Britain’s new ‘international policy’ is still missing a development dimension

The publication of the Government’s Integrated Review represents a major milestone. However, on the issue of the UK’s future development policy, the Review poses as many questions as it answers.

A commentary for the How Nations Succeed programme by Dr Alastair Masser

Published 18 Mar 2021

This week’s publication of the Government’s Integrated Review represents a major milestone in the coordination of the UK’s future security, defence, development, and foreign policy, neatly characterised by the Prime Minister as a twin focus upon national security and international policy.

However, on the issue of the UK’s future development policy, the Review poses as many questions as it answers. Six months on from the merger of the Department for International Development  and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, how the Government intends to formulate its development policy remains unclear.

There are few meaningful clues to be found in the Review. Despite its ‘integrated’ nature, Britain’s development strategy is to be outlined in a separate document, to be published ”in due course”. The Review’s 114 pages offer little assurance that development policy has been conceptually or operationally integrated into the UK’s nascent international policy.

Instead, much of the debate remains focused on the issue of the UK’s foreign aid budget. The Chancellor announced in his recent Budget that the UK would spend 0.5% of gross national income in 2021, below the 0.7% pledge. This means the UK will still wield a budget of £10 billion for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in 2021/22, one of the highest amongst the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee members.

The Review pledges that this money will be used “overseas to fight poverty, tackle climate change, support girls into education and improve global health”. Specifically, this includes funding the salaries of over 5,500 teachers in refugee camps in 10 countries through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and pledging £180 million to tackle food insecurity and famine risk in some of the world’s most dangerous places, as well as appointing the UK’s first Special Envoy for Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs.

Though these are all integral to the essential business of humanitarian relief, such initiatives do little to help developing nations lay their own foundations for lasting prosperity. The wealth of empirical evidence contained within our recent How Nations Succeed report shows that the most successful examples of development – in terms of raised GDP per capita growth and the corresponding improvement in living standards that goes with it – came in nations that drove their own transformation.

The report draws one fundamental conclusion: ultimately, nations that develop, develop themselves. An environment which enables prosperity is the result of successive leaders’ careful and conscious management of institutional, economic, and social wellbeing. This requires more than political acumen and administrative competence. Instead, it requires leaders to place the long-term development of their nations above short-term political imperatives.

This reality suggests some clear limitations for our current conceptualisation of ODA. But it also presents a raft of opportunities for the UK to devise a new approach to cultivating prosperity in developing nations, based upon partnership rather than patronage. Already, there is evidence that the UK intends to adopt such an approach over the next decade in its bilateral relationships with several sub-Saharan African nations cited in the Review, namely South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana.

The UK’s strengthening relationship with Kenya promises to be one such example. The five-year UK-Kenya Strategic Partnership announced last year prioritises five pillars, from sustainable development to security. Such an approach promises to complement the Review’s new strategic framework and highlight the UK’s enduring commitment to multilateralism, as well as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But it is far from clear how Britain plans to support Kenya’s own strategy, or whether such partnerships represent a step change in the UK’s approach to developing nations.

What is clear is that African nations risk being left behind. As the Review highlights, by 2045, it is likely that around 85% of the world’s poorest billion people will live in Africa. In today’s interconnected international order, the consequences of such failure will reverberate far beyond the continent. The UK has both the opportunity and responsibility to support the region’s nations more effectively in devising and implementing their own pathways to prosperity. The Integrated Review offers few clues as to whether this approach will become the norm, but it is undoubtedly needed.