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Liz Truss holds a call with other G7 foreign ministers to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Credit: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The International Development Strategy: a rapid assessment

16 May 2022

Today the UK government released the long-awaited International Development Strategy (IDS).  

The IDS sets out what the UK’s approach to development will be and highlights the priorities for the FCDO going forward.   

We will have a deeper analysis in the coming days. Here is an overview of what the strategy says, and what it doesn’t say, about the future of development in the UK. 

The framing 

The IDS is less a strategy than a long-term vision for a whole-of-government approach to development, with little detail and financial commitments. Official Development Assistance (ODA) is included, but it also aims to maximise “UK expertise, business, civil society networks, research partnerships and technology capability”.   

It appears to reflect the current geopolitical situation, with a clear focus on leveraging development assistance to strengthen bilateral partnerships and global alliances, while supporting states to become resilient against the “threat of malign influence and aggression”.  

Like its 2015 predecessor, the language in the IDS promotes British interests, expertise and investment, aimed at a domestic political audience rather than development partners globally. The emphasis on development as part of the UK’s foreign policy is a concern in regards to delivering development outcomes. 

We know from experience that “tied aid” is ineffective and “trickle-down” economics aimed at improving a country’s economy does not reach the most marginalised communities. Targeting the most marginalised communities in lower-income countries is one of the most effective ways to tackle poverty alongside the systemic root causes of inequality - and global economic governance is fundamental. The Covid pandemic and overspilling conflicts have shown that no-one is safe until we are all safe. 

The commitment to spend the majority of ODA in low-income countries and continued support for the commitment to spend 0.2% of GNI on the Least Developed Countries is welcome, but poverty alleviation should be at the heart of this strategy. Instead, it’s largely absent- getting just a couple of references compared with trade’s 27. References to tackling inequality and “leaving no one behind” are similarly weak.   

It is good to see the re-commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the use of the full range of government tools in support, but the strategy does not set out how ODA will be aligned with the SDGs nor how it will promote policy coherence across the ODA portfolio and wider government policies.   

The four priorities 

The strategy contains four priority areas.  

“Honest and reliable investment”  

We need huge investment to meet global challenges, but it is concerning that trade and investment seem to be the central focus of the IDS without specifying the rules and principles to ensure that trade and investments deliver positive outcomes for poverty reduction, human rights, sustainable development and climate. 

In the absence of a joined-up trade, development and climate strategy, the specific measures that the IDS cites to bring trade and development together – such as the new Developing Countries Trading Scheme – are unlikely to resolve the fundamental incoherence between the UK’s current approach to these three crucial areas.    

We need fair and responsible trade that serves the needs of communities around the world, and is driven and owned by local farmers, producers and workers rather than in the interests of international investors and shareholders or to strengthen UK’s economic and geopolitical interests. 

"Women and girls"  

Prioritising gender equality is a good thing. However, it is unclear whether the IDS’s ambition of “providing women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed” will help achieve this. The problem lies not with the capacity of women and girls themselves, but with the social, economic, and political barriers they face daily.   

We will be looking to the forthcoming “Women and Girls” strategy for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to tackling long-standing structural problems.   

“Humanitarian assistance” 

The centrality of humanitarian response to the strategy is welcome and the “prioritise, protect and prevent” framework at the heart of it has the potential to provide a strong basis for robust humanitarian action.  

However, it provides little detail about how increasingly scarce resources will be allocated, and the commitment to spend £3billion over three years falls far short of what is needed to respond to current crises, such as those in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia, and leaves little room for future conflicts.    

The commitment to help countries escape cycles of conflict and violence through investing in conflict prevention and reduction, including through the establishment of a new conflict and atrocity prevention hub, is positive. However, the focus is on finding top-down solutions rather than bottom-up approaches, which would place the needs of conflict-affected communities at their centre.  

There is also no mention of conflict sensitivity or safeguards to ensure that development assistance and trade agreements promote peace rather than undermine it. 

“Climate, nature and health” 

Encouragingly, the strategy emphasises that tackling climate change and biodiversity loss remains “the UK’s number one international priority”. Existing commitments, including the £11.6bn climate finance and the commitment to align new ODA with the Paris Agreement, are reiterated.  

The strategy says the right things on “driving the rapid transformation and systemic shifts required” to tackle climate issues, but the emphasis is on private finance and green infrastructure, which potentially sounds like an approach driven by the UK’s own priorities rather than what works most effectively for affected communities.  

Prioritising health and a robust approach will be key to the delivery of the other stated priorities in the International Development Strategy, including improving outcomes for women and girls. But the strategy lacks clear goals as well as funding commitments for the UK to support improving health globally over the next 10 years. 

What’s changed and what’s missing 

Multilaterals and bilateral rebalancing 

Presented as a big shift, one of the few targets in the strategy is for 75% of ODA to be spent in country and on bilateral programmes by 2025. In 2019, before the successive rounds of UK aid cuts, around 68% was spent bilaterally. Both bilateral and multilateral approaches are essential for good development, so some will question the need for an arbitrary target. Does this herald a further UK retreat from multilateral spaces at a time when global cooperation is needed? And will it leave global initiatives, particularly on global public health, further under-funded? 

Open societies  

References to freedom are peppered throughout the strategy, but the details are scarce, with no mention of human rights and civic space, or the human rights defenders and activists who risk their lives every day to protect them.  

Instead, the focus is on strengthening economic freedoms and resilience. Rather than setting out a clear plan for action, it assumes that bilateral investments, trade agreements and security partnerships at the heart of this strategy will have a trickle-down effect on social and political rights, which we know is unlikely. 

Decolonisation 

The IDS falls short on promoting racial equity and progressing racial justice in our development work. There are references to “supporting” and “partnering” with communities, and we welcome the mention of countries taking control over their future. But the “how” is missing.  

The strategy is silent on the UK's role in developing the “structural problems” that lead to communities being marginalised which means little chance to redress the UK’s culpability in perpetuating unequal and racialised power relations. 

Locally led development and funding  

We are happy to see “being locally owned” coming through strongly in the strategy, but there’s scant information on how the FCDO will help implement it, or how the FCDO intends to fund civil society in local communities. Ideally, the department would move from a project-based approach to providing long-term flexible funding to civil society organisations that helps shift power to communities.    

Moving forward 

While there are some positives, there are also big gaps and a lack of detail in places. How will ODA be spent and how will decisions about spending be made

There is little on accountability and transparency – so how will progress be measured and how will the FCDO be held to account? There is only a broad statement that all ODA spending departments will remain accountable for how they spend their allocation, and they will continue to publish progress in annual reports. And there’s only a passing reference to the importance of transparency and accountability in supporting the long-term progress of bilateral partners. 

We hope the detail will emerge in the raft of sub-strategies and frameworks currently being worked on by the FCDO.