What to read on the new UK White Paper on International Development?

November 21, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

When I joined Oxfam in the mid-noughties, it was a time of Big Documents: The World Development Report, The Human Development Report etc etc. At regular intervals, the latest tome would thud onto my desk and require study, debate, lots of panels and press commentary. The tomes combined in-depth research and narrative – lots of narrative – about the nature and direction of international development. We would comb through for the good/bad bits (i.e. the parts that fitted our worldview, or the opposite). Oxfam and other NGOs even joined in, to a lesser degree, with their own lesser tomes.

That era has passed now – at least for me. Life has accelerated, attention spans have shortened. Awareness of the limitations of top-down development has grown. I haven’t read any of those big docs for years. So the arrival of the first UK Government ‘White Paper on International Development’ since 2009, launched on Monday, had a distinctly retro feel. I nostalgically skimmed its 149 pages, but then decided (back to short attention span) the best thing would be to put together a series of quotes and links to the more interesting commentaries/critiques to emerge (rather than those that just cherry pick or suck up to the government). Please add your own links in Comments.

Good blog post by ODI’s Mark Miller, who also tweeted ‘whole exercise feels a bit anachronistic to me. We will, we will, we will. Am not sure this sits that well outside the UK’:

The timing of this White Paper is obviously a bit odd. It is the first published during the 13 years of this Conservative government, and a year before an election that polls predict will be won by the UK’s main opposition Labour Party. And it is only 18 months since the publication of the International Development Strategy, which articulated ‘a new UK approach to international development’. I suspect this also might be the UK’s last White Paper on International Development.

The document’s primary purpose appears to be draw a line under some of the more tubthumping rhetoric on development of the recent past. Aid and development are once again to be celebrated, not denigrated as ‘a giant cash machine in the sky’ or deployed as a means to push back against malign actors. The case is made that a focus on ending extreme poverty (alongside climate and biodiversity) is in the UK’s national interest.

The document seems intended to demonstrate that the UK can once again be considered a reliable partner on the international stage. It is clearly much more internationalist in tone in its reaffirmation of the SDGs and the UK’s continued support for working through the multilateral system. Some of the most eye-catching commitments relate to calls for more ambitious reforms of multilateral development banks including commitments to general capital increases. The discussion around the governance of multilateral institutions hints at potential support for reconsideration of issues such as quotas and shareholdings.’

For BOND (the UK Int Dev NGO network),  Gideon Rabinowitz welcomed the commitments on the Sustainable Development Goals, refocussing aid on low income countries, boosting climate finance, more respectful and equitable development partnerships and reinvigorating the FCDO’s approach to partnering with civil society’. But then added some big caveats:

there is a nagging question of how they will be resourced when the UK aid budget remains at 0.5% of national income, with a third of this currently being used to support refugees in the UK. Universal access to basic services, for example, requires significant upfront investments now, and the government is not planning to return spending to 0.7% until close to the 2030 – the apparent end date for this White Paper, as well as the SDGs.

It also lamented the lack of commitments on tax, debt or trade: ‘the lack of ambitious policy in these areas suggests that key departments outside of FCDO did not take this White Paper seriously enough. This is a major concern, given the SDGs cannot be achieved without a whole of government response.’

Oxfam’s Katy Chakrabortty concurred:

We should have seen more ambition on debt, where private creditors are not being forced to change, and on taxation where developing country governments are spearheading a new UN-led global approach’. In a subsequent email, she added:

‘In many ways this reads like the government moving with the wider debate on development. We see partnership (if not quite decolonisation), we see localisation and funding women’s rights orgs (if not full gender justice) and we see what we would once have called policy coherence for development (though not enough). We see Covid, climate, conflict as the backdrop. But in any other document from any other major institution, we would have expected to see inequality in there –  it is a glaring omission.’

CGD’s Charles Kenny summed up his excellent twitter thread  as follows: ‘pretty good on ODA targeting and its uses, not bad on multilateral development banks and UN system, OK on trade, not terrible on investment, train wreck on migration.’

Evie Aspinall of the British Foreign Policy Group had some observations on the politics of the WP: The fact the White Paper wasn’t delayed despite the change in Foreign Sec says a lot about the importance Cameron places on international development. Cameron was a big advocate for 0.7% as PM + as his intro remarks make clear, he’ll continue that as Foreign Sec.’

For mood music, I liked Charlie Goldsmith’s summary and choice of graphic: back pointing in right direction (extreme poverty, SDGs); a floor of better attitudes (humility, localisation) established; respect for expertise and facts back in; new commitments will be for a new gov’t; FCDO a sadder and wiser engine.’

Finally, anti-White saviourism campaigner Themrise Khan made me smile with ‘Why the hell do they still call it a “white” paper?! Isn’t anything getting through?’, which got me googling the answer. Still not a good look though – time for a rebrand?

Over to you for more thoughts and links.

Update: Nice overview piece by Will Worley of The New Humanitarian

November 21, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. The author’s exploration of the shift in the approach to international development, especially in terms of the evolution in the size and nature of documents produced by organizations like Oxfam, is thought-provoking. It’s interesting to delve into the changes over time and understand how these shifts reflect broader transformations in the field. This analysis adds a valuable dimension to our comprehension of the dynamic landscape of international development.

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