The prime minister this week published the long anticipated, and twice delayed, Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy.
The Integrated Review was billed as the largest review of foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and aimed to bring consistency, clarity, and coherence to the UK’s foreign and diplomatic policy.
What do we like in the Integrated Review?
The Integrated Review provides the first written confirmation that the UK remains committed to reducing global poverty and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both were pointedly absent from the Seven strategic priorities set out by the foreign secretary in the wake of the decision to deviate from their 0.7% obligation in November 2020.
Beyond the top-level commitments, however, there is little clarity on what that will mean in practice and few details on how the government will deliver on its promises to leave no one behind. It is particularly disappointing that the SDGs have not been used more explicitly as a framework for achieving this. This rhetorical commitment must be weighed against the erosion of a needs-based approach to official development assistance (ODA).
We also welcome the government’s prioritisation of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss as their foremost international priority, as well as the explicitly mentioned links between climate change, poverty, instability and conflict. In our evidence to the Integrated Review, we highlighted climate change and environmental degradation as one of the biggest risks facing the UK.
However, given this link, the relative lack of space and thought given to the ODA budget and work on poverty reduction is concerning. It is important that the UK’s increased International Climate Finance spend does not come at the expense of other pressing non-climate aid and development priorities.
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We had hoped to see more clarity on how the government will ensure that all diplomatic, defence, trade, aid and development activities will do the least harm to the environment and climate system and ideally contribute to climate and environmental objectives.
The attention given by the Integrated Review to open societies and human rights is good, particularly the acknowledgement that they are central to a sustainable international order and the fact that they are under threat.
But the actions taken by the government at home and in resourcing this work abroad do not match their ambitious words. The draconian restrictions on the right to assembly proposed in the Policing Bill currently going through Parliament are in direct contrast to the claims in the Integrated Review that support for open societies and democratic governance starts at home. At the same time, there are reports that the open societies and human rights work of FCDO is facing funding cuts of up to 80%.
There are also some much-needed commitments to conflict resolution and to tackling the drivers of instability. Less positive is the absence of a cross-departmental strategy on conflict prevention and adequate resourcing to match ambitions. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has been cut by £363 million and we are hearing that UK aid to conflict-affected states could be cut by 50-90%. There is no sign of DFID’s earlier commitment to spend 50% of ODA in fragile and conflict affected states.
What is missing from the Integrated Review?
When the Integrated Review was announced towards the end of 2019, Bond and our members welcomed the announcement – policy coherence across all branches of foreign policy, in support of the world’s most marginalised communities, can be transformative.
But the sector was unified in stating that the Review will only work if development is given equal attention alongside the diplomatic, defence, and trade aspects of the review. Otherwise, development and aid would be reduced to tools for achieving these other objectives.
The Integrated Review confirms the international development sector’s worries regarding the future independence and integrity of UK ODA. It lays bare the continued erosion of an approach to aid that is based on where the need is greatest and reinforces the trend toward the prioritisation of UK trade and security interests.
This is unfortunate but not surprising. The foreign secretary made clear in his strategic framework that aid would be allocated where UK diplomacy, economic and development interests align. And the warning signs were clear as far back as 2019 when the then former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, reaffirmed his commitment to the 0.7% aid target but stated that it should be used in support of the “commercial and political interests of the UK.“
The Integrated Review is also particularly disappointing in terms of gender and inclusion strategies. There is only a single reference to gender equality, and the absence of commitments to delivering for the most marginalised people is worrying. The government’s admirable commitment to girls’ education is not a substitute for a comprehensive approach to gender equality and inclusion. From both a rights-based and an instrumentalist perspective, progress on gender equality is essential to sustainable development and poverty reduction globally.
Has it brought consistency, clarity and coherence?
In a word, no. For starters, the prime minister didn’t mention development once during his initial statement to the House of Commons and only spoke of their commitment to “return to 0.7 when the fiscal situation allows” after being prompted by MPs. It was telling that nine questions out of the first 14, many from his own party, were to do with the government reneging on their commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid and development.
The weekend before the publication of the Integrated Review, some media outlets were reporting that the prime minister would use the review to place a time limit on the proposed cut to 0.5, in a move to placate the considerable opposition from his own Conservative backbenches. But we got nothing, rather the reutterance of the ambiguous promise to return when the fiscal situation allows.
The publication of the Integrated Review was a moment that the prime minister should have made the case for the necessity of the planned cut to 0.5% of GNI, as well as to present a clear and practical roadmap back to 0.7%. But instead, MPs and NGOs are still in the dark as to how the government plans to make these cuts. and confusion remains as to whether MPs will be allowed a say on 0.7. The Integrated Review, along with the PMs neglect to even mention aid and development in his opening statement is proof that, without cabinet level representation, development is, at best, a second-tier consideration.
It is vital that work on the international development strategy promised in the Review starts as soon as possible. More importantly, we urge the government to meaningfully engage with international development, climate and human rights NGOs from the UK and partner countries to ensure that the strategy draws on the best available knowledge, evidence and expertise.
We also urge the government to rethink their proposal to cut UK ODA to just 0.5% of gross national income. Without a strong, resourced international development strategy, the gap between the government’s rhetoric and reality could prove too big to overcome.