Well done Andrew Mitchell. On Monday he will unveil the UK’s first White Paper on development for 14 years, and the first credible statement of policy and intent on the subject of any kind for more than a decade. (Yes, there have been previous documents claiming to be strategies, including Liz Truss’ notorious offering of May last year. They were rarely worth the paper they were written on).
Mitchell’s White Paper is different. It warrants careful appraisal. Here are five tests readers should apply, and my forecast on how it will pass muster on each of them.
Development is different from other areas of public policy in the UK. Unlike law and order, education, health and other areas, governing politicians have wide discretion over what they choose to do on development.
That puts a premium on having a clear problem statement. So, the first test is what exactly is the challenge the White Paper is trying to address?
I would be amazed if Mitchell fails there, though several recent efforts have done. The White Paper will say unequivocally that the problem development policy needs to be focused on in the years ahead is extreme global poverty, exacerbated by climate change. I expect it to contain compelling analysis to show why. (The team assembled to prepare the White Paper—supervised by Second Permanent Secretary Nick Dyer, who was largely responsible for the last White Paper in 2009—are shrewd and experienced. They understand the importance of getting the starting point right).
The second question is whether the White Paper is clear that the driving focus of government policy is to respond to the problem as described. I am sure Mitchell will say that the goal of Britain’s development policy now is ending extreme global poverty. That then needs to be corroborated by the detailed commitments that follow—and I predict there will be a lot of them.
They will cover all the hot topics in development, going beyond simply the use of aid. Private finance, multilateral reform, trade, debt, climate change, help for women and girls, education, health, corruption, tax reform, water, social protection, humanitarian response, conflict prevention, open societies, the role of British institutions beyond government: all these themes (and others) will be there. I doubt I will find myself disagreeing with any of the specific proposals, but I suspect there will be too many of them for my taste, in particular of the variety that promise a strategy on this, new tools for that, or a meeting on the other thing. At the end of the day it does not really matter. But there is, of course, a good deal to be said for setting out a detailed agenda.
The point—the thing that really does matter—is whether the White Paper can corral and sustain a wide consensus around its central theme of ending poverty. That was done successfully from 1997 to around 2013. The consensus then frayed before evaporating completely. Can it be re-established?
The third test is around tone and positioning. The UK made itself a laughingstock internationally in the years after the Brexit referendum, not just by slashing the aid budget in the middle of the pandemic, abandoning commitments and belittling allies, but also because the tone it adopted to poorer developing countries appeared to them to be arrogant and colonial. While Britain was once a genuine leader on development thinking and practice, that reputation has been squandered. Unless the stance of the new White Paper is quite different, it will be received with yet more eye-rolling.
Mitchell has heard that message and will probably lean into this. This White Paper will not bang on about British leadership. It will focus on partnerships and working with others. Words like patient, respectful, listening and collaboration will abound. Concepts including responding to locally-owned priorities (yes, the words are ugly but the idea is important), supporting multilateralism and giving the poorest countries more say in international bodies will be prominent. So, the document itself will pass this test, and people will then watch and listen to see whether the words are reflected in behaviour. It will take time to re-establish trust, but this will be a valuable start.
The next test is the vexed question of resources. Between 1997 and 2019 Britain made an outsized contribution to reducing world poverty. Ranil Dissanayake and I have told the story of that up to 2003. Next month we will publish an account for the years 2003-10. And next year we will publish a book covering the whole of the 1997-2020 period. There were four key ingredients. First, a clear policy statement—see above. Second, a commitment to work in partnership with others—again, see above. And third, enough money to move the dial. (The fourth element was building an institution, the Department for International Development (DFID), which was capable of pursuing the agenda. More on that below).
The government abandoned the 0.7 percent commitment in 2020. It then raided the remainder of the aid budget in 2021 and 2022 to deal with domestic problems, above all the cost of looking after refugees, especially from Ukraine. The effect was to reduce the aid budget of the merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to about 0.3 percent of national income.
But things are worse than that implies. A chunk of the remaining budget—about 15 percent, or roughly £1 billion in some years—can, as a result of restrictions imposed by the Treasury, only be used to buy assets. Almost all of that has been going into continuous additional capitalisation of British International Investment (BII). BII has its virtues but it is currently ill equipped to play a major role in addressing the core poverty problem.
And finally, all these changes have been landed on the aid budget with essentially no warning, making a mockery of any hope of rational planning or financial management.
Dissanayake and I have examined the impact of all this on British help for those countries where the majority of the world’s poor actually live. We looked in particular at 18 countries in Africa and Asia. Ten years ago, in 2013/14, UK direct aid to those countries amounted to (in today’s money, i.e. adjusted for inflation) £3.4 billion. Andrew Mitchell had built on what his predecessors as the Secretary of State for International Development did to get it to that level. This year, according to figures published by the FCDO, it will be £642 million.
To save you reaching for your calculator, that is a cut of more than 80 percent.
Of course, the aid cuts affected everything. But direct help for these countries was affected unusually severely. The planned share of what still remains of the total FCDO regional budgets going to these countries where most of the world’s poor live is this year 41 percent. That compares with around 70 percent in years running up to 2013/14.
So, what—given the White Paper’s strong focus on ending poverty—is going to be done about that?
Mitchell and his team need no instruction on the scale of the problem. The White Paper will undoubtedly contain a pledge to return to a long term and predictable focus for policy and funding. The truth, though, is that the levers for that are held mostly by the Treasury. Scrutinise it as you might, I predict you will find little in the White Paper indicating much change from them. Perhaps the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 22 November will say more? Or perhaps not.
That still leaves the choices available over the resources that the development team in the FCDO still do control. They will certainly have to say something to give effect to the espoused priority of reducing poverty. My bet is a form of words around the share of resources to be spent in future in countries with high poverty and the least ability to help themselves: low-income countries, or those classified as least developed, for example.
What matters here though is the precise form of words. Will there be a cast iron guarantee that they will get a significantly larger share? Or will it be more like the assertion regularly repeated from 1979 to 1997 that the government supported the UN 0.7 target in principle while year after year taking Britain further and further away from meeting it in practice? The pundits will be on weasel word watch.
Similarly, if BII is still going to get hundreds of millions of pounds in extra money every year, what is going to change so they can actually spend it on the espoused goal? BII’s current operating model is singularly ill suited to that.
The fifth and final question is whether the government will put in place the institutional and organisational arrangements to give effect to its new policy. When Andrew Mitchell was appointed a year ago, he thought he had a mandate to sort out a lot of the dysfunctionality and chaos caused by the abolition of DFID and creation of FCDO. In practice, although he has made some improvements, he found himself stymied by his (now former) boss James Cleverly. The work on the White Paper was done under Cleverly. I’m not expecting it to say anything significant on organisational issues.
But new foreign secretary, David Cameron’s long-standing views are quite different to Cleverly’s. He and Mitchell from 2005 onwards worked closely to ensure that Britain could make a difference and play a respected role. He recognised the importance of DFID. Someone is going to have to sort things out, in the interest of both our diplomatic and our development activities. It will be worth watching this.
In the meantime, the new White Paper could be a significant step forward. The current situation reminds me of 1997. Then, Clare Short published her first White Paper. No one knew it at the time, but it turned out to be the most significant policy statement on development by a British government for the last 60 years. That was because it set the ball rolling on a clear vision, which was sustained and acted on. Can Andrew Mitchell achieve the same thing?
Mark Lowcock is a Senior Fellow at CGD. He worked for the Overseas Development Administration and then DFID for more than 30 years, including as Permanent Secretary from 2011-17, and was involved in the preparation of four previous White Papers.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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