International development: Finding the real political debate

Behind the public consensus, there are real issues of policy at stake in the election. Whoever wins, there will be a massive squeeze on public expenditure.

With big economic and social issues dominating debate, it is perhaps unsurprising that there hasn’t been much discussion of international development so far in the run-up to the election.

In fact, it feels like there is a pretty strong cross-party consensus on this issue.

All three main parties are signed up to meeting the UN target of giving 0.7% of GDP as aid; and the Department for International Development (DFID), which still thinks of itself as the new kid on the block, is looking more and more like a secure and long-term part of the machinery of government.

But behind the public consensus, there are real issues of policy at stake in the election. Whoever wins, there will be a massive squeeze on public expenditure. This makes the politics of increasing aid budgets to meet the UN target even more difficult.

Expect to see more aid routed outside DFID to reduce tensions between departments. Expect also to see changes in what counts as aid, with pressures to include more security-related expenditures in countries like Afghanistan, and more climate spending as the search for a global deal continues.

Official monitoring of aid spending takes place via the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which defines what spending can and cannot count, but it is fair to say that this definition leaves considerable flexibility for governments to count spending that the public might not easily recognise as ‘aid’.

The UK government set itself a higher standard in the 2002 International Development Act, which limits DFID’s spending to activities which reduce poverty and promote sustainable development. A new ippr report argues that the government should broaden the scope of the 2002 Act to ensure that all spending in other departments that is counted as aid meets the same standards.

At the same time, DFID should have more non-aid money in its budget to spend more flexibly, particularly in post-conflict and conflict situations like Afghanistan.

There is also a clear difference of opinion between the parties on the role of DFID vis-à-vis the rest of government, with voices from the foreign policy and security communities in particular suggesting that DFID should be re-merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Labour made a significant break from the past in establishing DFID as an independent department; the Conservatives would keep DFID separate, but have sent strong signals that they would like its role to be more clearly supportive of the FCO.

DFID has had good reasons to hold itself apart from the rest of government to establish a development policy independent of the UK’s commercial and strategic interests.  However, the same independence makes it harder for DFID to engage effectively with Whitehall.

While the UK has made significant progress in achieving coherence between development and other objectives in some areas (e.g. trade, climate change), tensions remain unresolved in a range of others (e.g. migration, corruption), and joined-up government hasn’t always been a reality on the ground in places like Afghanistan.

The benefits of having DFID on an equal footing with the FCO clearly outweigh the costs, but this does not mean that DFID should stand apart from the rest of government.  Making government policy and practice coherent for international development is the real challenge facing UK development policy in the coming years.

Tensions between the UK’s international poverty reduction priorities and other government objectives need to be tackled head on, but this is going to require a willingness from politicians to talk about the difficult bits of development – conflict, trade, migration and corporate corruption – as well as education, health and water.

• The ippr report “Policy coherence and the future of the UK’s international development agenda” is available now.

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