Why NGOs must sell the power of aid for Global Britain
This month marks a major milestone in the evolution of British foreign and international development policy as Global Britain readies to make its mark on the world in a way the UK hasn’t done in a generation. For the first time in more than 20 years, there is no standalone Department for International Development (DFID) with it formally subsumed into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Established in 1997, DFID was part of Tony Blair’s drive for a more ethical foreign policy and subsequent Governments, including Conservative ones, proclaimed the value of international aid in expanding the UK’s soft power. With the dissolution of a standalone office – and Cabinet Minister, what this means for the foreign aid budget and for global aid organisations is a question still being answered.
The UK’s aid budget is mandated at 0.7% of the UK’s GDP and – before the Covid-19 pandemic – was on course to total £15.8 billion this year. With Government having to look at how it funds the economic recovery from Covid-19, and clarion calls from some for charity to begin at home, there have been fears that the dissolution of DFID could lead to a cut in the UK’s foreign aid budget. With reports that some Ministers are pushing to redefine the internationally agreed definitions of aid spending, there has never been a more important time for the UK aid sector to press its case for continued funding. Speculation from the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall is that there is pressure to expand the definition of aid in the UK to include military and defence spending, such as enhanced cyberweapons and AI-enabled drones, to link the UK’s soft power with hard power.
Despite the speculation, we understand a cut in the UK’s aid budget is unlikely to happen, for the time being. Several influential Tory MPs are proud that it was David Cameron’s Government who wrote the 0.7% pledge into law. To stave off an unnecessary – and political damaging backbench rebellion – both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have re-committed the Government to this figure.
That said, we can probably expect to see changes in where that foreign spending is allocated. As the UK continues its negotiations with the EU, and expands its trade negotiations with Asian and Pacific allies, we can expect to see that foreign aid will be more closely linked to the Government’s foreign and trade policy interests of the UK. When announcing the merger, the Prime Minister said that UK foreign aid spending had been treated as a giant cashpoint in the sky and that it didn’t have any link to the UK’s values or interests.
With Johnson keen to streamline foreign policy, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab willing to accept the challenge, we’re starting to see the Government describe the distinction between aid and foreign policy as artificial and outdated.
While the UK’s foreign policy priorities (beside Global Britain and securing free trade deals) remain uncertain, there is a window to have a say in what matters. As part of the merger, the Government has launched a review, due to conclude in the autumn, to determine the objectives of the newly expanded department. It will be the biggest review of the UK’s foreign, defence and development policy since the Cold War.
There is no doubt, the merger could present opportunities for NGOs to help define the UK’s foreign policy priorities and where foreign aid sits alongside that. There could be real value – both in social and political terms – in linking aid in war-torn countries to political efforts to secure a ceasefire, or in linking aid to alleviate poverty to political efforts to promote human rights and tackle corruption. A recent example of diplomacy and aid complementing each other is the French intervention in Lebanon, sending aid while pushing for political reform to end corruption.
NGOs must make the case for how targeted aid can be of vital national interest to the UK. Our specialist International Development team has experience working with NGOs to demonstrate the power of aid and philanthropy to Government and key decision makers. We know it’s important to demonstrate to Government just how an integrated approach that links sustainable development with good governance helps it realise its Global Britain ambitions. Not only does it provide in-country relief and support, but it generates a good will in these countries, ultimately helping the UK to build lasting, and strategic, alliances around the world.
The challenge for Government is how it addresses global challenges and burnishes its soft power credentials in a strategic and geopolitical way. With the Minister for Sustainable Development sitting in the Lords, NGOs will watch the next Government reshuffle closely as a sign of the Government’s intentions. Our specialist International Development team brings together a global team of public affairs and public relations experts with a track record of demonstrating the value of aid. Now is the time for NGOs to act and demonstrate to Government the power of aid in addressing global challenges as the UK looks to radically reform its foreign policy for the first time in a generation.