Briefing 01: The great foreign aid debate

  1. A group of Conservative parliamentarians and their opposition backers have demanded that the Government uphold the Official Development Assistance (ODA) – more commonly known as ‘foreign aid’ – spending target. Their demand comes after Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, used the November 2020 spending review to announce a cut in ODA to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) for the foreseeable future.
  1. The rebels argue that this cut is wrong. They point to the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto, which promised to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA, a commitment they believe should be upheld for the remainder of this parliament.
  1. Moreover, due to the 2015 International Development Act, the rebels point to the legal requirement for the Government to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA (even if this is not binding and the Foreign Secretary only needs to explain to the House if the United Kingdom (UK) ever fails to meet the target (as well as how the target will be met during the following year)).
  1. For this reason, Andrew Mitchell, a former Secretary of State for International Development, designed an amendment to reinstate ODA spending at 07% of GNI. On 7th June 2021, Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, deemed this amendment to be ‘out of scope’ and instead granted an Emergency debate to allow the House’s view to be heard.
  1. The debate occurred yesterday, on 8th June 2021. A vast array of members from across the House of Commons rose to speak in this three hour debate, with only four members speaking in favour of the Government’s position.
  1. The lack of resolution on this issue is not a victory for the Government; it is simply a delay. The group of rebels will not disappear and the contentious issue of the 0.7% ODA target will not go away.
  1. Unarguably, Britain can be proud of its support for the world’s most vulnerable people. As only one of five countries to meet the 0.7% of GNI target set by the United Nations in 2020 (see Annex below), the UK has been for some years the third largest national provider of ODA. If in 2020 – the most recent year for which international data is available – the Government had reduced ODA to 0.5% of GNI, the UK would still have been the fifth largest ODA provider in absolute terms.
  1. But, despite the UK having clearly established an international reputation as an ‘aid superpower’, polling data from across the country shows broad public support for the Chancellor’s decision to reduce the amount of money spent on ODA – particularly due to the economic fallout from Covid-19.
  1. So while the rebels are right to argue that ODA is not just about altruism and that Britain should uphold its obligations – and that political parties should uphold their manifesto commitments – the parliamentary debates surely open the way for a broader discussion on UK foreign aid. And this is not only because, over the past two decades, a significant amount of ODA has been spent on follies or countries with no clear link to British interests or the eradication of poverty. A prime example of this is the group dubbed ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’, a girl band in Ethiopia given £5.2 million to develop their brand, ostensibly to empower women.
  1. More importantly, the UK needs to appraise its foreign aid strategy because other nations, including France and Germany, have increased spending by 11% and 14% respectively. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is also developing an expansive ‘foreign aid’ programme of its own, otherwise known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While not ODA, this is a £700 billion 30+ year programme which plans to re-engineer the infrastructure behind the economic and political geography of Eurasia.
  1. Intensifying geopolitical competition means not only that the Government should specify a date whereby it hopes to increase spending back to 0.7% of GNI, but also that a new aid strategy – as promised in the Integrated Review – is needed to ensure that British ODA remains altruistic but better serves the national interest and is future-proofed in a competitive age.
  1. A well structured foreign aid strategy would enable the UK to protect foreign citizens from authoritarian revisionist powers. The malicious influence of such regimes – particularly the PRC – in developing countries could then be challenged more actively. A well funded foreign aid strategy that targets countries vulnerable to the PRC (and other revisionists) could provide their governments with a democratic and greener alternative to the BRI (and other forms of ‘foreign aid’), particularly if the UK coordinated its efforts with other free and open countries. It could also be a key mechanism for implementing the Integrated Review, and ensuring Britain’s future prosperity and security.

John Dobson is Policy Relations and Events Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy.

Annex: ODA spending by country

ODA total spending (2020)

Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

ODA spending as a percentage of GNI (2020)

Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

ODA total spending change (2019-2020)

Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development


This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.