As we watch the government being challenged by ever ongoing Brexit struggles and its political repercussions, brace ourselves for social outrage over a President Trump’s visit, and waited for the White Paper that outlines the next steps of EU-UK cooperation to avoid a no deal scenario, it’s a good time to ask ourselves: What is the future we want? The Institute for Government’s debate on aid and development after Brexit couldn’t have come at a better time. It brought together Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development, with Save the Children’s Kirsty McNeill, Centre for Global Development’s Mikaela Gavas and an audience full of eager thinkers to discuss the best possible options for UK development cooperation post Brexit.
It was a hopeful debate, because development and aid is our strength. The UK, as Matthew Rycroft rightly emphasised, is a development superpower. Spending 0.7% of the UK’s economic wealth on aid lies at the heart of this leadership. With a strong DFID, heading a powerful British ecosystem on development that brings together other government departments, think tanks, universities, business and international NGOs, we have shaped global action to the better. We have helped pioneer the Millennium Development Goals, brought about stronger Sustainable Development Goals, led efforts on debt cancellation, reached the EU aid consensus pre Gleneagles and renewed ambitions 10 years later on, fought Ebola, acted quickly to avoid famines and tackle conflict… the list is long. These past successes should give us confidence as a country to shape the post Brexit future from a position of strength.
Matthew Rycroft gave a compelling vision of development in a future where two development superpowers now have to find new ways of working while ensuring the highest impact for the world’s poorest people. At the heart of this lies agility – agreeing a cooperation framework that enables us to act when need arises, in a world that has seen both progress and increased crises. There is much to do, as emphasised by bleak realities – we now, for instance, live in a world where two-thirds of Syria’s children have been injured, lost a family member, or have seen their homes being bombed. But we can also build on our strength and can shape the future for the better – antibiotics costing as little as 30p can treat pneumonia, the biggest killer of children under five. Save the Children suggests concerted efforts in these two areas – tackling pneumonia and protecting children in conflict – where the UK can really build on its strength.
This requires ambitious action as much as continuous UK leadership on aid. Matthew Rycroft argued that “AID needs to be more Ambitious – to transform lives; truly Inclusive – acting in partnership with the British development ecosystem; and take a more coherent approach to Development.” Save the Children strongly agrees with these ambitions, but believes that for aid to truly transform lives, it is about the how. While we’ll need a broad approach to development (and should ensure joint up and coherent action across Whitehall), it is a narrow area where aid is really crucial. Save the Children argued that aid crucially needs to be spent on health, nutrition and education; areas where other types of finance can’t or won’t go, and where there’s evidence of its high impact. To truly transform the lives of the most deprived and marginalised children, aid needs to go where it makes the biggest difference, and be spent up to the highest standards. DFID has been keeping the bar high in both areas.
With development actors increasing and DFID not being the only channel of aid spend – since 2014 the share of ODA spent by Other Government Departments has more than doubled – questions of quality, impact and value for money become more important though. Publish What you Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, which ranks donors according to their aid transparency performance, indicated that while DFID’s performance remains “very good”, aid channelled by other departments (the index scrutinised the FCO) still has a long way to go. There’s a piece of work to do to ensure we replicate the high standards on aid set by DFID across government. And we need to keep the focus on areas of strength – fostering health and human development, focusing on achieving the SDGs, targeting those that are hard to reach and acting in places that aren’t easy– if we want to remain a superpower that is fit for the future.