Global Development Institute Blog

The Global Development Institute’s Professor David Hulme is currently president of the Development Studies Association. In his latest message to DSA members, David analyses the new UK aid strategy, recent research council changes and the potential development impact of the COP climate negotiations.

Late November and early December are seeing a number of important national and international policy decisions impacting on Development Studies and our field of interest – international development. A new – very new and very different – UK aid policy was published on November 23; a few days earlier the Nurse Review of the UK’s Research Councils was unveiled; on November 25 the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review were revealed; on November 30 the COP21 climate change talks started in Paris and will run for two weeks; and, as I write, Parliament is deciding whether to bomb Syria. As a result this foreword is longer than usual, as these decisions will have important implications for the study and practice of international development, and all DSA members.

Let’s start with the new UK aid policy. UK aid escaped the threat of austerity that hung over most public spending in the UK – deep cuts of 20% or 30% or 40% in its budgets over the next five years. It is ‘ring-fenced’ and the Conservative government (and David Cameron and George Osborne) had stated publicly on many occasions that aid would remain at 0.7% of UK gross national income (GNI). As a result, the negotiations between DFID and the Treasury were not about cuts. Instead, they were about the entire thrust of aid policy: its goals, areas of operation and ‘who’ spends the aid budget. The outcomes have great significance – I urge all DSA members to download UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest and read it.

The starting point is that UK aid must tackle global problems – and through this support the efforts of poor people in fragile and poor countries – while, at the same time, pursuing UK national interest. An aid budget of 0.7% of GNI alongside a defence budget of 2.0% of GNI “means our country walking taller in the world” for George Osborne and Justine Greening. The UK may be a waning imperial power in the global order but it clearly wants to punch above its weight in international decision-making. Public health (e.g. the Ebola crisis), mass migration, terrorism and climate change are cited as examples of where the UK aid budget can help poor people and achieve the UK’s national interests.

To achieve this alignment the aid budget has been ‘restructured’ around four goals:

  • Strengthening global peace, security and governance
  • Strengthening resilience and response to crises
  • Promoting global prosperity
  • Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable

The exact results of this restructuring will have to be seen as aid policy is implemented in coming years. But, one cannot help notice that the goal of extreme poverty reduction no longer heads UK aid policy. Security, crisis response and prosperity – for developing countries and the UK – now rank above helping the poorest. In 2010 many Development Studies scholars warned of ‘the securitisation’ of UK aid – that the growing aid budget would increasingly overlay defence expenditures and that it would be unclear as to whether aid was pursuing poverty reduction or security/military goals.

While some evidence to that effect emerged it was more constrained than many expected. The changes in 2015 now make this securitisation highly likely. There will be increased aid spending for the Syrian crisis and MENA region – so more aid will be spent in Syria, neighbouring countries and on Syrian refugees. For refugees this already covers spending that is 100% in the UK. As I understand it, for the first year in the UK the costs of Syrian, and other, refugees are met by the aid budget. Other changes in aid policy will support this overlay of actions to help the poor and to achieve security goals. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), to support the international work of the UK National Security Council (NSC) to achieve security goals, will be expanded and a ‘Prosperity Fund’, led by the NSC, will promote global prosperity. For Development Studies academics looking at UK aid it seems certain that the letters “N” and “S” and “C” on their laptops are going to be more heavily used than in the past. Reading between the lines, it looks as though DFID will continue to control roughly the budget it had in 2014/15 but that future increases in the aid budget will be controlled by agencies other than DFID. Increasingly, understanding what UK aid is doing will mean looking at the activities of several different departments and public agencies: DFID will only be part of the picture. A cynic would also have to comment that the management consultancy and advisory services companies that have been doing so well from the DFID budget will now be able to expand into the spending of other UK departments.

There are other changes, some of which I see as potentially regressive and others that are more promising. On the regressive front “all” budgetary support is to be stopped to permit better targeting of aid. So, even in countries that are improving their governance and achieving poverty reduction goals, the low-trust model of designing aid projects and programmes – which we know often impacts negatively on domestic policy formulation in recipient nations – will rule. On the positive side, the BBC World Service receives more funding and the ‘Ross Fund’ will increase expenditure on tropical diseases and especially those that damage the health of poorer people. There are many other changes – value for money will be pursued even more fiercely (hopefully someone in Treasury is looking at whether the costs of pursuing VFM in the aid budget are greater than the savings it produces) and 50% of the total aid budget will be targetted on fragile states and regions.

At the more micro-level of funding for the types of research commonly pursued by DSA members it will not be clear what is happening until more detailed plans are available. A ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ of £1.5 billion is promised. This sounds good, but if the Fund is largely channelled into medical research, it could mean that research on social change, governance and other ‘soft’ areas is diluted (also see below). Do download the UK aid policy document and read it.

Now to the Nurse Review, which looked at the future of research councils in the UK. The Review has not abolished the research councils (the ESRC, AHRC and others) as some had expected. But it has established a more powerful overarching body (Research UK) and it looks as though the role of individual research councils will be curtailed. Whether this is simply ‘restructuring’, or the final step before the research councils are merged into a single council in a few years’ time is for the future. A cross-disciplinary fund, managed by Research UK, will impact on the resources of ESRC and other councils. In theory this might be good for DSA members – most of whom see themselves as cross-disciplinary researchers – but the topics to be pursued by this fund have not yet been specified and may focus on improving productivity/well-being only in the UK.

At face value the Comprehensive Spending Review was kind to almost everyone, including researchers. The Chancellor did not wield his axe in the way he had been threatening. It has promised “flat cash” for research and development in the UK – which is better than the reducing budgets that many areas of public expenditure will see. Over time, however, flat cash will mean funding is eroded by inflation. But, again, the real devil will be in the detail. If the £1.5 billion of aid funding for the Global Challenges Fund is “tucked in” to research council funding (creative accounting that permits a form of double-counting) then the research councils may reduce their allocations for work on international development and globalisation. So, keep your eye on whether or not Development Studies gets “tucked in”!

Last, but definitely most important for the future of humanity, comes the COP21 summit in Paris. This is mega-important for international development and poor people in at least two ways. First, if a ‘good deal’ is reached then global warming, which is steaming ahead at present, will slow down in the future. This will reduce the negative impacts on poor people and poor countries, such as changed weather patterns damaging agriculture, sea level rise and increased flooding increasing out-migration rates, more frequent catastrophic weather events and other big problems. Second, the degree to which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are pursued by national governments (rich and poor) is “all about Paris”, to quote an interview I conducted with an OECD SDGs envoy to the UN. If talks in Paris advance the practice of international cooperation – UN member states agreeing to serious climate change targets and sounding as though they will honour them – then that will be good for the SDGs. It will encourage behaviours and actions to pursue them. By contrast, if Paris negotiations ‘break down’, as they did in Copenhagen in 2009, that would signal that UN member states can put the SDGs on the back-burner. So far, things are looking good in Paris (maybe ‘ok’ is a more accurate technical assessment). I shall follow the COP21 negotiations closely; they could usher us into an era of renewed global commitment to economic and social development for all, including future generations. I do not like to think of the alternative.

Read more by David on COP21.