Conservative MP for Braintree in Essex, James Cleverly has been announced as the new secretary of state for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs.
He succeeds Liz Truss – now prime minister of the UK – to become the seventh secretary of state for international development in just four years. In what has clearly been a turbulent time for the sector, we’ve also undergone a seismic shift with the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in 2020 – amid punishing and successive cuts to the UK aid budget.
With that in mind, and a keen awareness of how much is at stake, here’s what Bond believes Cleverly should prioritise in his new role.
A full in-tray
The new foreign and development secretary’s in-tray is not an enviable one: geopolitical tensions continue to run high, there is a cost-of-living crisis at home and abroad, a climate emergency exacerbating drought and floods – bringing widespread devastation, such as in Pakistan – and an ongoing struggle to define Britain’s role in a post-Brexit world.
Immediate focus will likely, and rightly, be on the war in Ukraine, but, we hope, also on its global impacts. Escalating costs of food and fuel are contributing to rising food insecurity with up to 50 million people are at risk of famine worldwide. Communities in East Africa are on the brink of starvation, and millions more globally are going hungry. Everywhere you look, help is needed now to save lives.
While the current food crisis has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, it is a serious failure of the international economic system that it does not provide adequate food for all, does little to address inequality, traps the most vulnerable in poverty and puts profit before people and planet. The root causes of poverty, inequality, conflict, authoritarianism and the climate emergency must be addressed to end the constant cycle of crises.
The UK’s international development portfolio has a vital role to play in addressing these systemic issues, creating a better future for us all, and ensuring that economic development is sustainable and people-centred.
There are promising signs that the overwhelming in-tray will be better shared, with Vicky Ford being named as minister for development, the first since the merger of Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign Office. Bond has been advocating for an FCDO minister for international development attending cabinet, since the merger to help ensure international development would be integral to the work of the FCDO.
Previously, there was no way the foreign secretary would have been able to get past all the urgent diplomatic issues in order to look at the structural issues, that often eventually flare up into major crises, as the former heads of the DFID did. As former minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean in the department, Vicky Ford is well-equipped to take on the critical tasks ahead and this is an important first step towards ensuring that the UK’s international development agenda is given appropriate attention, resources and priority within the broader UK’s foreign policy and diplomatic work.
An opportunity to reset
On international development, the UK has gone from a respected global player to one that slashed its ODA budget during a pandemic, shifted its focus from the most vulnerable to narrow national interests and fell out of the top performers on transparency. There is now an opportunity, and a need, for the new foreign and development secretary to lead not just the former FCO patch, but also the critical development and humanitarian agenda.
The long-awaited international development strategy is by no means perfect, but it provides a workable framework for much-needed action. The International Development Acts and the Sustainable Development Goals provide additional direction. We do not need another protracted strategy process. We need action.
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The new Cabinet has an opportunity to deliver on the promise of the merged department, using the levers of diplomacy and development to tackle global challenges. The new foreign and development secretary needs to put the UK’s house in order by focusing on aid effectiveness, transparency and accountability and ensuring that it supports the most marginalised first and contributes to the eradication of poverty and inequality.
Where to start?
The first thing the new foreign and development secretary needs to do is get the resourcing right – both for people and finance. The FCDO needs the right expertise, experience and leadership to deliver on its broad mandate, including the welcome Cabinet-level representation for development that has already been announced, stemming the brain drain and ensuring that experienced development professionals are able to make evidence-based decisions and meaningfully engage with the wider international development sector.
The continued insistence on treating 0.5% of GNI as a hard budget cap for ODA is making things worse. Another round of budget cuts looks very likely in the wake of mounting, ODA-eligible costs of hosting refugees and the Government’s unnecessary treatment of 0.5% as a ceiling. Further cuts on top of the previous rounds will devastate lives and livelihoods and further undermine the UK’s reputation with allies.
The solution is simple: the new foreign and development secretary should support the immediate lifting of the cap and set out a clear pathway back to 0.7%, which is still enshrined in law. This will create much-needed headroom to respond to the news headlines and ensure the FCDO is equipped to handle multiple, simultaneous, long- and short-term crises. While the current financial constraints in the UK may make this a tough sell, it is ultimately cheaper to prevent and resolve crises than let them expand – so saving lives and money.
However, raising the ceiling will not eliminate the need to prioritise. ODA is a finite resource and needs are rising rapidly. The foreign and development secretary is ultimately responsible for ensuring the UK’s ODA budget is spent in line with the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) rules and the UK’s International Development Acts. This means ensuring a primary focus on poverty alleviation, whatever the vehicle. Given the multiple, urgent crises, ODA spend should:
- Prioritise reaching the most marginalised and “leaving no one behind”
- Maximise the amount of funding that immediately and directly reaches people living in low- and middle-income countries, with more of it going through public services, local civil society organisations or community groups
- Be based on clear criteria related to saving lives, reducing poverty and inequality, and the aid effectiveness principles
- Ensure sufficient investment in tackling root causes and structural drivers of conflict and the climate emergency. Modest investments in the right prevention and preparedness interventions reap outsized rewards
- Ensure that investments via British International Investment (BII) and British Investment Partnerships (BIPs), as a growing vehicle for ODA, are responsible as well as “honest and reliable” and have a demonstrable development impact on poverty
The new foreign and development secretary has a daunting array of tasks before him. Lining up the right resources now, listening to the experts in his department and the wider UK international development sector and putting the most marginalised first will be the building blocks for success. Partnership and collaboration are going to be key for the new foreign secretary as he takes on his new portfolio, and Bond and the sector are ready to support him and the new minister for development, to deliver the best outcomes for the world’s most marginalised communities.