Reimagining aid: why DfID must prioritise UN development goals over British financial interests

Reimagining aid: why DfID must prioritise UN development goals over British financial interests

By: Daniel Willis
Date: 17 September 2019
Campaigns: Aid

In the midst of the various political, economic and constitutional crises facing the UK, it will be unsurprising to many that international aid appears to have become a low priority at present. In this sense, the recent announcement by incoming Secretary of State for International Development Alok Sharma, that he will protect the UK aid budget, might be consolation to some. However, the real threat to aid is not necessarily in a cut to funding, but in the government’s continuing efforts to redefine international development. This has seen Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) being used to invest in almost anything the government perceives to be in the UK’s political and economic interests, including the use of ODA to “open up markets for UK companies”.

Despite a number of reforms in the past decade, the Department for International Development (DfID) continues to invest in a range of questionable schemes that at best appear to have minimal impact. At worst, these investments are undermining human rights and attempts to reduce global inequalities. This includes using international development funding to privatise education and healthcare, promote fracking and support security services in the global south. Yet Sharma seems set to continue the trend of his predecessors, having recently announced that the UK “must mobilise private sector investment” in support of tackling poverty.

DfID is also making an increasing profit on its investments channeled through the CDC (the ‘development finance institution‘ owned solely by the UK government). When most people think of aid, it is doubtful that they thinking of the British government turning a huge profit, building bargain basement schools or investing in private plastic surgery hospitals. In the short term at least, British development policy needs to be refocused on achieving the internationally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals.

In the long term, however, there is a need to reconsider how a progressive UK government might have a sustained impact in the global south. Rather than thinking of aid narrowly as a means of protecting profit or helping the poor, could we reimagine aid in a more positive way?

It is time for international development to be thought about in terms of global solidarity, not charity. At a time in which the UK is closely considering its international relations and role in the world, now is the time to redefine aid for a new era of internationalist solidarity.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an internationally-agreed framework of goals against which development funding can be measured. The SDGs replaced the previously agreed Millennium Development Goals in 2015 and they cover a much broader range of themes including inequality, human rights, gender equality and climate action.

To an extent, the SDGs are a useful lens through which we can judge UK aid policy against international standards, but the ambitious goals have been unable to prevent UK aid being used in unhelpful and even dangerous ways. For example, the use of ODA to help low cost, private education chains expand their operations in the global south is contradicted by the requirements of SDG4 and SDG10 to provide quality education to all and tackle inequalities (our research has found that investment in chains such as Bridge International Academies does neither).

Furthermore, the SDGs remain too silent on the deep economic and political changes needed to address global inequalities. Jason Hickel has claimed that their approach is to “save the world without transforming it”, arguing that the goals are “undermined by their devotion to growth along present models”. As we have argued previously, this has allowed governments to present the private sector as an important partner in development and accelerate the privatisation of aid.

In this context, there is a dire need for an alternative.

Beyond the SDGs

So what might this alternative view of aid look like? Firstly, rather than thinking of aid as an act of charity, we should be thinking of aid as an essential means of global wealth distribution. We already have numerous means of doing this at the national level; the NHS and the welfare state are mechanisms for delivering a fair share of our collective wealth to all. Aid should be considered in similar terms.

Aid might also be considered a form of compensation for the vast amounts of wealth that the global north has extracted from the global south in previous centuries. Whether through the extraction of natural resources; tax avoidance by western corporations; climate debt; or neo-liberal economic reforms; the impact of the rich world on developing countries has never been addressed. By changing our understanding of aid, we could make a start.

To achieve this, however, we also need to change the term. Aid evokes the image of charity and of the global north acting benevolently at its own discretion. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of ‘global solidarity’ or of developing ‘international co-operation funds‘. Changing the language we use in these conversations could make us reconsider how and where we use ODA, and could make it more difficult for future governments to cut or divert funding.

There are also important principles that should be embedded into development funding to ensure that aid is making a positive contribution to wellbeing and tackling inequalities. This means investing in public-public partnerships, supporting the development of publicly owned health and education services, strengthening civil society, and clamping down on tax avoidance across the global south (among other things – further recommendations here).

There are some signs that the main political parties are beginning to reconsider how they view aid and international development. The Labour Party, for example, has proposed a bold vision for how they would go about reforming UK aid and tackling global inequalities when in government.

But the conversation needs to go much further. Rather than seeing aid as a low priority or nice-to-have act of charity when times are good, we need to be thinking about how global solidarity contributions can compensate for the past actions of global north nation-states, and support nations in the global south to prepare for present and future challenges.

Photo: Royal Marine unloads aid in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Credit: Cpl Darren Legg / MoD Crown.