A new report calls for closer alignment of the UK’s aid spending with its foreign policy goals. We look at the effects of the country’s international development efforts on its global standing.
A New Approach to Development
The UK currently spends 0.7% of its Gross National Income on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). The 0.7% target was first adopted by UN General Assembly resolution in 1970. In 2015 the Coalition government in the UK made it a legally binding national commitment. Although the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the Scandinavian countries spend a higher proportion of their national income on aid, the UK is currently the only G20 country to hit the target (Germany briefly achieved it, but has since dropped back, France and China spend only around half as much, the US barely a quarter).
The UK is currently the only G20 country to hit the target
Although there will always be political questions about whether the spend is too high, and whether it is all spent in the best ways, there is little doubt that this very significant aid contribution does a lot of good alleviating poverty around the world. For example, the international efforts to eradicate infectious diseases like polio (currently on the verge of eradication) have saved millions of lives. A different question is whether this significant contribution to development can simultaneously have positive side effects for the UK. Can the UK do genuine good for others as well as ourselves?
A new report, ‘Global Britain: A 21st Century Vision’, published by the Henry Jackson Society, argues that the UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID) and Department for International Trade (DIT) should merge into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and become new agencies. Integration at all relevant levels of government would be implemented via new ‘Joint Effects Teams’ (JETs). These JETs would also include other Government departments and arms-length bodies, including the British Council. The authors also identify three key campaigns for global Britain – free trade, freedom from oppression, and freedom of thought. They argue that these ‘three freedoms’ should comprise the cornerstone of a ’national global strategy‘ to express the UK’s values and overseas interests. The UK should also introduce a National Strategy Council, which should conduct an ‘Overseas Spending Audit’ to ascertain total spending on global engagement. While the report says that the 0.7% target itself should be preserved, it argues that changes should be made to the definition of ’international development’ to allow more spending to be channeled through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. In essence, then, the report argues for a different approach to overseas aid spending, rather than a reduction of it.
Helping create the conditions for development for others can also help create future partners and customers for British trade. DFID’s increased focus of resources on fragile states, to reduce conflict, instability and refuges, can make us safer too. Other nations’ contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals which the UK helped create can also help mitigate environmental harm to us from shared global challenges like climate change.
Given the pressures on the UK’s national budget, Brexit and the Government’s ambition to become a ’Global Britain‘, an informed and healthy public debate about how development aid features in UK foreign policy and relates to national interests is welcome. At the same time, it is important to consider the possible negative impact of being seen to pursue development assistance in a self-interested fashion - with the suspicion and loss of trust this would likely entail. The UK’s development agencies are internationally admired as some of the world’s most professional and transparent. The UK is rich in having one of the oldest charity sectors in the world and some of the most innovative social enterprises. The UK public leads Europe, not just in terms of how much we give, but also in terms of how many of us give: one in three gave to charity in the last month, and one in every £8 donated is for helping overseas.
Some of the arguments made for widening the definition of what constitutes aid might allow more non-economy development, from peace-keeping to culture. And looking at the potential for developing new interventions in supporting development through a range of relevant institutions and agencies are interesting because they appear to offer the opportunity to pursue mutual interests. Some of the UK’s strongest soft power assets are its independent and semi-independent institutions (from our courts to our broadcasting and cultural organisations). The 2017 report by ResPublica (Britain's Global Future: Harnessing the soft power capital of UK institutions), developed with the support of the Science Museum and the British Council, argued that the UK should not simply rely on government mechanisms but should share its trusted institutional model more widely, seeking to support and work with the institutional infrastructure of developing nations. It suggested doing this, for example, through education programmes and via institution-to-institution connections to strengthen those nations’ civil societies and ultimately their economies, and reallocate foreign aid spending to harness the UK’s institutional strengths, including increasing spending on the education and ‘Government and civil society’ categories of ODA to £2 billion.
Free Aid and Free Trade
While there is some opposition amongst the UK tax-paying public for the level of development aid, relatively little is known about the reputational impact on countries of doing so. The British Council’s recent Value of Trust report, which examined data from polling of over 19,000 young people across the G20 countries, found that the perception of the UK as a contributor of aid for overseas development was the biggest factor driving trust in the UK Government and the second biggest (behind being ‘open and welcoming’) driving trust in British people. Perhaps this benefits us all. Higher trust is a good proxy for a nation’s soft power, and is known to have economic benefits, with a 15% rise in trust associated with a 1% increase in GDP through enhanced trade (Zak and Knack (2001) Trust and Growth. Economic Journal 111/470:295-321). And British Council research shows that those who trust the UK are twice as likely as those who do not to want to engage with us through trade, tourism, studying in the UK and experiencing our arts and culture.
While being seen to contribute to international development has a strong association with whether people trust the UK, a relatively low proportion of young people overseas perceived the UK as a leading donor country
There is however a mis-match in that, while being seen to contribute to international development has a strong association with whether people trust the UK, a relatively low proportion of young people overseas perceived the UK as a leading donor country. Only 41% of those asked in the research agreed that the UK contributed its fair share to aiding development in poorer countries, whereas 70% agreed that the UK had world leading universities and research. Of course, given that those surveyed were from relatively well-off countries, it is likely that a more significant impact would be found in those countries benefiting directly from UK aid spending, and further research on this would be welcome. It may also be that it will take time for the recent increase in investment to translate in to reputational benefits.
These findings suggest that the UK does indeed see a significant positive side effect to its overseas aid spending, but that it might see a bigger benefit if more people overseas were more aware of the good work the UK does through its ODA contributions.
The vast majority of the increase in global living standards is the result of the benefits of international trade, the spread of market models of economic development, the stability brought about by the rules-based international order, and the progress of science in all of which the UK has played a strong part
Moving beyond the question of official development assistance, it is worth considering other drivers of the progress seen in the last few decades towards increasing standards of living in poorer countries. Extreme poverty around the world (defined as people living on less than $1.90 / day) has halved in the last 20 years. Although some of this is the result of well-targeted aid spending, the vast majority of the increase in global living standards is the result of the benefits of international trade, the spread of market models of economic development after the Cold War (particularly in Asia), the stability brought about by the rules-based international order, and the progress of science and research from eradicating diseases to the internet, in all of which the UK has played a strong part. When many voices are challenging that order, and when the UK is looking to re-invent itself as a ‘Global Britain’ after Brexit, the UK’s soft power as a result of its international development engagement should arguably be seen in this broader context.
The admittedly limited knowledge that we have does seem to suggest that the UK aid budget does bring benefits for the UK as well as its recipients. And if the UK treads carefully it may be able to increase those positive side effects as well as enhancing the good that it does in the poorest parts of the world.
Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor