By Caroline Pinder
While the Tories were promoting their latest round of cuts in welfare benefits, and a week after Sunak shuffled the deckchairs around the Cabinet table to accommodate a former prime minister, an important and long-awaited white paper on the future of international development slipped under the radar.
Three years ago, almost to the day, Sunak, then in the role of Chancellor, announced that the UK’s ODA would be cut from the statutory 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%. He claimed the cut was temporary and would be restored when “the fiscal situation allows.” Three years on, and the same phrase is used early in this White Paper (p32: “once the fiscal situation allows”). What follows reflects both the political choice to make this cut and the economic mismanagement that has prevented the Tories from making a start to restore the commitment.
Beyond this five-word phrase, the White Paper makes no mention of how its lengthy list of planned tasks is to be funded. Mostly it appears that the hundreds of tasks littered through the 130 pages are to be funded by hot air promises and power so soft as to be soggy: “ we will prioritise …..,” “our presence will leverage …..,” “we will influence ……” etc., etc. While these sentiments are noble, after three years of savage cuts to the ODA budget, particularly harming LDC’s (Least Developed Countries), we do have to question whether the UK is any longer in a position to influence or leverage anything, and whether these promises can begin to restore our reputation as a champion of humanitarian aid and international development.
On the plus side, this White Paper puts forward a more nuanced approach to development than earlier papers (e.g. the Integrated Review back in 2021, and its successor “Refresh” in April 2023), which made development the poor relative to defence, diplomacy and trade. It is also a re-working and expansion of the vague commitments made in Truss’s 2022 International Development Strategy. Described by Andrew Mitchell, Minister for Development and Africa in the FCDO, as “a roadmap to 2030” (p10), it is heartening to see the White Paper outline a return to focusing on the SDGs, which have been an important tool in informing approaches to reducing global poverty and inequality. Unfortunately, much of the Paper’s ambitious statements are clouded by the scant resources being made available to achieve them.
With my own background and interests in women’s economic empowerment, ending VAWG and supporting locally led women and girls’ sexual health rights, I was pleased to see, at last, a commitment to directly finance women’s rights organisations in partner countries, to ensure they can participate meaningfully in policy debate and decision-making. It’s taken a long time to recognise that WROs, and other locally led groups representing civil society, need multi-year, core funding, though quite how much or where that budget will come from remains to be seen. The Paper talks a lot about leverage of funds from the private sector and development banks, and it is to be hoped WROs and CSOs aren’t going to have to rely on those sources, which can be fickle in the terms and conditions they set.
However, in the context of tackling conflict and state fragility (Chapter 7) there is no mention of the UN’s Women Peace and Security agenda, or integration of commitments made in the latest UK WPS National Action Plan, that the Tories heralded earlier this year, and which presents challenges for women within the domestic security sector as well as the promotion of women’s participation in peacebuilding around the world. This White Paper provided an opportunity to highlight the dependencies and synergies between the domestic and the foreign security sectors, which has sadly been missed. More women in the UN’s military and police peacekeeping units contribute to greater safety of women and girls in conflict zones and displacement camps but, as the UN points out, getting more women into those international units depends on member states recruiting more women into their domestic police and armed forces. This, in turn, depends on reducing the bullying and misogyny within the security sector, so recently evidenced in the UK by members of the Met Police, to create an improved working environment for women soldiers and police.
Interestingly, the White Paper outlines a number of principles for international development which the Labour Foreign Policy Group highlighted in its paper on development in the summer, “A New Architecture for Development”. This questioned the continued validity of a donor-driven traditional aid model, and suggested it should be replaced by commitment to locally-led and long-term partnerships based on mutual respect, and transformative, systemic change.
Besides the White Paper’s failure to deal with the government’s financial cuts in ODA (aptly described by BOND as “the elephant in the room”), a theme of “do as we say, and not as we do,” runs through the Paper. For example, when it comes to health promises: “We will draw on our outstanding UK health expertise and work with partners to support strong health systems” (para 6.65) – haven’t staff in the NHS got enough to do at the moment? And “Scaling up social protection systems is an investment in people that has many benefits” (para 6.79) – perhaps Hunt should have looked at this White Paper before cutting back on benefits. Or when it comes to education: “Our vision for 2030 is to see transformed education systems, providing quality teaching and learning outcomes” (para 6.33). Couldn’t agree more, but maybe the Tories should take the planks out of their own eyes first, and put some non-dom taxes into our own schools.
Similarly, regarding climate change, the White Paper sets out a series of statements and actions the government will undertake, from reducing emissions “with more ambitious climate policies” (para 5.3) to “There is an opportunity to further deploy the UK’s green finance strength and expertise internationally, greening investing practices” (para 5.16) and “Promoting economic transformation requires governments to manage their public finances sustainably” (para 5.49). Lessons for the Tories to take note of and apply to their own approach to climate change.
And about migration – another thorny topic for the Tories at the moment – “Our vision for 2030 is for safe, orderly and legal migration” and “Properly managed migration can have a positive economic impact on origin and host communities” (para 7.24) – Thoughts for Braverman? And how does it help that a third of the UK’s ODA budget is currently being spent on accommodating asylum seekers and refugees because the government has failed to institute a fit-for-purpose process for dealing with applications?
The White Paper concludes with half a page entitled “Building UKDev” that says nothing about how they are going to staff all the tasks listed in the other 130 pages, given that since the “hostile takeover” of DFID by FCDO there has been a haemorrhaging of staff with development skills and experience. A page or so earlier it states “Our development expertise is the cornerstone of our approach” (para9.13). Surely another “elephant in the room” that the Tories need to sort out before proclaiming themselves as the “champions” of development.
Caroline Pinder is an international development consultant, member of Oxford East labour Party and the Labour Foreign Policy Group.
References and sources:
Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) March 2023
What we do: Peace and security | UN Women – Headquarters (undated, viewed 26 Nov 2023)
Women in peacekeeping | United Nations Peacekeeping (undated, viewed 27 Nov 2023)