunities or addressing specific threats. 

While the paper calls for a ‘new approach’ to international development, based on partnership, transparency and mutual respect, a great deal of what it contains are restatements or extensions of existing policies. This is no bad thing insofar as the UK has a track record of good practice and accumulated experience.

The paper also states that the UK will pursue its development goals by drawing on its core strengths in science and technology, as the host of a global financial centre, and with an extensive diplomatic network. To some extent this is backed up through specific proposals.

There is a focus on making cash go further and making the international system work better for poorer countries

While there is no new money, there is a focus on making cash go further and making the international system work better for poorer countries, including by helping developing countries manage sovereign debt, an urgent need given roughly 60 per cent of low income countries are in debt distress.

What the paper does not do

However, in three important areas, UK development strategy needs to go substantially further than set out in the white paper. 

Firstly, on aid governance, the paper commits to make UK development policy consistent, long-term and built on trust with partner countries. But it does not explain how this will be achieved. 

Overall levels of spending on core priorities need to be predictable

Overall levels of spending on core priorities need to be predictable and the UK should never again be in the situation where individual country commitments are rapidly cut for budgetary – rather than strategic or policy – reasons. 

This may require a move away from linking aid spending to a specific share of UK GNI, whether 0.7 per cent or another figure, since this necessarily introduces volatility. For many countries, having certainty about aid commitments over time is likely to be at least as important as the actual quantity. 

But it will also require a mechanism to prevent a substantial share of ODA being pre-empted for essentially domestic spending on refugee accommodation in the UK, as has been the case since 2021, with spending on costs for refugees in the UK rising to almost a third of the aid budget in 2022. 

More clarity is also needed on how the UK will deal with situations where aid recipients adopt policies which conflict fundamentally with UK values.

Second – and connected – while the paper acknowledges China’s considerable role in international development, making nearly $500 billion in loan commitments between 2008 and 2021, it adopts a detached approach to the consequences, noting that China’s approach to development is ‘fundamentally different’ to the UK and that its activity often comes with drawbacks.

It states that the UK will ‘look for opportunities’ to influence China on its approach while resisting the risks China poses to open societies. 

However, given the centrality of China’s role in the global development architecture, the different perception of many developing countries to many in the west on the pros and cons of engaging with China, and the potential for mutual benefit arising from west-China cooperation, this lack of engagement is not fit for purpose.

The UK should work with its G7 partners… to make a much more comprehensive and concrete offer to China on development cooperation

Instead, the UK should work with its G7 partners, building on the outcomes of the Hiroshima Summit, to make a much more comprehensive and concrete offer to China on development cooperation. 

The offer needs to protect core western interests and clearly be of real benefit to developing countries. It may necessarily involve taking more risk than hitherto.

It cannot, for example, avoid addressing China’s voting weights in the IMF and World Bank. Lack of agreement on whether these should be adjusted to reflect China’s growing global economic weight blocked efforts to increase the resources of the two institutions at the recent annual meetings in Marrakesh. 

Article 2nd half

Third, though the paper focuses on extreme poverty and climate change, the UK should be bolder in considering how policies on these two issues interact: specifically, where advanced countries’ policies threaten the net zero transition in developing countries.  

The UK government is actively considering a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) – a carbon tax on high-emission imports. This is a major concern for developing countries who may rely on exports from ‘dirtier’ industries as part of their development strategy.  

The UK should show how this can be done in a manner which does not frustrate legitimate development objectives of developing countries. 

It should also use its oversight of London’s global financial centre to demonstrate how the vast flows of climate finance needed for the net zero transition in the developing world can be protected from corruption and weak governance.  

It should take a lead in helping the producers of critical materials… attract processing industries while preventing damage to the environment 

And it should take a lead in helping the producers of critical materials – many of which are developing countries – attract processing industries while preventing damage to the environment and other abuses. 

This could contribute to UK economic security and may involve working with other G7 countries to better fund basic research on cleaner, more cost effective, processing methods.  

None of the above proposals would require much, if any, new funding.  But taken together they could substantially strengthen the UK’s ability to meet its international development goals.