Money, ministries and meh: how might the election change UK development policy?

June 27, 2024

     By Andy Sumner     

Will DFID be reborn? When will the UK restore the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid? Andy Sumner of King’s College London casts an eye over the manifestos of the main parties…

The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in Whitehall, London (Picture: FCDO/Creative Commons)

The UK general election is at hand but there’s been little attention to foreign and development policy. What are the main political parties pledging? Here, I examine their manifestos to assess how UK policies and priorities could shift.

First, let’s talk about money…

The Conservatives and Labour have recommitted to spending the UN aid target of 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) as soon as UK finances “allow”. And there’s the rub.  Over the parliamentary term of five years, the tests to allow this will almost certainly not be met, nor would they have been in any of the last 20 years). Therefore, not surprisingly, manifestos are vague on the timeline. The current spend is 0.58 percent of GNI (£15.4 billion a year), which is above the OECD DAC average. However, it’s notable this number includes a £2 billion boost, allocated by the Chancellor to help cover elevated refugee costs. 

There is also not much said about the fact that over half of all UK bilateral aid is now spent in the UK. Yep, you read that right. Over £4 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total UK aid budget is being spent on refugee housing costs. With small boat crossings rising again, and no clear plan to reduce costs (Labour dropped plans to allow asylum applicants to work after six months as many other countries do), this will be an ongoing problem. 

If we discount such refugee costs, more than £7 billion per year extra is needed to get to 0.7: £4.3bn replacing refugee costs, plus £3.2bn. If refugee costs are included, the UK is – tantalisingly – only £3.2bn away, which sounds almost plausible.

The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party have pledged 0.7 percent of GNI on aid spending in their manifestos, with the Greens pledging one percent. If any of these parties find themselves in a coalition, there is potential for a rise. Conversely, Reform have pledged to halve the aid budget.

If UK ODA spend isn’t increased what would be the implications? It could mean efforts to ensure the spending that is available for ODA is refocussed on the poorest countries or conflict-affected places, but it could also mean more attention to policy coherence (arguably a much tougher thing to do, e.g., debt rules in the city of London, tax havens and trade policy).

Second, ministries…

Will the UK resurrect the former Department for International Development in a DFID 2.0? The DFID merger (read takeover) with the Foreign Office in 2020 apparently took place without any planning and, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, noted it had led to a dominant foreign policy culture, a loss of expertise, a decline in transparency, less focus on evidence and the risk of a large loss of institutional memory. Staff engagement tanked following the merger and is only just now recovering.

The Conservatives would continue with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as it is, while the Liberal Democrats commit to re-establishing an independent DFID 2.0. Labour say they will “strengthen” development work within the FCDO. What does that mean? It could imply a more radical ministry for international affairs or simply mean the FCDO has a stronger development angle within it, such as a commitment to cross-government coherence and ownership. Alternatively, it could establish an independent development agency within the FCDO, giving that body a degree of freedom from foreign policy. It’s not clear which Labour is edging towards.

The Conservatives seem to have committed to the international development minister continuing to attend cabinet (in fact Andrew Mitchell also has the title of Deputy Foreign Secretary). Labour is almost in the same place on this. Though it’s not included in their manifesto, this letter from Shadow minister Lisa Nandy, released after the manifesto was published, states that “a Minister in Cabinet will lead on development within the FCDO.”

Third, motives (and thus, vision)… 

How might the motives or drivers and thus the vision of UK development policy change? There does seem to be some clear water between parties in the sense at the Conservatives want to add a UK-first proviso that all aid spending would meet a new “national interest test”, though they haven’t said what this may entail. There is also a pledge to a new “Soft Power Strategy”, again this isn’t defined but presumably these policies are to appeal to an aid-sceptical audience – as Reform have by saying they want to halve UK aid.

The Conservatives also say they would push for debt relief, building on the recent FCDO White Paper and – seemingly at odds with the conditions around national interest – focus on poverty and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), supporting marginalised groups, gender equality, global health and contributing to climate finance. And support the BBC World Service.

Labour don’t adopt a UK-first approach but instead stress global leadership through the multilateral system and respect, partnership and common interests with the Global South. This could be significant, as the new European Commission leans right, populist sentiments in many countries continue to grow and there is the possibility of Trump winning the US presidential election in November. 

Soft power also gets a mention though with reference to cultural institutions (sounds like the BBC again). Policy priorities similarly include promoting economic development, addressing debt, reducing conflict, ensuring climate finance, and gender equality. All the usual ones.

In fact, there is almost a sense that there is a template for manifesto sections on development policy: say something about recommitting to 0.7 but don’t say when; say something on poverty, SDGs, gender equality, climate and conflict; and finish by saying it’ll all be effective, transparent and value-for-money.

In terms of global leadership, the Liberal Democrats go further, saying they will restore the UK reputation as a development “superpower” and that gender equality will be at the “heart” of foreign policy (though not much on what that means).

So, in conclusion, meh? 

Will anything change by that much? What can we be sure of?

We may get a better idea of the next Government’s approach and its appetite for multilateral leadership in upcoming multilateral events. Almost immediately after the UK election there’s the UN High Level Political Forum on the SDGs which may face a decision on whether, given current trends, the timeline to meet the SDGs needs to be extended beyond 2030. Shortly after, the UK will host the European Political Community (maybe a security pact extended with a development dimension anyone?). September is the UN Summit of the Future. Then in November, there’s a need for a new climate finance goal at COP29 (that will in turn motivate emissions reductions plans in developing countries due by next February). December is the replenishment of one of the most significant pots of development funds, the World Bank’s IDA.

Meanwhile the only thing we can be confident of is that overseas aid won’t rise any time soon, which could mean more attention to policy and the UK’s broader relationship with countries in the Global South – not just the 30-40 countries where ODA really matters and which account for about half of global poverty. In most countries in the Global South, ODA no longer really matters that much. So, less focus on the precise spend might be a good thing (as long as it doesn’t fall further). And – more importantly – in the event of a realignment of the right of UK politics, less focus on aid spending and more focus on policy, its coherence and global leadership might be politically astute too.

A version of this blog was posted on the CGD blog. Many thanks to Ian Mitchell and Maya Verber for comments and inputs.


Leave a Reply