Victoria Honeyman and Simon Lightfoot

Since the UK legally committed to spend 0.7% of its GDP on official development assistance in 2015, aid spending has increasingly come under the spotlight. There is a clear perception in certain quarters, particularly the right wing press, that protecting aid, however worthy a goal, in times of austerity is politically difficult. Critics of the 0.7% spending target criticise the level of spending, the method of investment and point to domestic austerity to justify cuts to development aid spending. Given this pressure from the Conservative backbenches, it was something of a surprise that both the Conservative party manifesto and the Queen’s speech in June reaffirmed the commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on international development.

Unlike the vast majority of UK government expenditure, aid money is spent outside the UK and on people who are not voters. Since the financial crash in 2007 and the introduction of austerity measures by the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, many public services and government departments have seen their funding slashed, with increasing pressures on public services. Against this backdrop of difficult choices and dwindling budgets, the political choice to ring-fence aid spending comes under regular scrutiny. As pressure mounts on the government to increase social care budgets, NHS funding or domestic flood prevention schemes, the overseas development budget comes under increase scrutiny and criticism from those keen to reduce spending to people in the developing world.

Since 2010, successive Secretaries of State for International Development have consistently pushed the message that UK aid is not simply a charitable act or the right thing to do. Instead, they have argued that the development aid budget brings tangible benefits to the UK. Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development between 2010 and 2012 explicitly pointed out some of the ways in which UK aid donation serves the nation’s economy, helped increase British influence overseas, and helps underpin national security in a variety of ways.  The 2015 Treasury Policy Paper “UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest” highlighted the importance of national interest in aid spending. It stated that ‘UK leadership in [tackling poverty] will cement our global moral leadership, and make a strong contribution to the UK’s soft power and our ability to project our influence across the globe.’ By investing in developing nations, Britain is able to create a new global identity for itself as friend of the developing world. The UK is also able to build new trading relationships and even ensure that the issues it prioritises are discussed and accepted across the developing world, all aided by Britain’s development aid agenda.

2014 ODI report showed that in 2014 every $1 of UK aid spent generated an increase in UK exports of $0.22 thereby providing an estimated 12,000 extra UK jobs. For those critics of Britain’s development aid budget, the domestic benefits of that policy are often ignored or overlooked in favour of short-term spending proprieties based on a different set of priorities, both domestically and internationally.

The Blair government, who established the Department for International Development, focused their work on poverty reduction. An increase in international aid was a long-standing Labour policy, pre-dating Blair’s time as leader. The party had long argued that they wished to reduce poverty everywhere, not simply in Britain, and that would involve increase aid budgets. Blair enthusiastically adopted this policy, and retained the focus on policy reduction, which remained in place while the Labour party remained in government. With the arrival of Cameron in 2010, the focus of development aid funding changed, with a greater focus on cost effectiveness and the pursuit of British international concerns, such as security, through its aid agenda. The legal commitment to poverty reduction is still active but the current Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has focused much of her energy on using aid to stimulate trade agreements post Brexit. This is largely unsurprising consider Patel’s previous criticism of the work of DFID, and her calls for the department to be replaced with one focusing on trade.

In addition to trade benefits, development aid also allows Britain a positive audience with many developing nations, and it allows Britain to push its agenda overseas, be it in terms of security, immigration or human rights concerns. This relationship building, often labelled ‘soft power’, is a very difficult idea to sell to the public, despite its importance in foreign policy making and international influence. This is despite clear attempts by successive Secretaries of State to make the connections explicit, such as Priti Patel’s recent statement that: ‘British soft power is exactly where DFID, and our aid and other relationships around the world, come together to deliver in our national interest and deliver for Britain when it comes to free trade agreements but also life post-Brexit.’ One obvious example of this is the focus of aid spending on fragile states(Prosperity Fund and Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).

As pressure continues to grow on government spending and the need for cuts continues, the international development budget will continue to come under pressure. While May has recently confirmed the continuation of the 0.7% development aid budget, it is questionable how long that commitment, and May, will remain in place. Without strong advocates of the policy, and difficulty in how to effectively communicate the benefits of development aid spending, the political efficacy of the policy may begin to undermine its current position. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the legislation securing the 0.7% spending commitment is largely ineffective, with no penalties for any government who might wish to reduce spending below the agreed level. Perhaps an equally problematic future faces development aid - that of a death by a thousand cuts. Instead of the policy being obviously undermined, international development aid is adapted, squeezed, pressurized and confined until it is considerably less effective than it could be, both for Britain and its recipients. Without a strong advocate, development aid will inevitably be reduced in stature and eventually, reduced in real terms, with real consequences for the developing world - and Britain.


On July 6th, the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds hosted a conference on Contemporary UK Development Aid.


Victoria Honeyman is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds. She tweets @VHoneymanLeeds. Simon Lightfoot is Senior Lecturer in European Politics, also at the University of Leeds. He tweets @SimonLightfoot.