Last week, Bond and members came together in Birmingham for the Conservative party conference to spend four days discussing policy and other current issues of the day.
Set amidst a turbulent political background, INGOs and many Conservative MPs and ministers were keen to focus on the UK’s role in the world, as well as the devastating consequences cutting the UK aid budget has had on both communities facing poverty, conflict and climate change, and the UK’s reputation as a trusted global partner.
Cleverly and Truss on the main stage
Foreign secretary James Cleverly used his speech on the main stage to make the case for UK aid and development to the party members, both from a moral standpoint but also by pointing to benefits “for the national interest”. He said that by investing money in the UK’s international relationships, the UK “generate[s] influence on the world stage”, “drive[s] improvements in the lives of people overseas” and “improve[s] the lives of people here in the UK”. He outlined that through its UK aid budget, the UK does not stand by to watch problems happen, but steps in to improve things: “not passive, but active”.
In her speech to conference, prime minister Liz Truss spoke about the conflict in Ukraine as part of the “fight for freedom and democracy around the world”, highlighting that “we cannot have security at home without security abroad”. Besides this, there was little mention of foreign and development policy, other than a restatement that the foreign and defence secretaries are updating the Integrated Review to make sure we can face these threats.
Bond held its annual drinks reception where we heard from MPs about the central role of development in the UK’s foreign policy. Andrew Mitchell, former secretary of state for international development, highlighted that there is cause for optimism because we now have parliamentary support, a development minister, and a prime minister who understands foreign policy. Liam Fox, former trade secretary and former defence secretary, highlighted the inextricable link between development and other areas of policy: “if you don’t pay for development you end up paying it in defence or in the Home Office”.
Bond’s CEO Stephanie Draper also spoke at an event held by Bright Blue and the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), highlighting that UK aid is the most cost-effective way to deal with global challenges and urging the government to use the recently announced review of the Integrated Review to further integrate development with foreign policy in a way that works for the world’s most marginalised communities. All panellists agreed that the UK was damaging its global reputation as a result of the cuts to the UK aid budget.
Bond members and allies held numerous events on issues ranging from Afghanistan, the Global Fund, gender equality, atrocity prevention, ending preventable deaths, and protecting children in conflict. It was the first outing of the new foreign secretary, the new minister for development, and other recently appointed ministers, and it was encouraging to hear many commitments from them over the four days.
It was welcome to hear Cleverly say at a fringe event that development is a critical part of the UK’s international posture and should be interwoven closely with diplomacy. He also committed to ensuring women and girls remain at the heart of UK foreign policy. Minister for development Vicky Ford also spoke about the central importance of women and girls in the international development strategy at a reception held by Conservative Friends of International Development (CFID) and the HALO Trust. At another event, minister Ford highlighted that a Women & Girls Strategy is coming later this year and that the government are working on a national action plan on how they work with peacemakers. Ford also highlighted the critical importance of engagement with civil society.
It was welcome to hear minister Ford confirm that the UK won’t forget other crises in the wake of the war in Ukraine at a panel event held by Christian Aid. Vicar Giles Fraser also highlighted that the people around the world suffering the consequence of the global food crisis stand side by side with those suffering from food poverty in the UK – it isn’t us or them, and people want the government to act on both.
It was encouraging to hear defence secretary Ben Wallace say that “people around the world trust Britain’s hard and soft power… and we need to fund it properly” at a Coalition for Global Prosperity reception on Monday.
At an International Rescue Committee (IRC) event with Bright Blue on Monday, Alicia Kearns, one of the candidates for the new chair of the foreign affairs committee, called for a return to spending 0.7 of Gross National Income (GNI) on UK aid and highlighted the need to ensure that atrocity prevention is central to the UK’s foreign policy approach.
Finally, at an event held by Save the Children UK, former MP and head of Conservative Home Paul Goodman urged the government to remember the party’s 2015 commitment not to “balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest” as it plans for the future.