Last year was titanic for the development community in the UK – full of challenges and soul-searching on how we can try to influence a UK government that is not on the same page as us, has a large majority and believes the public does not support UK aid.
But what is 2022 likely to hold regarding how the UK government approaches Official Development Assistance (ODA), and how could and should the sector respond?
We now have the sixth secretary of state in charge of the UK’s ODA portfolio in just three years. This of course has led to instability, and like her predecessors, Liz Truss will want to put her stamp on the overall FCDO approach. We have been given some limited glimpses of what we can expect her priorities to be from her initial speeches, including mentions of women and girls, climate and environment, green infrastructure, humanitarian assistance and global health.
However, the ODA portfolio is more notable by its absence in the foreign secretary’s recent speeches, and with rumours circulating that Truss is “on manoeuvres” for the PM job and the FCDO picking up the complex Brexit negotiations brief, there are real concerns that the foreign secretary will have little bandwidth for the critical, but perhaps less newsworthy, work of tackling poverty and sustainable development.
A key test of the FCDO’s approach will come early in 2022, when the government’s International Development Strategy is published – previously delayed from last year due to the arrival of the new foreign secretary.
To the secretary of state’s credit, there has been more openness to conversations and meetings with civil society. Bond worked hard to get the sector’s input noted throughout the FCDO’s strategy development process, including a written submission and several meetings with the foreign secretary, ministers and FCDO officials, and we were undoubtedly successful in advocating for a more open and inclusive process.
Whether our efforts will have any impact on the FCDO’s leadership or be taken into account in the Strategy remains to be seen. We set out in advance what we hope to see from the International Development Strategy and we will be holding the government to account against the benchmarks we set out in Setting a new Course: Principles and recommendations for the UK’s international development strategy as soon as it is published.
Our guess is that the International Development Strategy will be broad and without detail. We hope this will come later in specific thematic and departmental strategies, of which there are many in the pipeline. Some FCDO departments and officials are engaging with civil society to develop these plans, and we hope to see that continue. Civil society engagement is a critical part of any serious approach to development and humanitarian assistance.
This year is likely to bring further battles on the principles around what the ODA budget is spent on. For many years the UK was seen as one of the best donors in terms of its poverty focus and quality of its programmes. This is no longer the case.
The UK’s laudable focus on Leaving No One Behind seems to be slipping away, and the UK aid cuts slashed bilateral aid from £4.0bn to £1.5bn leaving many low-income countries without any support at all, and huge cuts to fragile and conflict-affected countries – a previous priority – such as Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq, and (initially) Afghanistan.
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The reduced UK aid budget has been further undermined by unnecessarily counting excess vaccine doses, Special Drawing Rights and debt relief under the arbitrary 0.5% GNI ceiling.
The development sector will have to make the case for evidence-based development interventions loudly in 2022, focusing on poverty alleviation, building effective public health and education services, ensuring basic nutritional needs are met and social protection safety nets exist. These arguments may not be flavour of the month, but evidence shows they are critical if we are to make progress on the International Development Act’s purpose of poverty reduction and sustainable development.
There was some optimism in the first half of 2021 about the chance to “build back better” post-pandemic. But the rise in vaccine nationalism and hoarding by rich nations have made those promises seem hollow, as does the barely believable refusal by key countries, including the UK, to allow the generic production of vaccines – despite the consensus view that this is the only way to vaccinate enough people around the world to curtail new variants.
Tragically, we have not seen the kind of global teamwork required to get the world vaccinated, let alone start to build back a new and better world. It may be left to us, as citizens of the world, to push for vaccine equity and efforts to ensure we are all safe, as governments around the world appear unwilling to set aside short-term political interests for the longer-term global good.
One area where we might see more progress this year is health systems investment. This is one of the secretary of state’s priorities and the case for it seems self-evident, even from a narrow “national interest” perspective. However, even global health programmes took a big hit in the UK’s aid cuts, so we will need to watch this space.
What can the UK NGO sector do?
Conversations among Bond members on what we can collectively do to be more influential in the UK have revealed several key areas for improvement.
Better quality engagement with the UK government:
Given how politics has driven the UK’s approach to development over the last year or two, many NGOs understandably have questioned whether they should continue to engage with the UK government at all on humanitarian and development policy issues. It is certainly true that relationships between the sector and government were at rock bottom in 2021, but Bond has been able to facilitate an increased level of engagement with FCDO on a variety of issues more recently – though results remain to be seen.
Bond will be refreshing our guidelines for what meaningful, inclusive and deliberative engagement between the government and civil society looks like, and we are working hard to ensure conversations with FCDO senior officials are genuine rather than cosmetic. We also look forward to seeing the long-awaited FCDO civil society engagement strategy, which should set out how they see the role of global civil society and intend to engage. We hope that the improved relationships in the last part of the year can be built on in 2022. However, we will also need to remain vigilant and stand up for what we believe in, both publicly and privately, and speak truth to power where required.
As well as critiquing and reacting to government approaches, we must continue to be propositional and provide suggested solutions to development problems. We need to do more to present a cohesive vision of what progressive internationalism and ODA for the 2020s and 2030s looks like. For that reason, Bond has launched its Future Dialogues project to harvest and shape new ideas on internationalism and development throughout the year.
In thinking about how to make change happen in the UK, there’s been lots of talk about ecosystems over the last year, including a useful report by Runnymede Trust and IPPR. The report talks of the need for broad and deep ecosystems coalescing around issues, and the importance of making links with campaigns on different but related issues. We saw some of this last year in the Crack the Crises coalition which was successful in pulling together diverse actors working on issues of covid, climate change and injustice.
Bond has played an important role in the wide and diverse coalitions challenging the government’s attempts to restrict civil society space and citizens’ rights through the Police & Crimes Bill and Elections Bill. In 2022, we must continue to work across diverse alliances to protect rights and freedoms and try to get beyond the culture wars.
One of the reasons the government took the axe to the ODA budget was that it felt that this would not be challenged beyond the usual suspects (i.e. us) and would be popular with Conservative voters. The government had not anticipated the scale of media coverage the sector generated highlighting the impact of the UK aid cuts, and the size and strength of the Tory rebellion in parliament. In fact, the noise that we made as a sector led to a small recovery in public support for development. But it remains true that the sector must do a better job of convincing the UK public of the importance of international development and the healthier, safer and more sustainable impact it can have on people’s lives. We also need to tell a better and more honest story of our successes, failures and the relevance of our work to the public.
In January, the Aid Alliance will be launching a pilot public campaign targeting segments of the UK public who need to be won over in how the UK works in solidarity with countries around the world and shown that it works. We will learn from that and use it to help it to shape our own messages so that they give power to the people we work with and show positive progress to old and new supporters.