David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell talk before Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts his weekly Cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell talk before Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts his weekly Cabinet meeting in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The UK White Paper on International Development – Has it delivered on its ambitions?

The process for producing the UK White Paper on International Development – the first since 2009 – was launched in the summer with much fanfare.

We were promised a cross-government White Paper presenting “an approach to international development fit for the 21st century”. So, now the White Paper has been published, how does Bond assess its ambitions, and has it delivered on its promises?

What positives can we take away from the White Paper?

This White Paper represents a much-needed statement of the UK’s growing ambitions in promoting sustainable development, at a time when conflict is growing, extreme poverty is in reverse, climate change is accelerating, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are significantly off-track.

There is a clear commitment in the White Paper to refocus UK aid on lower-income countries, to scale up efforts to achieve the SDGs, to promote open societies, reform international institutions and to further prioritise the needs of women and girls, people living with disabilities and other marginalised groups. These actions will help to make the UK aid budget go further in contributing to the global goals.

We warmly welcome the White Paper commitment to pursue more respectful and equitable development partnerships, to move away from an outdated donor-recipient model, to “acknowledge our past” and to publish a strategy setting out how the UK will support local leadership on development. We and our members urge the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to put this rhetoric into practice and ensure this strategy shifts decision-making, resources and power to local partners and communities. We look forward to a close collaboration with the department to take the strategy forward.

There are also a range of welcome commitments on civil society, including reinvigorating the FCDO’s approach to partnering with civil society through a range of new funding mechanisms and bringing forward legislation to introduce a humanitarian ‘exception’ to the UK’s financial sanctions.

In addition, valuable commitments are made in the White Paper to tackle corruption and illicit finance, to help secure an ambitious new climate finance goal in 2024, to scale up climate adaptation spending, to strengthen pandemic preparedness and promote universal access to health, education and social protection services, although there is precious little on water and sanitation.

The financing ‘elephant in the room’

With these and many other commitments in the White Paper, there is a nagging question of how they will be resourced when the UK aid budget remains at 0.5% of national income, with a third of this currently being used to support refugees in the UK. Universal access to basic services, for example, requires significant upfront investments now, and the government is not planning to return spending to 0.7% until close to 2030 – the apparent end date for this White Paper, as well as the SDGs.

The White Paper committed that by 2030 British International Investment (BII) will make over half of its investments in countries that received the most concessional resources from the World Bank during IDA-17 (2014-17) and in the current list of fragile and conflict-affected situations. FCDO has informed Bond that over the last 5 years, and during 2022 and 2023 (to date), BII has invested 37% of its resources in these countries (correcting a larger figure we previously published, based on the best publicly available data), so this commitment will improve its country targeting. We hope that FCDO/BII will report publicly on progress and look for opportunities to further improve BII’s poverty focus in the coming years, especially as BII’s funding from the UK aid budget is due to increase.

Limited ambition on ‘beyond aid’ reforms

There will also be a sense of disappointment across the sector on the limited ambition this White Paper presents on UK reform commitments to tax, debt, trade and the systems that govern global cooperation in these areas. Whilst there are some important commitments, like promoting Climate Resilient Debt Clauses and imports from developing countries, there are some glaring gaps.

On tax, there is little recognition of the UK’s role in driving damaging corporate tax dodging through UK-linked tax havens, and a reaffirmation of the role of the OECD in governing global tax policy, rather than promoting a role for a UN convention and representative tax body, as proposed by the G77 and civil society.

On debt, it fails to offer a bold vision for resolving the debt crisis and to offer a response to the growing role private creditors are playing in driving debt levels. NGOs have been calling for the government to introduce legislation to incentivise private lenders to take part in debt relief processes, an option the government did not adopt.

On trade, there is no recognition of the need to reform the World Trade Organization and the government did not address our call for it to publish a trade strategy that commits the UK to put trade at the service of reducing poverty, tackling climate change, and promoting decent work.

It is hard not to conclude that the lack of ambitious policy in these areas suggests that key departments outside of FCDO did not take this White Paper seriously enough. This is a major concern, given the SDGs cannot be achieved without a whole of government response.

Progress, but more ambition is needed

Overall, this White Paper continues the recent progress we have seen in the UK’s international development ambitions being rebuilt after a period of decline. It also feels like this is the best White Paper that could be produced within the constraints of the government’s current political ambitions on international development.

Our members hope that with the appointment of David Cameron – who had a strong record of supporting international development whilst Prime Minister – as Foreign Secretary, political ambitions on international development can shift further and that this White Paper can represent a base level from which more ambitious progress can be achieved


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