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A change is gonna come ...

Written by Leni Wild

This Wednesday, ODI hosted a debate to explore how the UK elections may affect development policy in the coming years. A range of issues were on the table, from the substantive themes any political party will need to tackle, to identifying some of the key fault lines between those competing for power. But what we all seemed to agree on was that change is coming, no matter who takes power after the 6th May.

There was a palpable sense of change in the UK political context for development. A future government of any political colour will face pressures to cut public spending, and aid spending will inevitably come under pressure, despite the 0.7% commitment all parties have signed up to. For some, this may translate into development issues themselves losing some of their importance in UK politics – Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam, spoke of the possibility of development receiving less ‘bandwidth’ in political debates, sidelined or even ignored as the country focuses on its own economic regeneration.

Whatever the electoral outcome, there will undoubtedly be a large number of new parliamentarians, and possibly new ministers and officials, contributing to a changed environment in the UK – and potentially challenging the ‘broad but shallow’ political support for development to date. And the UK Department for International Development (DFID) may  itself face a changed context in Whitehall if, for example, the Conservatives win power and seek to rebalance the dynamics between DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence  on international affairs.

Other speakers pointed to the changing international context as something to which all of the parties in the UK will need to respond. David Mepham, Director of Policy at Save the Children UK highlighted the need to engage with some of the big issues of the day, from food insecurity to rapid population growth; Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, critiqued current models of development as unrealistic as to what aid can achieve and as ignoring the often messy political processes which ultimately build sustainable development. None of the main parties’ manifestos currently say anything substantive on these big global challenges or on new ‘models of change’ for development – and none of these issues were discussed in last night’s Leaders Debate on foreign affairs, barring a comment from Gordon Brown on the importance of women’s empowerment in Africa.

What might these changes mean? Since 1997, the development community in the UK has enjoyed a relative boon in influence and available funds. This is likely to reduce, in line with global trends and changing political currents in the UK. While it may not mean an immediate drop in aid, as we have seen in other European countries, it does mean we are likely to see an atmosphere of much greater challenge. This in itself may be no bad thing. With potentially less resources available, it could offer opportunities to be much more realistic about what aid can achieve and about the influence that the UK can have. Rebalancing Whitehall dynamics so that DFID, for example, has to work more with the FCO may support greater engagement with some of the messy politics to which Richard Dowden referred.

But it will likely mean that those within the wider development community need to employ new language, models and skills to work with a new set of political actors and a changed context.

What do you think needs to be done differently?