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The International Development Strategy and multilateral engagement

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) International Development Strategy[↗] (IDS), published in March this year, is an effort to set priorities for the United Kingdom’s (UK) development in light of a changed geopolitical context. It looks to ensure that development is a part of a coherent British foreign policy approach in line with its national interests.

The IDS is right to focus on how, in an era of intensified geopolitical competition, the FCDO’s development policy can be consistent with British values and interests. It is also right in that, at least implicitly, it suggests that the UK’s development policy should aim to counter where appropriate the rising influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the renewed focus on the importance of Britain’s bilateral partnerships risks diverting attention away from the multilateral channels through which we can achieve greater impact. 

The UK has already shown how effective it can be when it focuses its efforts on leveraging the international system. Britain was one of the most active governments in encouraging the World Bank to create the concessional borrowing window that allowed many countries to borrow cheaply to procure vaccines through Covax, the global Covid-19 access initiative. This made it easier for many low and middle income countries to order vaccines, in turn strengthening the order books of manufacturers. This has lowered costs for producers by helping to create a higher volume of demand for Covid-19 vaccines. 

So far, over 70 countries have accessed[↗] finance through the facility to the value of $10 billion (£8.3 billion). Moreover, as a model for Covid-19 vaccine access, it is clearly preferable to the kind of bilateral vaccine diplomacy that others, like the PRC[↗], have opted for. Potential bilateral donations of Sinovac – which is less effective than many of the vaccines available through the Covax portfolio – have played a less central role than vaccines purchased or donated through the multilateral, vaccine access effort led by free and open societies. 

Some of the biggest global challenges we face are likely to require multilateral action. If these challenges are approached on this basis, the ability of Britain and other free and open nations to mobilise funding is enhanced. This is particularly true in the wake of cuts to the aid budget and sustained pressure on the spending envelope in light of Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine.

This is not to say that the focus on patient, long-term bilateral partnerships in the IDS is necessarily wrong. Bilateral partnerships can play a hugely significant role, particularly if they’re viewed as a stepping stone to accessing larger networks or leveraging the international system. 

Take for instance the Just Energy Transition Partnership[↗] (JETP), which the UK worked closely on with the South African government in the run-up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Many chose to focus on the need to mobilise the $100 billion (£83 billion) in climate finance that donor-governments committed to as part of the Paris Agreement. However, as Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, has made clear[↗], it is also vitally important that this finance begins to flow to the countries who need it as soon as possible. The JETP tries to do exactly that, and takes seriously the financial resources that South Africa will require if it is going to decarbonise its economy without jeopardising the growth that it will need to move out of poverty.

In this case, the UK worked with other donors, including the United States, the European Union, France and Germany, together with various international financial institutions, to mobilise a level of funding that Britain could not have raised unilaterally. This model has the potential to be replicated in many other different countries[↗] and that is precisely what makes it such an exciting partnership. This is the kind of role that the UK should be playing: taking the needs of developing countries seriously and then thinking about how the bilateral partnership can dock into or make use of larger ad-hoc coalitions of partners and the international system. 

The risk in the IDS of focusing too narrowly on bilateral partnerships is that it can lead to greater donor fragmentation and in effect creates a more complicated, bureaucratic resource for developing countries to draw on. In practice, giving Ambassadors and High Commissioners greater control over relatively modest sums of money may not yield the kind of positive development outcomes at scale that the UK can achieve when it focuses on deploying its development expertise through big, global institutions like the World Bank. 

This challenge is not distinct to Britain’s development policy. It will also be true when it comes to the UK’s efforts to support Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery efforts. When Britain hosts[↗] next year’s Ukraine Reconstruction Conference, it will have to engage with a range of different financial institutions, partners and allies. Nothing about that diminishes the importance of the strengthening UK-Ukraine bilateral relationship[↗]. It simply reflects the fact that we are often able to achieve more multilaterally than we can alone.

Ted Elgar is the Head of Research at the Coalition for Global Prosperity. Prior to this, he spent a number of years working in the development sector as Head of UK Advocacy at Global Citizen, and before that worked for a range of philanthropic and private sector clients at APCO Worldwide.

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