Where next for UK international aid after the cuts?
With less money in the aid budget, it’s more crucial than ever that we spend this vital, lifechanging funding in the best way possible.
It is a cliché to say how much the world has changed since March 2020. But nowhere is that more true than in the UK’s approach to international development. As Covid hit and the needs of communities in the world’s poorest countries grew, rather than rising to the challenge, the Conservative government merged the UK’s world-renowned Department for International Development with the Foreign Office.
It then cut our aid spending to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, and – despite the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent remaining on the statute book – introduced two near-impossible fiscal tests the UK economy must meet before restoring the target. In practice this amounts to an indefinite cut to the UK’s aid spending.
We need to understand where and how the aid budget is being spent
With less money in the aid budget, it’s more crucial than ever that we spend this vital, lifechanging funding in the best way possible. To do this, we need a clear strategy that places development at the heart of the UK’s broader international policy, and transparency that enables communities in countries around the world and UK taxpayers alike to know how that money is being spent.
The government’s long overdue Development Strategy should provide an opportunity to map out a set of clear aims for UK aid. I hope it allows the UK to adopt a front-footed approach to development, working collaboratively with low and middle income countries to recognise the challenges they face, from climate change to corruption, and to work with them in tackling these issues. In our interconnected world, any failure to do so will ultimately impact upon us here in the UK.
And we need this strategy more urgently than ever. The severe cuts to the UK’s aid budget over the last year appear to have been made with no underpinning principles to guide what is cut and what is saved. How else can we explain the stinging cuts to spending on girls’ education, a policy area the Prime Minister himself has championed?
With the budget squeezed so tightly, it’s imperative we safeguard the quality of UK aid. One of the strengths of the UK’s approach to development is the framework of legislation and rules that underpin it, from the International Development Acts to the development assistance committee rules. It’s a basic form of quality assurance that ensures UK aid meets internationally recognised standards. This framework must be embedded within the strategy, alongside a clear role for scrutiny bodies such as the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and my own select committee, to enable checks on the quality of aid spending.
To allow these checks to take place, we need to understand where and how the aid budget is being spent. This has been a continual source of frustration for my committee over the last year, with incomplete or contradictory information from the government about which countries and which projects will receive UK aid. We need clarity on the figures urgently, so imagine what it must be like for the NGOs running vital projects, uncertain if their work is about to be cut.
With the UK hosting multiple international presidencies this year, this should have been an opportunity to lead from the front in development policy. The US has voted to increase its aid budget. France has recently put into law its commitment to the 0.7 per cent target. With a smaller budget, UK aid will have to do more with less, spending in a more focused way to deliver for the poorest in the world.
Now is the time for Labour to set out our commitment to advocate on behalf of the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities, to create a fairer, more prosperous world for all.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Select Committee.
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