openDemocracyUK: Opinion

International aid is crucial to the UK’s ‘Global Britain’ ambitions

The UK wants to be a ‘soft power superpower’, but its aid cuts threaten to undermine the tools and partnerships that make that possible

Alina Rocha Menocal
11 May 2021, 12.00am
In March, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab gave a speech on how a 'Global Britain' could be a 'force for good'
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Andia / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government’s decision to break its manifesto pledge by reducing the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income raises a serious question: how can the UK deliver on the ambition of a Global Britain while disengaging from the world in such a profound way?

Over recent weeks, the government has started to communicate decisions as to where reductions are being made. The cuts are steep, involving both bilateral and multilateral aid for everything from humanitarian work to service delivery to the use of evidence in policymaking and global anti-corruption efforts.

The government has explained that these cuts in aid spending, which are intended to be temporary, are necessary because of the severe economic downturn the UK is experiencing as a result of COVID-19, and, presumably, Brexit. As different analysts have argued, however, the savings from aid are likely to have an almost insignificant effect on the UK’s overall fiscal situation, while for the world’s poorest the impact will be much greater.

Described by different partners, policymakers and experts as “devastating”, “shameful” and “maddeningly short-sighted”, the cuts include an 85% reduction in aid to a United Nations Population Fund family planning programme intended to help prevent maternal and child deaths; plans to cut funding for water, sanitation and hygiene projects across the developing world by more than 80%; and cuts of 95% in funding to eradicate polio. Funding for the UK Research and Innovation, which oversees the government’s research funding, has been cut by more than two-thirds.

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As these cuts are being implemented, the UK has also published an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that outlines the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world. This vision is anchored in the idea of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ that can act as a ‘soft power superpower’. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has also identified the fostering of ‘open societies’, based around free trade, democracy and human rights, as a core international priority.

The aid cuts seem to be in tension with such global ambitions, as was highlighted in a live discussion hosted by openDemocracy earlier this year. These internal incongruities are characteristic of the ‘have your cake and eat it, too’ approach to policy that has become characteristic of the current UK government. However, as we saw during Brexit negotiations, it is not always possible to get everything one wants, and choices made in one realm are likely to have consequences in others.

Stating that the UK is a soft power superpower does not automatically make it one. Commitment matters, and actions speak more loudly than words.

So what are some of the main sources of soft power that the UK has drawn on to date to contribute to achieving a safer, more equitable and prosperous world?

The way these cuts are being made has the potential to damage the UK's standing on the world stage

The leadership that the UK has shown on international development over the past two decades has been an important part of this story. The work that the UK has championed, funded and supported through its development assistance has been widely recognised for its innovation and effectiveness, even if there is still a lot to learn.

This work has been agenda-setting on a global scale, in particular in terms of understanding development in all its complexity, and designing and implementing programmes accordingly; placing politics and governance at the centre of the challenge to build more peaceful, stable, resilient, and open states and societies; and focusing on ongoing learning and adaptation to address these complex development challenges more effectively.

UK-funded research has also been a significant lever of soft power. Research and evidence are essential in understanding what works, as well as what doesn’t work, and why – which is needed to improve policy and practice. Through a variety of UK-supported research programmes and research funds, UK universities and other research institutes have been able to develop world-class partnerships and collaborations across the developing world and to provide evidence-based responses to pressing problems ranging from global health, migration, climate and conflict to education and technology, women’s and girls’ empowerment, and politics and governance.

In this way, UK international development assistance has played a crucial role in enabling the UK to become an international leader in tackling global challenges, which has been integral to the UK’s national interest.

These latest cuts directly undercut the very tools and mechanisms of soft power that the UK has at its disposal to give substance and meaning to the idea of a Global Britain. In addition, the way in which they are being made and communicated – without impact assessments or proper lead time to enable sustainable planning – has the potential to seriously damage the UK's reputation, credibility and standing on the world stage, not only over the immediate term but well beyond.

There is a danger that the cuts will undermine the partnerships and relationships that the UK government and other UK organisations have developed in the Global South with both governments and civil society over the years. In addition, as with the decision to severely curtail humanitarian aid to Yemen, there is also a real possibility that the cuts can do harm. Thus, just as the UK is preparing to host the G7 and COP26, these cuts threaten Britain’s global leadership and weaken trust among key allies.

UK international development aid has been a powerful and compelling example of Global Britain at its best. There is a crucial opportunity for the UK to continue to lead through its soft power. However, this requires building on the progress and change that have been achieved through aid rather than undermining them. This is a positive vision of Global Britain that we should all be working towards – which is also in the UK’s national interest.

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