Under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Britain significantly cut development spending whilst concurrently arguing for its centrality in an integrated and value-driven foreign policy. With the onset of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, it’s worth looking at the UK’s development strategy and considering its ability to be used as a tool to promote democracy and ‘British values’ across the world. 

Written by Max Higdon

In The UK Government’s Strategy for International Development, a government white paper published in May 2022, then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stressed that development spending should ‘further UK ideals, standing up for freedom around the world’. This statement was an explicit assertion that the government saw aid not only in humanitarian terms, but as a means to further Britain’s interests globally. This stood alongside a foreign policy agenda that hinted at a more interventionist and value-driven approach, with the Integrated Review in 2021 making ‘a renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world - defending openness, democracy and human rights’. However, the stated intention to use aid to further Britain’s interests seems to run counter to the waves of cuts in development spending over the last few years.

The entire landscape of Britain’s development strategy shifted in 2020 with the decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office. Whilst the stated purpose was to facilitate a more integrated approach to policy, the relegation of the development brief from cabinet alongside multiple cuts to the aid budget was seen by many as an indication that development was not a priority for Johnson. The most notable of these cuts was the decision to reduce the target for aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP in 2021, with the promise that the target would be restored when the fiscal conditions allowed. It resulted in a £4.6 billion cut in spending and was met with wide criticism, with Kevin Watkins, the chief executive of Save the Children, labelling the cuts ‘unprincipled, unjustified and profoundly harmful both to Britain’s reputation and more importantly to millions around the world’. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that the cuts would lead to 100,000 preventable deaths and 5.6 million children left unvaccinated. 

Truss’s brief tenure as Prime Minister saw a continuation of this approach to aid. Most notably, Britain didn’t increase their commitment to funds tackling Malaria, TB and Aids for the first time in 20 years during the Global Fund conference in New York. Defenders of this approach might argue that aid spending is a poor proxy for development outcomes and that cuts may lead to more effective use of resources. However, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted, the decision to drop the 0.7% commitment was made with little forward planning and risked cuts being made ‘on the basis of feasibility’ rather than ‘identifying the lowest value programs’. For example, a 60% cut in aid towards Yemen was made without carrying out an impact assessment. Thus, despite intentions to use development instrumentally, Johnson’s approach to aid, which was continued by Truss in her brief tenure, appears to have weakened Britain’s ability to utilise development spending as a soft power tool. 

Whilst Sunak has been praised within the development sector for the appointment of Andrew Mitchell as Minister for Development, his broader approach is unlikely to impress those advocating a return to the 0.7% target. After all, Sunak and the Treasury were major driving forces behind Johnson’s aid cuts, and it’s unlikely that spending will increase alongside the expected enactment of austerity-like policies. Indeed, the Independent reported that Sunak is considering counting foreign currency handouts from the IMF as part of aid, which the Centre for Global Development estimates could cut Britain’s discretionary aid budget from £8 billion to £2 billion. Moreover, Sunak appears similarly committed to using aid instrumentally, having raised the idea that aid should be withheld from development projects in countries which refuse to take back ‘failed asylum seekers’. Indeed, such early indications from Sunak signal an approach that exceeds Johnson’s approach to cutting aid spending. However, it’s still important to recognise that Britain’s aid budget remains the third highest in the G7. In view of this, the Institute for Government has noted that whilst ‘the cuts have damaged Britain’s reputation in some quarters, and reduced the Foreign Office’s ability to effect change across the world, it has certainly not completely diminished these things’. 

Despite the Johnson government’s pursuit of a more value-driven foreign policy, cuts to development spending appear to have hampered Britain’s ability to promote democracy and ‘British values’ abroad. With Sunak’s premiership, a continuation and potential acceleration of this policy appears the most likely course. Whilst the UK remains an important player in development, this continuation may lead to significant damage to Britain’s global reputation in this sphere.

Max Higdon is a recent graduate from Oxford University with a BA in History