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Aid and the UK election: what to look for in party manifestos

Written by Romilly Greenhill


Whoever wins the 2017 UK general election will be in power until 2022 – halfway to the 2030 deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So the commitments made in the party manifestos really matter for the future of UK – and global – aid policy.

Here are six key things to look out for in the manifestos. 

1. Re-commitment to 0.7% aid spend

All major parties remain committed to the 0.7% aid target, which is enshrined in law, and this should be clearly set out in the manifestos.

It’s also important to look out for any hints that the globally-agreed rules on what can be counted as aid might be watered down, for example to allow more military spending to count as aid.

And the manifestos should clearly reaffirm that the primary purpose of aid is to reduce poverty, in line with the 2002 International Development Act.

2. Which government departments or multilateral bodies will spend UK aid

Some parties may propose that the Department for International Development (DFID) loses its status as a standalone department with a separate Secretary of State, a status it acquired in 1997.

Merging DFID with another department, for example the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or an expanded Department for International Trade, might be in line with the trends elsewhere, but it is not necessarily a good choice for the UK.  

ODI research into donor organisational models and development effectiveness showed that donors with a Cabinet-rank minister for development cooperation scored higher on aid quality indicators, were closer to the 0.7% target, and more likely to ring-fence aid budgets in times of austerity than those with only a junior minister.

Even if DFID remains separate, it’s likely that a growing share of aid will be spent by other departments. Based on existing plans, DFID will only account for 70% of official development assistance (ODA) by 2030.

Greater coordination could improve the impact of UK aid, but very little is made public about how money is being spent through existing cross-government funds such as the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund and the Prosperity Fund, making it difficult to assess effectiveness.

It’s unclear what, if anything, the parties will say about the balance between bilateral and multilateral spending. A core issue will be money spent through the European Commission’s aid mechanisms, which scored very well in DFID’s recent multilateral development review, and could continue to receive support after the UK leaves the European Union.

ODI research also shows that multilateral spending, including via the EU, is more effective than bilateral spending in many respects.

3. Which countries the aid is going to

DFID currently has a commitment to spend 50% of its aid in fragile states. This is welcome given the scale of need: between half and three quarters of extremely poor people are likely to be living in fragile states by 2030, and these countries have the biggest financing gap.

Within the ‘fragile states’ category, some of the manifestos may include a stronger focus on countries seen as strategically important in terms of foreign policy objectives, future trade agreements, and tackling terrorism and mass migration. For example, the rules have recently been relaxed to allow spending on combatting violent extremism to be defined as aid, and some parties are likely to want to benefit from this shift by using more aid in this way.  

4. Commitments on aid effectiveness or transparency

DFID scores well on aid effectiveness and transparency. Publish What You Fund assessed it as the world’s fourth most transparent donor, while the Centre for Global Development scores it as the fourth most effective. Previous manifestos have stated a clear and strong commitment to aid transparency so that is likely to be repeated, but look out for that being applicable to all aid spending, not just DFID.

Wider elements of the aid effectiveness agenda probably won’t get much focus. It’s unlikely that the manifestos will talk about ‘country ownership’ but all parties are likely to push for a renewed commitment to value for money and results in aid spending. Some are also likely to support a focus on the use of private sector channels.

5. The Global Goals and the ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda

It is not a given that manifestos will reference the SDGs as their guiding framework, which would be a missed opportunity.

However, look out for specific commitments to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and ‘leave no-one behind’, all core elements of this global agenda. The mix and focus of these is likely to differ significantly between the parties, with some focusing on specific groups and issues, such as disability or women and girls. Also important will be whether these priorities have funding commitments attached.

6. ‘Beyond Aid’ commitments

Commitments to international development are rightly not exclusively focused on UK aid and are likely to be found beyond the international chapters of the manifestos. Issues such as trade, climate change, commitments on tax and illicit financial flows, and immigration all have direct and important relevance for development prospects. And of course, the deal the UK secures in leaving the EU will be hugely significant for developing countries and regions in terms of their future partnership with both. 

The UK has a well-deserved international reputation as a leader on aid volume and quality. The manifestos will tell us whether that reputation will be maintained.