UK Development Policy in an age of austerity

By Josephine Osikena | Published:  15 November, 2011

In a 2011 article titled “The Lion Kings?” The Economist noted with surprise that more than half of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies in the past decade were in Africa

In today’s age of global austerity and insecurity, UK development policy is arguably more critical than ever in reasserting Britain’s confidence at home and abroad. The Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown successfully created an internationally-respected development agency in the Department for International Development which, in spite of pre-election fears, continues to enjoy independence from the UK’s Foreign Office and maintains strong ministerial representation in the coalition government’s cabinet. 

Yet, the world has changed since the days when New Labour evangelised about the moral and ethical imperatives of making poverty in Africa history, and promoted responsible stewardship in the international community on issues such as securing debt cancellation for low income economies, UN and World Bank reform or lectured on the merits of good governance.

 An unprecedented financial and economic global slowdown – which as yet shows no sign of abating – has translated into high levels of government spending cuts, unemployment and inflationary pressures domestically. Furthermore, in the face of the UK’s relative decline as a global power, this is coupled with the growing political and economic influence of emerging power centres such as Brazil, China and India. All of this makes the domestic case for supporting development in other countries increasingly challenging. 

 The coalition government, which has now been in office for more than 18 months, rigorously defends an unwavering notion of liberal pragmatism where UK national interest and national security are paramount. Thus, as a result of a recent review of UK aid, spending will now focus on fewer countries – 27 in total – with a particular emphasis on states affected by conflict and a greater focus on maternal mortality. Aid to Burundi is to be phased out, while the newest member of the group of Brics, South Africa, remains a UK aid recipient. 

UK development spending will also concentrate more on achieving value for money. As a consequence, aid effectiveness is to be measured by outputs and outcomes, not inputs.  On the one hand, an assessment of the multilateral agencies has resulted in Unicef qualifying as a ‘good performer’ and on track to receive increases in UK aid. On the other however, the International Labour Organisation’s funding is to be completely withdrawn, while the Food and Agriculture Organisation has been given a final warning. 

 In spite of these attempts to reshape UK development policy, a recent survey published by the Institute of Development Studies on public opinion about aid and development suggests that support is waning. In the context of tackling the UK budget deficit, 71 percent of respondents felt that aid spending should be cut and only 20 percent of those surveyed felt they had a sufficient level of awareness and understanding regarding the country’s development strategy. At a time when the UK Government has – for now at least – made a steadfast commitment to protecting and increasing development spending – up to 0.7 percent of UK gross national income – Dfid needs to become more than just an agency dedicated to dispensing money. It must transform into a development ministry ensuring greater public communication, co-operation and leadership across government in the UK on issues affecting global development, ranging from trade and investment to tax policies, to migration policy, energy and the environment, though not limited to climate change.

 In essence, to coin a phrase from a report published by the UK peace-building NGO, International Alert, development is less about ‘how much’ and more about ‘how’.

Josephine Osikena is director of the London-based think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre

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