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Boosting overseas aid spending is the best way to champion Global Britain


5 min read

While the United Kingdom battles a cost of living crisis, the world is facing more conflicts than at any time since the Second World War.

These conflicts are driving record levels of hunger, displacement, gender-based violence and humanitarian need, including biblical floods in Pakistan, a famine in East Africa and war in Europe. This is the challenge facing the new Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly. 

This turbulent time has thrown into sharp relief the need for UK Aid, and triggered discussions on how the current limited budget can be best spent addressing these crises. We believe there are a number of changes that the UK could make in its approach to aid to deliver more effectively on its foreign policy goals, provide better value for money for the British public, and support the most vulnerable communities around the world.  

By failing to adequately fund the response to certain crises, we leave a huge power and influence gap that can be exploited by others

The first change would be to spend at least half of the aid budget on fragile and conflict affected countries, such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen. These countries represent the greatest humanitarian need and by focusing here we can target aid support to those who need it most, and where it can have the greatest impact and prevent the worst effects of disasters.

The current situations in Afghanistan and East Africa are telling examples of why early intervention is so crucial and what happens when the international community does not adequately fund efforts to prevent looming disaster, leading to an explosion in humanitarian need then requiring much larger interventions. The UK should ensure that 50 per cent of its overseas aid spending goes to these fragile and conflict affected countries to support those most in need globally and prevent the worst effects of humanitarian disaster.  

Secondly, there is mounting evidence for the merits of prioritising funding and investment for countries before the worst happens with a focus on the prevention of crises, rather than just reaction. By investing in those countries most at risk of humanitarian disaster, we will encourage the development of resilient and economically prosperous societies and democracies – and ultimately prevent many of the crises that are driving so much need currently.

If we take a look at the situation in East Africa, we are currently facing the risk of famine in Somalia with the lack of investment in anticipatory action. But in 2016, when the UK’s Department for International Development played a vital role in galvanising action from other donors and encouraged organisations to scale up their responses leading to significant early investment, famine was averted. Using aid strategically, and before disaster strikes, will save both money and lives in the long term.  

Finally, following Liz Truss’ statement earlier this year - that “geopolitics is back” - and the Foreign Secretary’s activities at the UN General Assembly, it is evident that the pair will continue their approach to pursue a hawkish line towards China and Russia. Yet positioning the UK as a credible alternative to these partners will require greater investment in aid. By failing to adequately fund the response to certain crises, we leave a huge power and influence gap that can be exploited by others.

For example, we have already seen a growing relationship between Pakistan and Russia. Stronger diplomatic engagement with the Global South, including to counter hostile narratives from Russia and China, is an essential addition to defence and security in an effective response to the threats confronting the West. The Commonwealth could play an important role in this, but currently lacks clear purpose. The UK should avoid the temptation to define the grouping in terms of ideological values, but instead focus on tangible projects that provide benefits to partner countries.

We have seen traditional allies such as France, Germany and the US increasing their aid spending in recent years, recognising the opportunity to save more lives, but also to protect their own interests and keep countries in need from turning to other powers with more bountiful aid coffers.  

Addressing these crises will not be quick or easy, but the UK has long been lauded for its commitment to doing the work required to build a better world. Ultimately, increasing our aid budget will allow us to meet the growing scale of need globally, as well as enable Britain to further flex its diplomatic muscles. However, until this happens, we must use our aid strategically as possible.

To achieve this, the “D” in FCDO must be taken seriously. The appointment of Vicky Ford MP as minister for development is a welcome start, but now is the time for the new Foreign Secretary to set a new direction for development, to offer a credible alternative to China and Russia, and to invest in and support the most vulnerable people around the world. This is ultimately both good for Britain and good for the world.


David Lawrence, Chatham House fellow and Denisa Delic, director of advocacy at International Rescue Committee UK.

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