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The UK’s International Development White Paper: Fit for today?

The International Development White Paper, released on Monday 20th November by His Majesty’s (HM) Government, represents a concerted effort to target the United Kingdom’s (UK) international aid where it can have the most impact. Tackling climate change, extreme poverty, and biodiversity loss have been singled out as core issues, and the UK’s whole approach is detailed as being ‘…grounded in partnerships’. These developments are in-line with the Integrated Review of 2021 and its 2023 refresh, which identified working with partners as of the utmost importance, as it did with tackling climate change, something key to building relationships with less developed countries. But is the document suitable for today’s geopolitical and geoeconomic climate? The Council on Geostrategy asks seven experts in today’s Big Ask.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

The International Development paper has the right priorities built into its title – ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change – and makes several forward-thinking proposals about how to address these twin challenges. Notably, the call to reform the international financial system to become more inclusive is welcome and a drum this author has been beating for a long time. Yet, to move in this direction, the document needs to go further and be more explicit about the nature of vulnerability. The challenges which Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face, for example, are generally represented in terms of a decline in their gross domestic product, which only captures part of the picture. 

Special and differentiated treatment has long been allocated based on relative poverty, and the proposals for targeting concessional public climate finance in this White Paper continue to focus on the ‘lowest income countries’. While important, many SIDS are considered middle- or high- income countries. This is why they have been lobbying the international community to adopt a multi-dimensional vulnerability index, which will add the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of vulnerability to measure development and need, in addition to gross national income per capita.   

To date, vulnerability has long been considered structural, whilst building resilience has been about agency. The multidimensional vulnerability index differs because it views resilience as structural, foregrounding a better understanding of the myriad factors which produce vulnerability. This can help unlock the concessional finance required by SIDS to overcome the systemic debt-trap and address the complexity of climate and poverty challenges. This narrative is still missing from the White Paper, yet one which is crucial to embrace if significant ‘reform’ is truly the ambition.

Ryan Henson, Coalition for Global Prosperity

The White Paper launched this week goes beyond a worthy list of aspirations and situates Britain’s development policy firmly within the broader strategic environment shaping its foreign policy. For those of us who think the UK’s development capability is a crucial part of its international toolkit, there is much in the White Paper to be welcomed. 

It takes increased strategic competition seriously and sets out clearly how Britain will use its development funding and expertise to build long-term, tailored partnerships which reflect our strengths and the needs of developing countries. It also is very clear that if we want to strengthen the open international order, we need to demonstrate to others it can deliver tangible results for them too. This attentive, imaginative form of partnership is exactly what we need if we are to outcompete strategic rivals such as the People’s Republic of China. 

It is also welcome that the White Paper sets out in detail the importance of what Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, labelled ‘problems without passports’. Tackling climate change, irregular migration and pandemics is vital, and must underpin a development policy for a world which is becoming more uncertain and volatile as well as more contested. The focus on building resilience and taking advantage of new technology are both important parts of achieving this.

As with all documents of this kind, much of its value will only be demonstrated through its delivery. The approach is right. It now remains to be seen whether the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be given the resources to build the long-term partnerships this country needs.

Laura Kyrke-Smith, International Rescue Committee

The International Development White Paper takes a significant step towards focusing development efforts on fragile and conflict affected states, where two thirds of people in extreme poverty will live by 2030. Also welcome is the document’s emphasis on poverty reduction and its recognition that conflict and climate overwhelmingly shape development outcomes. 

The White Paper sets out a clear intention to rely not just on foreign aid, but to mobilise international finance and reform the global system to support countries battling conflict and climate change. Analysis by the International Rescue Committee shows that just 16 conflict-affected, climate vulnerable countries – representing just 10% of the global population – now account for 60% of humanitarian need, but struggle to access the finance required.

There are notable commitments in the paper, including to spend over half of all bilateral official development assistance (ODA) in least developed countries and to invest over half of all British international investment back into the poorest and most fragile countries by 2030. 

But after several recent strategy resets, the UK must now deliver on international development. In order to achieve a vision which goes far beyond foreign aid, the White Paper should be distributed quickly across HM Government, be sufficiently resourced, and ultimately, it must deliver for the people whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.

If the UK is to regain the trust of partners in developing nations and play its part in tackling global crises, it will be actions that matter more than words.

Ian Mitchell, Centre for Global Development

Yes. The new White Paper sets a direction for the UK’s policy that tackles the issues which really matter in global development, and offers a significant improvement on its disastrous development policy over the last four years.

