The UK government is due to publish a new International Development Strategy (IDS) in the coming months.
First announced in March 2021, the strategy has been delayed and revised many times, most recently following the appointment of Liz Truss as foreign secretary in September 2021. What can we expect from the strategy, and most importantly, will it deliver for people living in poverty around the world?
What we know so far
The IDS will detail how the government plans to take forward the strategic priorities set out in the Integrated Review. It is meant to be a long-term, cross-departmental strategy, which will guide the UK government’s approach to international development over the next 10 years.
The paper will be short, but this should not be at the expense of clear commitments. The strategy needs a monitoring and accountability framework with clear goals, targets and milestones if it is to result in meaningful changes which can be measured and attributed to our efforts.
We understand that the IDS will be followed by a series of strategies or strategic frameworks on related topics including conflict, disability, and women and girls, which we hope will add detail to the vision set out in the IDS.
A new foreign secretary
The strategy is likely to reflect the worldview and priorities of the new foreign secretary, and will set out her vision for development up to and beyond 2030.
When it was first announced, we were told that the IDS would focus on the “how” rather than the “what”, because we already had the 7 strategic priorities for Official Development Assistance (ODA) announced by the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
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In contrast, Liz Truss presented a much narrower set of priorities in her first major public speech. As well as setting out a new approach on trade and investment, she said the IDS would focus on creating opportunities for women and girls and respond to humanitarian crises around the world.
The language may also differ from what we are used to, and is likely to reflect the foreign secretary’s emphasis on individual agency, self-reliance, economic freedom and social choice.
Beyond this, little has been said publicly about the new strategy. Here’s what we will be looking out for when the strategy is published this spring:
Will eradicating extreme poverty be its primary goal?
The word “poverty” was absent from the foreign secretary’s speech. Will it also be missing from the IDS? To be credible, the strategy must have tackling poverty as its primary goal and set out a robust approach to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including working with others to help end extreme poverty by 2030.
The IDS should lead to policy coherence across the UK government, acknowledging that poverty is a structural issue which ODA alone cannot solve. We need fair and progressive trade, climate, investment, tax, finance, environment, health, labour and education policies that complement efforts to tackle poverty in low- and middle-income countries rather than exacerbate it. The SDGs provide a comprehensive framework for this, which should sit at the heart of the new strategy.
The IDS needs to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to “Leave No One Behind” and end the entrenched disadvantages experienced by the most marginalised communities. All policies should be assessed and monitored to ensure they have a positive impact on people affected by intersectional discrimination and marginalisation due to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and age.
The IDS is an opportunity to shift from a centralised, top-down way of tackling poverty to a more inclusive, bottom-up approach. One that values the knowledge, expertise and lived experience of marginalised people living in poverty, and is rooted in equitable representation in decision-making, and resourcing community-led organisations.
What about protecting human rights and promoting civil society?
Supporting open societies, working with civil society and defending human rights were central to the Integrated Review, yet there was no mention of them in Liz Truss’s speech. Civil society groups and human rights defenders are critical to delivering development goals, but face severe restrictions and pressures in many countries.
Will the strategy set out how the UK government will support civil society groups and human rights defenders as development actors? How will the UK work with them to promote and protect civic space and human rights globally? We would like some detail in the strategy on how the UK will work with civil society and provide long term, flexible funding, as part of a broader shift towards community-led development.
Trade and investment policies in support of development, or development in support of the UK’s trade and investment?
As a former trade secretary, we expect Liz Truss to give trade and investment a prominent place in the strategy. Trade and investment are important, but the strategy should detail how they will support sustainable development in countries, rather than support the UK.
Tackling global poverty and reducing global inequality will not be achieved by ODA alone. ODA is important in the short term, but the key is coherence across all policy areas – especially those linked to trade, investment, security, finance, tax, transparency, multilateralism and their alignment with SDGs.
The UK is redefining its trade relations with the rest of the world, and should avoid arm-twisting countries into trade deals that constrain their national efforts. The UK needs to recognise its role in facilitating international tax avoidance and flows of illicit finance which deprive low- and middle-income countries of billions of pounds every year. Without addressing these issues the strategy will only pay lip service to long term sustainable development commitments. It will instead keep countries indebted, dependent on development and humanitarian assistance and unable to shape their own future.
Will it offer real actions to address climate change?
The IDS should outline clear commitments and actions to address the interrelated climate, nature and poverty crises, maintaining a focus on the needs of the most marginalised communities. This should include fully aligning all ODA with the Paris Agreement and SDGs and increasing additional climate finance, particularly for adaptation and to address loss and damage in climate vulnerable countries.
We need policy coherence across the government on climate and nature, ensuring as a minimum that all government policies “do no harm”. The IDS and wider government policies should support low- and middle-income countries to adapt and build resilience to climate change and biodiversity loss. The UK should not outsource pollution, waste and biodiversity loss via trade and investment deals.
Will it prioritise people in fragile and conflict affected situations?
The foreign secretary has said the strategy will commit the UK “to stepping up our response to humanitarian crises around the world” but what does this mean in practice? The strategy should have a strong focus on humanitarian preparedness, and an unqualified commitment to humanitarian principles and needs-based funding and “do no harm” principles.
It’s predicted that up to two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty will be in fragile, conflict affected situations by 2030. What role will development assistance play in tackling the drivers of conflict and displacement? The IDS must detail how the UK government will address the root causes of conflicts.
Can it restore faith in the UK’s commitment to international development?
Following two years of upheaval, brought about by the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and successive rounds of cuts to ODA, the international development strategy is an opportunity for the government to restore faith in its commitment to international development and the marginalised communities we work with.
Bond hopes the strategy will deliver for people living in poverty around the world, but this will only be possible if it is rooted in equity and inclusion, and prioritises tackling poverty and achieving the SDGs over narrow self-interest.
With thanks to Abigael Baldoumas, Helen Rumford and Alice Whitehead for their contributions.