Where Britain stands on foreign aid-development and why it matters worldwide

Prime Minister Theresa May signed her letter of notification to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union. (Credit: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright/flickr)

To a great extent, as goes Britain on foreign aid so goes the rest of the world.

That’s why what happens in the UK election today may have profound implications for the aid and development community. The polls continue to tighten on the day before Brits cast their ballots in the latest general election. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party are making a late challenge to incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservatives.

The election comes at a time when the U.S. appears to be retreating from the world’s stage, especially when it comes to aid and development, most notably on family planning and human rights. The U.K. is the world’s second largest donor, positioning it to become the world leader on ending poverty and inequity. Its spending priorities already influence other donors and directly impact countries that receive foreign assistance.

Foreign aid is not a major issue this election cycle, but there are subtle differences in priorities between the parties. The policy details matter because the winner will determine how U.K. aid money is spent for the next 5 years. For historical and traditional reasons, the direction Britain takes on aid and development often creates ripples of influence globally.

Policy platforms by the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and Scottish National Party (SNP) broadly agree that foreign aid is important. That should come as little surprise given the U.K. essentially invented the current international aid system as a part of its massive colonial project more than a century ago.

There is consensus on the issue of how much money the U.K. should spend on foreign aid. All four parties want to maintain pegging the foreign aid budget to 0.7 percent of the U.K.’s gross national income.

It is a target supported by the U.N. and was officially enshrined when David Cameron served as Prime Minister. There is still some opposition to the target from within parliament and from the conservative Daily Mail. But most every time aid spending comes under attack, leaders band together to defend it.

In April, some of May’s opponents questioned her commitment to the aid spending target leading her to deliver a public statement of support.

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“I’m very proud of the record that we have, of the children around the world that are being educated as a result of what the British taxpayer is doing, in terms of its international aid,” May said. “We maintain that commitment, but we have to make sure that we’re spending that money as effectively as possible.”

However, there is a twist. The conservatives say they will lobby to change the definition of aid established by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The rules for what counts as development assistance matter when a country sets out a spending target like the U.K. does.

Such a change to the rules aimed at including more kinds of ‘aid’ (think of military weapons as one example of what the U.S. government likes to categorize as ‘aid’) would allow the government to meet its spending commitment without really increasing spending on development assistance.

In practice, that could mean less money for the Department for International Development (DfID). The Cameron government released a plan in late 2015 that cut the proportion of aid money spent by DfID from 86 percent to 70 percent. At the same time, Cameron lobbied the OECD to change its rules for what counts as development assistance to include peace and security programs – some of which are carried out by the military.

They also agree on the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each party uses different language to commit to supporting the global goals that set out targets on health, education, poverty alleviation and more by 2030. The Labour party adds a wrinkle that it will publish annual reports on progress made towards achieving the SDGs.

The significant differences emerge based on priority areas for programs and funding. May is a longstanding supporter of efforts to end modern slavery. She announced a £33 million boost for combating modern slavery in the U.K. shortly after assuming office in 2016. It came on the anniversary of the passage of the Modern Slavery Act, a bill spearheaded by May that prioritizes ending slavery in the U.K. Her passion for the subject extends beyond the U.K.

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“Modern slavery is international and requires an international response,” May said in her speech announcing the new funding. “So rather than chasing individual criminals in Britain as they are reported, we need a radically new, comprehensive approach to defeating this vile and systematic international business model at its source and in transit, and we need to flex the muscle of all parts of the UK government and collaborate with international partners.”

As a result, modern slavery is one of the leading issues for the Conservatives. Other priorities include ending extreme poverty, reducing child deaths and support for girl’s education.

For the Labour party, it is concerned with tax reform, achieving universal health coverage and prioritizing poverty reduction. Tax havens and tax avoidance are an issue that gained notice in recent years. Aid groups and activists pressed on the Cameron government to take steps to stop corporations and individuals from moving money out of countries to avoid paying taxes. Estimates vary, but billions of dollars leave developing countries each year due to legal loopholes depriving governments money to pay for things like schools and health centers.

The push on tax havens led Cameron to make public comments calling for efforts to address the problem. But the issue is not a significant concern for May and gets little attention in the Conservative platform.

Liberal Democrats have similar concerns to that of Labour, but also mention eliminating preventable diseases and continued support for vaccine and family planning programs. The SNP elevates climate change, women’s rights and LGBTI rights in its platform.

Differing priorities between each of the parties indicates a potential shift in DfID programs depending on the electoral outcome. U.K. citizens concerned about foreign aid will take some solace in the fact that all of their choices will largely protect the budget and adhere to the global goals and programs established in recent years, including the Paris Climate Accords.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.