First, and most importantly, it re-establishes a focus on extreme poverty which has been lost in recent years. Britain plays a unique and valued role among major economies in financing and supporting the poorest countries.

Second, it calls for reform of the international finance system which could double the global volume of finance for climate and development. Third, on climate, it commits to a focus on what developing countries want – prioritising grant funding for countries worst-affected by climate change to adapt, and reforming international finance to support all developing countries in a clean energy transition.

However, it falls short elsewhere. A new target to spend at least 50% of its bilateral budget in least developed countries is deeply unambitious. The UK already does this, and has done for more than a decade. The White Paper also includes an implicit endorsement of HM Government’s policy of decimating the aid budget to fund refugee accommodation. Because of this policy, the UK is, counterintuitively, the largest recipient of its own aid – and the White Paper gives no indication that this will end in the foreseeable future. 

Peter Taylor, Institute of Development Studies

The new International Development White Paper delivers an approach better fit for today than other recent pronouncements which seemed destined to relegate the UK as a global actor to playing walk-on cameos. This author welcomes its focus on forging new ways of tackling extreme poverty and climate change together, via a central focus on resilience, and ‘just transitions’. It is a delight to see its emphasis on patient listening and responding to the priorities of marginalised people and countries, as well as building respectful, equitable partnerships. 

This change in approach is long overdue. We have extensive evidence of what works for development. In today’s context of multiple crises and intersecting inequities, we do need renewed focus on harnessing the diversity of science, technology and innovation, and on new ways of mobilising development finance that can help restore progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We still need more attention to persistent inequalities, indebtedness and migration. Crucially, the UK needs to walk the talk, and stick to its long-term commitments, including a timeline and criteria for a return to meeting the 0.7% ODA contribution. This may help the UK restore its reputation as a trusted and reliable international partner, playing much more than a bit-part on the world stage.

Mann Virdee, Council on Geostrategy

Benjamin Franklin once wrote: ‘well done is better than well said’. 

And this is the problem with the new White Paper. While parts of it are ‘well said’, the fact is the UK has seriously damaged its reputation for doing development well. The phrase ‘we will’ appears some 250 times – but for those who have already lost trust in Britain to keep its word and to be a reliable partner, these commitments will not mean much. This is to be lamented, particularly at a time when global poverty is increasing.

The paper makes some positive steps, such as re-centring efforts to end extreme poverty, as well as stressing the importance of tackling climate change, and strengthening and reforming the international financial system. 

But poverty is multidimensional, and the world’s extreme poor do not all live in the lowest income countries where the White Paper focuses its efforts. And it could be more ambitious in several areas, including on Special Drawing Rights

The White Paper rightly highlights the central role of science and technology in reducing poverty and enabling the green energy transition; artificial intelligence (AI) is referenced in the context of its ability to help enhance education and healthcare. But, as this author has noted, it is important to be clear about the limitations of AI in development. Otherwise, in bringing them together, we may repeat problems of the past – only faster.

The approach is broadly fit for today, but the UK must now use this blueprint to prove its worth as a reliable partner once again.

Myles Wickstead, King’s College London, former Department for International Development senior civil servant

The 1997 White Paper signalled the start of the UK’s emergence as a global leader on international development, and as a committed, reliable and effective partner in supporting efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals. Indeed, in 2013, the UK met the target of 0.7% ODA/gross national income spending (the first G7 country to do so), and in 2015, Britain played a significant role in brokering agreement on a new set of SGDs.

That reputation has taken a serious nose-dive recently as a result of Britain reneging on its 0.7% commitment in 2020; the abrupt cutting of programmes and projects in mid-stream; the chaotic way in which the integration of the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was handled; and the use of ODA resources to support the domestic costs of accommodating refugees over the past two years.  

The new White Paper recommits the UK to refocusing its ODA on the poorest countries and communities. It strikes a good balance between UK leadership and partnership. The SDGs are central. It emphasises in particular the links between ending extreme poverty and addressing climate change. It is coherent and persuasive. 

However, we are not where we need to be yet. We need a specific timetable for returning to the 0.7% target. We need to look again at the institutional arrangements required to deliver on the ambitions of the White Paper. But this document – in its efforts to reach out to other political parties, civil society and the private sector, and to build a broad and enduring consensus on the way forward up to 2030 – represents a major step forwards in the rehabilitation process.

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