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The merger of DFID and the FCO in 2020, an exciting prospect for uniting development and diplomacy, was shortly accompanied by the abandonment of the UK commitment, based on a UN target, to spend 0.7% of GNI on Official Development Assistance (ODA) a year later. However, due to the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Johnson Government decided to reduce ODA spending further to 0.5% as a ‘temporary measure’. The combination of the merger and the cut, both controversial, suggests a worrying marginalisation of long-term developmental projects in favour of short-term foreign policy and security objectives – this reflects a misunderstanding of the power and the role of a ‘Global Britain’ in the 21st century. 

Not only is the UK a soft power nation, but it should, and can, aim to be a ‘soft power superpower’, as the 2021 Integrated Review put it. Soft-power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce. It resides in the appeal and attraction of a country’s cultural and political values, as well as the legitimacy and morality of its foreign policies, as opposed to in military power. Aid, as an expression of these, bolsters a country’s soft power. 

The UK is already a world leader in this respect, but it is losing its advantage due to the prioritisation of security objectives over developmental projects. Current defence spending overshoots the NATO target of 2% of GDP (and there are hints that it will rise in the following years) whilst it is not clear when ODA spending will be restored. This prioritisation is misguided for two reasons. First, international development and aid, due to their ability to counter the influence of malign regimes (without costly military engagement), are two of the greatest security tools the UK will have going forwards. Second, such development and aid are morally valuable and necessary, particularly given the global hardships caused by COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine. 

Aid is a security tool because it can be used to counter malign regimes, such as China. In this way, decreasing ODA spending does not prioritise security it undermines it. In particular, aid cuts could leave a vacuum in Africa for China to step in to through the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the region has been rapidly increasing and has more than quadrupled to over $4bn in the last two decades. While the UK may not be able to compete with the scale of China’s resources, it has a headstart due to the long-term consistency and efficacy of UK-led aid programmes. Prioritising alternative security and foreign policy objectives, based on growing trade relationships and geopolitical competition, also implies a pivot in focus to the Asia-Pacific and East Africa. The resultant decreased support in the Sahel and the Middle East will diminish the UK’s ability to combat insurgency and mass migration in these areas. 

The UK should also remain committed to aid because it is morally valuable and necessary. The DFID was one of the world’s most effective and transparent aid donors, experienced in tackling disease and dealing with poverty, agriculture, and climate change. In the wake of COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine, health and food security are increasingly at risk. The reduction in ODA spending will hurt low-income communities worldwide. Countering China is not just about strategy, but about norms too. If global politics is to be framed in terms of democracy vs autocracy, democracies like the UK should be perceived to be a force for good in the world. 

The Johnson Government seeks to restore ODA spending when it can be shown that, ‘on a sustainable basis’, the country is not borrowing for day-to-day spending and the ratio of underlying debt to GDP is falling. However, it is not clear what the criterion of sustainability consists of. More fundamentally, whilst fiscal constraints are understandable, pegging ODA spending to domestic economic conditions ignores the other side of the equation. Inflation, energy crises, food insecurity, and coronavirus waves makes current aid increasingly valuable, from both the security and moral perspective. Domestic conditions should not be the sole consideration. 

The UK should recognise its role as a soft power superpower and use this to inform its understanding of security, and to re-evaluate its priorities abroad. For example, aid should be used to tackle looming global food shortages. It should not allow current practices to marginalise long-term developmental projects in favour of short-term foreign policy and security objectives. In recognition of dynamic domestic and international conditions, the aid target should be made more flexible – for instance, it could be treated as a five-year average target. At the same time, to safeguard consistency and create certainty for both international partners and the FCDO itself, there should be a limit to the rate at which ODA funding can be decreased. 

A truly secure, ‘global’ Britain is one that understands its role and power in the world. Side-lining aid betrays both. 

Johnny is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Greg Rosenke]