Eradicating extreme poverty: the role of UK aid

The International Development Committee recently launched an Inquiry into Extreme Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals.

This comes at a crucial moment. With the government finalising its International Development Strategy against a backdrop of rising poverty, climate change and conflict, and with increased pressures on the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget, it is critical the UK’s ODA budget is invested where it can help those living in poverty the most.

Bond and many of our working groups submitted evidence to the IDC on how UK aid can tackle extreme poverty. To address extreme poverty, the UK’s approach to development must be framed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and anchored in the principle to Leave No One Behind.

A poverty-focused approach which leaves no one behind

The primary purpose of ODA is to enhance the development and wellbeing of low- and middle-income countries. The move in recent years to align UK aid with other diplomatic and trade activities presents opportunities, but also carries big risks of ODA being co-opted for other priorities.

The UK has historically ranked highest among major donors for targeting poverty, but the share of ODA going to the lowest-income countrieshas steadily declined since 2015, closing the gap with other countries. Recent analysis from the Center for Global Development found that poverty-focus from the UK’s ODA allocation is falling, with the share going to Africa falling below 50% for the first time in 50 years.

Eradicating poverty means eradicating the drivers of poverty, including those which marginalise people due to race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and age. In 2019 the UK made its promise to Leave No One Behind, committing the Government to “prioritise the interests of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people; the poorest of the poor and those people who are most excluded and at risk of violence and discrimination.”

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Since then, we have seen a decrease in attention for this commitment. Despite the government producing a number of Inclusion Strategies, including the Disability Inclusion Strategy and the Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, it is unclear how well these have increased inclusion or been mainstreamed across the portfolio. The cuts to the 0.7% ODA budget disproportionately fell on vulnerable countries, and resulted in cuts for many programmes focused on gender, disability and other groups which have been marginalised.

Delivering across all the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Developmentand its 17 SDGsremainthe most comprehensive international agreement to date recognising the inextricable link between extreme poverty and inequality, climate change and conflict and providing a practical framework to address the multiple economic, social and environmental challenges facing the global community.

Extreme poverty is a multidimensional experience, and is often a result of systemic failures, driven by inequalities and other forms of marginalisation and discrimination. A lack of progress across other SDGs will ultimately adversely impact the UK’s contribution to SDG 1: No Poverty.

If the UK is to succeed in its role in fighting extreme poverty, it needs, first and foremost, an international development policy framed around the SDGs and the central principle to Leave No One Behind.

Sustainable development is interlinked and, without a coherent approach, opportunities are missed and other areas of implementation are undermined. A strong international development policy centred around the SDGs will also promote much-needed policy coherence within FCDO’s programming.

This will ensure that its development priorities on important issues such as gender equality, climate adaptation and mitigation, and social protection are not undermined by its foreign, trade and defence policies.

Following best practice on ODA

There are a number of well-established principles for ensuring ODA effectively targets extreme poverty. Amongst others, these include ensuring ODA is aligned with and led by country and community priorities, making sure it’s harmonised with other activities in the region and is transparent and accountable.

On all of these points the UK has a long way to go. They must demonstrate a renewed commitment to these principles through concrete changes in how they manage their portfolio.

Decisions must be grounded in evidence of what works, which historically the UK has had a strong track record on, and which we hope to see continue. Similarly, the UK has historically prioritised grants over loans, an approach which best promotes poverty eradication.

For funding to be effective in targeting poverty, it must be predictable and long-term. This allows communities to anticipate and best invest the ODA funding where it will have the most sustainable outcomes.

The cuts to ODA over recent years have violated this principle, resulting in abrupt halts to existing programming and risking reversing development outcomes, as well as jeopardising trust for the future.

More than just UK aid

Eradicating poverty cannot be done with ODA alone, and it is not the sole responsibility of those who work in development. The UK must use all its international levers to promote a just and equitable international system which can eradicate extreme poverty.

This requires greater emphasis on a broader policy coherence across the UK Government. A whole-of-government institutional approach to implementing the SDGs, led from the very top, would help to achieve this. Each government department must also do more to take ownership of their role in sustainable development in the UK and internationally.

We need fair and progressive trade, climate, investment, tax, finance, environment, disability, labour rights, health and education policies.

The UK’s ODA spend must go hand in hand with a larger commitment to reshaping the international rules that keep countries and communities in extreme poverty.

When done well, supporting countries to build their income from trade can help support long-term growth out of poverty. As the UK redefines its trade relations with the rest of the world following Brexit, it should avoid arm-twisting trade deals with low- and middle-income countries which constrain their national development efforts.

Similarly, the UK must recognise and seek to reform 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. The UK government should use its position in international institutions to guide the reshaping of the international development approach, recognising other governments and local communities as equal and expert partners.


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