ourEconomy: Opinion

The UK’s development strategy fails to confront the world’s biggest crises

The strategy prioritises geopolitical and economic self-interests, at the expense of the most-impacted communities

Sandra Martinsone Alexander Carnwath Ruth Bergan
26 May 2022, 12.00am
Kenyan farmer harvesting maize on a small family farm in Kericho. The horn of Africa is experiencing a devastating food crisis
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Billy Mutai / ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK’s International Development Strategy (IDS) has finally been published – but it fails to address the world’s biggest crises: poverty, inequality, human rights and climate change. 

Instead, the IDS sets out an approach in which aid is deployed for geopolitical and self-serving economic interests – not to support vulnerable communities and the planet.

The document puts trade and investment at the heart of the UK's strategy for international development, claiming to deliver “honest and reliable investment”. But its primary intent is to counter China’s investment in low- and middle-income countries.

It also leaves out measures critical to meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, such as ensuring easier green technology transfer and emissions limits for trade. It makes no mention of the global food crisis, which has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or the proposal for a World Trade Organisation waiver for vaccine patents to ensure equitable access

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Marginalised groups will suffer most from a policy shift away from ‘bottom-up’ development to a more top-down approach

Contrary to the claims of wealthy states, high volumes of foreign direct investment (FDI) in poorer countries do not actually guarantee sustainable development.

Instead, FDI often concentrates investments in sectors such as oil and gas, telecommunications, financial services and real estate – leading to the privatisation of essential public services.

These investments are protected by a network of deals that benefit investors, to the detriment of local needs. Private investors can often sue for compensation and impose patent protections – under ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ mechanisms – in the face of policy changes, such as COVID regulations.

FDI has also been shown to further inequality, forced displacement, environmental damage and exploitative working conditions – all with disproportionate gendered impacts.

To boost genuine development and leave no one behind (as the UK promised in 2015), the IDS should instead incentivise the transfer of labour skills and technology – while fostering local innovation and input, decent working conditions and community ownership.

There is little clarity on how the UK plans to ensure that the policies and reforms are ‘locally owned’ or how communities can be more than simply the ‘beneficiaries’ of UK aid, as stated in the report.

Pro-development trade should be driven and owned by local farmers, producers and workers. If this is not built into the strategy from the outset, the development policies will likely just benefit UK economic and geopolitical interests, alongside international investors and shareholders. Civil society, women’s organisations and trade unions need to be meaningfully included and involved in the negotiations, implementation and monitoring of trade and investment agreements.

The UK is also planning to reduce funding to multilateral organisations to focus on bilateral or plurilateral (groups of like-minded countries) efforts. This comes despite its own review identifying the multilateral system as “vital to the UK and global interests”, with most multilateral agencies performing well and achieving economies of scale not possible in the bilateral context.

Rather than focusing on bilateral trade and investment, the UK should maintain its commitment to multilateral institutions and support the reinvention of the World Trade Organisation to align trade rules to other international commitments, and address the longstanding concerns of the Global South (such as a special safeguard mechanism to ensure farmers in less wealthy countries do not have their livelihoods undermined by goods produced in rich countries).

It is the UK's historic responsibility to support the urgent democratisation of global economic governance, and revitalise and strengthen multilateralism, including funding reform to ensure maximum flexibility for developing countries facing crises of debt, climate and health.

The IDS strategy is ultimately a missed opportunity to connect the dots between UK policy on trade, climate and development. In her foreword to the report, foreign secretary Liz Truss speaks of taking “a whole of government approach”, but this document presents – at best – a partial analysis of the interaction between these critical areas, skewed towards UK self-interests.

To ensure trade and investment work in the interests of development and climate action, we need a truly coherent, cross-departmental strategy that prioritises the perspectives of the most impacted communities.

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