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The politics of international development in 2023

It’s been another eventful year in UK politics, although what year in recent memory wasn’t?

There has been some much-needed stability for the aid and development sector with the continued tenure of Minister for International Development Andrew Mitchell, who has been in post for thirteen months.

In office, Mitchell has focused on the new International Development White Paper, which was published in November. At Bond, we took the view that this document represents a much-needed statement of the UK’s growing ambitions in promoting sustainable development, and were pleased to see clear commitments towards refocusing UK aid on lower-income countries, scaling up efforts to achieve the SDGs, to promote open societies, and to reform international institutions.

While we are still calling for a return to 0.7% of GDP on UK aid spending, the commitments in the White Paper will help the UK aid budget go further in contributing to the global goals. The minister has stated his wish for the White Paper to be ‘cross-party’ in the event of a change in government, but Labour have not yet committed to this.

It has also been a positive development that Mitchell has now instigated more regular engagement with civil society organisations, reversing the trend of recent years. Convened by Bond, the sector now has twice-yearly meetings with the Minister for Development and Africa, in addition to more frequent ad-hoc meetings on urgent topics which arise, such as Gaza. During the consultation process for the White Paper, there was also deep civil society engagement, with the sector contributing through online consultations, as well as meetings with the FCDO civil society team.

In a speech to Chatham House in April, the Minister described the UK’s international development work as ‘core to our own national interest as well as the right thing to do’ and called on the world to mobilise trillions of dollars of private finance for climate. There has been a shift in tone and substance on international development policy from both the minister and the new Foreign Secretary, with the latter writing a foreword to the new International Development White Paper which described the UK’s aid work as a ‘moral mission’.

There were reshuffles in both the Conservative and Labour parties towards the end of the year, with November seeing the appointment of a new Foreign Secretary in David Cameron, with James Cleverly moving to Home Secretary following the departure of Suella Braverman from government.

As Prime Minister, David Cameron was a champion of aid and development, enshrining 0.7% in law, and since leaving office has criticised the merger between the FCO and DFID. His time in office to date has been dominated by the crisis in the Middle East, which has also been the focus of many of our member organisations.

On the global stage, a range of summits have given the UK the opportunity to engage – or not – on the future of the global development landscape.

In September, Rishi Sunak became the first British Prime Minister not to attend the UN General Assembly in a decade, also missing the SDG Summit which took place under its auspices. This was a missed opportunity for the UK government to show real leadership on the sustainable development agenda at home and abroad, with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden attending in his place.

In November, the UK partnered with the UAE and Somalia to host the Global Food Security Summit, which saw the UK pledging £100 million in humanitarian funding to countries worst hit by food insecurity, including Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

And at the recent COP28, which the Prime Minister attended, the UK pledged £1.6 billion for international climate finance projects. However, the Prime Minister also used his speaking time to defend his decision to slow down the UK’s route to Net Zero, including delaying a ban on petrol cars. This was part of a worrying trend within the Conservative party to move away from existing environmental commitments.

Within the Labour party, Lisa Nandy was appointed Shadow Minister for International Development, and has been getting stuck into the brief since her appointment in early autumn. However, Labour has still not made any commitments towards the reinstatement of the 0.7% aid target, or clarified how they would seek to organise an aid-spending department in government.

David Lammy’s speech to Labour party conference emphasised Labour’s position as ‘the party of internationalism’ and promised to deliver ‘national, economic and climate security through diplomacy’. However, he did not make any specific commitments related to international development.

There is continuing instability within the government with the Conservative party remaining divided on their asylum and immigration policy, as well as on their overall strategic direction as they look towards a likely election next year.

Across the sector, we have been engaging with all parties as they develop their election manifestos, and continue to push for a return to 0.7%, as well as for an international development policy rooted in justice, equity and solidarity. We also continue to champion the need for a cabinet-level minister for international development, with control over budgets and responsibility and accountability for delivering on the UK’s sustainable development goals.

The Bond manifesto will be published early next year, and we look forward to sharing it with members and with political parties in advance of the next election.

Looking to next year, there is only one real certainty – that there will be a General Election (or at the very latest, by January 2025). So, whatever happens, we predict more political upheaval, with new challenges and opportunities for the UK international development sector.


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