Lord Bruce on UK international aid and development and the Commonwealth. Photo shows FCDO name plate [photo: Debbe Rasome]

[This article was written for the Commonwealth Round Table website. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the position of the editorial board.]

In the first 20 years of this century, the UK transformed to become a world leading proponent of aid focussed on poverty reduction and untied from political or economic national self-interest.

The UK became an exemplar of aid designed to build capacity and resilience in partner countries and lift people out of poverty.

Our aid was not focused exclusively on the Commonwealth but shared values and the need to tackle poverty meant it was aligned with the needs of many Commonwealth countries.

The UK pioneered the global alliance on vaccines – GAVI, became the leading champion of the World Bank’s International Development, played a leading role in establishing PIDG – the Private Infrastructure Investment Group – to leverage private funds for infrastructure investment.

The Labour Government, elected in 1997, set up the Department for International Development (DFID) as a stand-alone ministry with Clare Short as Secretary of State in the Cabinet. The International Development Act made it a legal requirement to ensure that aid was untied and focused on poverty reduction.

The UK ended its role of a part-time director of the World Bank (shared with the IMF) and appointed a full time Board Member.

The coalition government of 2010-2015 built on the achievements of the previous 15 years under the leadership of an energetic Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell.

Mitchell initiated three reviews of bilateral, multilateral and humanitarian aid – initiating a rigorous review of international agencies – especially the UN and the EU – where the UK played a leading role.

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The role of the Commonwealth Development Corporation was radically reviewed, helped by a report from the International Development Committee (IDC) of the House of Commons. It was now required to make direct investments and greatly expanded its staff and capacity to unlock private sector investment and provided with a greatly expanded budget.

A radical innovation by Mitchell was the establishment of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) – inspired by the example of the Public Accounts Committee and designed to report on the impact of development programmes. To optimise its independence, the commission’s work programme was agreed with the IDC to whom it also reported (rather than the Secretary of State).

As the budget rose, reinforced by a legal commitment to deliver on 0.7%, and the experience and credibility of the Department and its partners grew, the UK was able to deliver effectively not just on health and education, but disability, child marriage, contraception and safe abortion. It assisted countries in expanding their tax base and supporting livelihoods.

All of these world leading achievements were delivered through sustained cross-party consensus.

At a stroke, these achievements were trashed by Boris Johnson. Despite assurances to me, Mitchell and others that DFID would remain a separate department and that the 0.7% was secure, the PM announced the forced merger of DFID and the FCO into the FCDO and the reduction of the 0.7% to 0.5%.

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The consequences were catastrophic for the poor people who benefited from the UK Aid programmes and disastrous for the UK’s hard-earned reputation as what Andrew Mitchell called a “development superpower”.

There is no doubt that the existence of the ICAI/IDC arrangement would have been terminated, too, if there had not been a vigorous parliamentary fight back from both houses.

After the demise of Boris Johnson’s premiership and the disastrous interregnum of Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, not noted for his commitment to aid spending, appointed Andrew Mitchell as Minister of State for development attending Cabinet.

Nobody could or should question Mitchell’s commitment to UK aid and the desire to restore it to world class status. His denunciation of Johnson’s decisions is well documented.

So, a White Paper on development is to be welcomed if only to see how it can set a course in the new post-Brexit, post-pandemic and conflict affected world (dis)order.

However, it will take time and political will to rebuild the UK’s reputation.

Apart from the disruption and savage cuts in programmes the Government has given the Home Office unlimited access to the aid budget to fund its controversial domestic refugee policy.

This means the cost of accommodating asylum seekers in the UK in the form of hotels, accommodation barges and building an, as yet unaccessed, deportation hostel in Rwanda is being met directly out of poverty reduction programmes in Africa and South Asia. No other donor country has done this. Many Commonwealth countries have felt first-hand the cold draught of the UK cuts.

So, what is required? I don’t doubt that Andrew Mitchell has political will, but it is questionable whether the rest of the Government has the follow through.

Firstly, the Home Office raid has to stop. The reform of the FCDO into a clear separation of aid and diplomatic budgets is required – at least helped by the appointment of a second Permanent Secretary to support development.

Sustained and planned programmes need to be set up and protected giving continuity and certainty to development delivery partners and beneficiaries.

It is widely predicted that a general election in the next 12 to 15 months will usher in a change of Government. An incoming government should give a clear commitment to the aid budget, and the machinery for its delivery. If there is to be a return to a separate department it must be achieved with minimal delay and disruption.

There should be a timetable for an early return to 0.7%. The cuts were never justified on the contraction of the economy because that meant that cuts to the budget happened automatically in line with the economy.

Commonwealth countries should be engaged with the process. Many are small states with low per capita income and vulnerable to climate change. There should be a positive consideration of their needs – recognising too, that the Commonwealth is acquiring new members who will want to know where they stand.

The restoration of the UK’s international reputation needs to start now. The White Paper may be a start, but the next government will need to turbocharge our return to leadership.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie was Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon from 1983-2015 and Chair of the International Development Committee between 2005 and 2015. He is currently a member of the House of Lords.

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