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Why the UK government’s international development strategy is a big gamble

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

Rowan Popplewell
17 May 2022, 11.08am
Boris Johnson's government must bring forward an action plan on open societies
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government’s much-delayed international development strategy was an opportunity to state how development and diplomacy can work together to protect human rights and promote civic freedoms, which in turn support the delivery of broader development and foreign policy goals.

Instead, it makes a big gamble: that the pursuit of bilateral trade, investment and security agreements can be leveraged to protect individual liberties and democracy.  

Those who will suffer most from this trickle-down approach to the protection of human rights and civic freedoms are marginalised people and the civil society activists who work alongside them, who disproportionately feel the impacts of autocratic behaviour and should be at the heart of our development policy and programming.  

Essential for development

Open societies, where people can meet, gather, organise, advocate, protest and dissent, are essential – especially for inclusive, sustainable and community-led development. Research by the Institute for Development Studies on the connections between civic space and development in four countries found that restrictions on civil society often “halt or reverse progress towards reducing inequality, ensuring inclusion and improving sustainability because it is precisely those at greatest risk whom civil society seeks to empower and protect”.  

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While references to freedom are peppered throughout the strategy, the vision of open societies presented is a narrow one, with no mention of human rights and civic space, or the human rights defenders and activists who risk their lives every day to protect them. Instead, it focuses on securing economic freedoms through using development assistance to leverage investment and boosting resilience to “malign interference and aggression” through security partnerships.

This is emblematic of a wider shift away from ‘bottom-up’ development to a more top-down approach, which is ambiguous about rising inequality and policies that support inclusion, neither of which are mentioned in the strategy at all. Those who will suffer most from this shift in policy will be marginalised groups – women and girls, religious minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTIQ+ communities, refugees and migrants, and people with disabilities – who should all be at the heart of our development approach.  

These groups are often the target of autocratic behaviours and attacks on rights and freedoms that the UK government’s open societies agenda hoped to address. They are more likely to be subject to discriminatory and exclusionary government policies, suffer disproportionately from legal restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression and experience increased surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even violence. 

Backtracking on existing commitments

Open societies were prioritised following the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and were seen, even among critics, as one area where the merger of development and diplomacy made sense. The failure to include actions to promote open societies – especially to protect civic space and human rights – in the new international development strategy signals the UK is backtracking from existing commitments.  

A pledge to support open societies and defend human rights globally, and to work with civil society actors and human rights defenders to do this, was a core part of the Integrated Review, a cross-departmental review of the UK’s defence, diplomacy and development policy published only last year.  At the G7, the UK pushed for the first-ever Open Societies Statement and made a clear commitment with other G7 nations “to strengthen open societies globally by protecting civic space”.   

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Human rights and development organisations had hoped the foreign secretary would use the strategy to put flesh on the bones of these existing commitments, and detail how long-term partnerships with civil society and increased emergency funding for activists at risk, alongside diplomatic interventions, could be used to protect civic space and support development. But this was not to be.  

We can tackle climate change, conflict and inequality in an inclusive and sustainable way only if we work together, at pace, to build open societies where everyone is able to access information, form associations, take part in public debate and make representations to decision-makers. 

Ultimately, by stepping back from past commitments on the protection of civic space and human rights to pursue economic and security partnerships with countries with questionable track records on these topics, the international development strategy fundamentally shifts our approach to doing development, away from one that prioritises the needs of marginalised groups to one that is more likely to exclude them from the decisions that affect their lives. 

To redress this and ensure that it delivers on its existing promises enshrined in the Integrated Review and G7 Open Societies Statement, the UK must urgently bring forward a detailed action plan on open societies, with clear goals and measurable targets, which places the needs of marginalised communities, and the activists that work alongside them, at its centre.    

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