The Independent View: International development beyond aid – an opportunity to change the political debate

Sarah Mulley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr).  Before joining ippr, she was coordinator of the UK Aid Network.

A major shift in political attitudes to international development has occurred in the UK during the last decade. There is now strong cross-party commitment to meeting the UN target to give 0.7% of GDP as aid, and DFID’s place in government as an independent department now seems secure.

But the cross-party commitment to aid, and to DFID, is not as clear cut as it might first seem.

First, the question of what counts as aid is crucial.  The official monitoring of the 0.7% target takes place via the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, but 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.  However, pressures to find funding to deal with climate change, and recent Conservative statements about increasing aid spending in countries (like Afghanistan) where the UK has significant military or strategic interests, have raised concerns that the commitment to meet the 0.7% target will be watered down by a broadening of the definition of aid.

A new ippr report argues there needs to be more flexibility in the use and allocation of aid budgets. Just as other departments are now allocated some aid spending, DFID should have more non-aid money in its budget. This would allow DFID’s expertise to be used more widely, particularly in post-conflict and conflict situations like Afghanistant.  The Government should also broaden the scope of the 2002 Act to ensure that all aid spending in other departments meets the same standards as DFID does.

Secondly, despite DFID’s success, some (particularly in the foreign policy and security communities) are now arguing that it should be merged back into the FCO.

Development is an area where joined-up government is of primary importance, but DFID has had good reasons in the past to hold itself slightly apart from the rest of government, and the prize has been the establishment of an international development policy distinct from the UK’s commercial and strategic interests.

But the debate about DFID should not be reduced to an argument about defending current ways of working or merging it with the FCO.  Our research shows that the benefits of a strong DFID, independent of the FCO, clearly outweigh the costs.  However, this does not mean that DFID should stand apart from the rest of government.

Our report shows that development outcomes depend crucially on factors beyond aid, and that UK policies across a range of areas (including climate change, migration, trade, conflict and corruption) matter hugely for poverty reduction.  On the other side, UK interests are also increasingly bound up with successfully responding to a range of international issues (such as climate change).  While the UK has made significant progress in achieving coherence between development and other objectives in some areas of policy (e.g. trade, climate change), tensions remain unresolved in a range of areas (e.g. migration, corruption).

As the Liberal Democrats consider their policy position on international development, they need to strike the right balance – between defending the aid budget and promoting development across a range of policy issues; and between protecting DFID’s core poverty reduction objective and a vision for the department as a more influential player in Whitehall.

There is a real opportunity in 2010 to move the development debate forwards – to celebrate and build on the consensus that now exists on core issues, while also engaging with a wider and more challenging set of policy questions.

Ippr’s report (supported by World Vision UK) Policy coherence and the future of the UK’s international development agenda was published earlier this month.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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