British aid and the defence of internationalism

By Pablo Yanguas, Honorary Research Fellow, Global Development Institute, The University of Manchester. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of LCID. LCID is a strong supporter of the 0.7% aid target and our views on the future of the UK aid budget can be read here.

Britain’s aid system is full of paradoxes. It benefits from a decades-long consensus amongst elites about the intrinsic and instrumental value of aid; it has been afforded billions of pounds to tackle some of the world’s thorniest problems; and it is led by the OECD’s premier bilateral agency, a ministry that often defines the transnational development agenda by combining expertise, accountability, and vision. None of this can be said of any other donor, bilateral or multilateral. And yet DFID’s ecosystem is tragically misunderstood or neglected by the British public; it faces recurrent attacks from tabloid hacks less interested in development than in scoring cheap rhetorical victories; and it is subject to a level of scrutiny and control that can easily stifle creativity and risk-taking.

DFID and the broader UK Aid system are something to be proud of. They are worth fighting for. But the fight to keep Britain’s leadership hangs on the edge of a knife as the aid community faces two existential challenges going forward – one technical, the other political.

In technical terms, the world of aid is getting smaller, and harder. After the uncertain decades of the late 20th century, developing countries have decidedly entered a new phase in their economic, social, human, and political development. Absolute poverty is on the decline, average incomes are rising, private sectors are flourishing, and a new middle class is beginning to feel a deeper sense of ownership over their countries’ destinies. Governments can now find in financial markets the credit that was long denied them. When loans are too costly, grants and other transfers from rising Southern power are matching – and, in some cases, surpassing – traditional ODA flows coming from bilateral donors or international financial institutions.

All of these trends are a net positive for the world, but they do not reach everywhere. There remain still plenty of countries that are too remote, destitute or unsafe for markets to take an interest. Where that neglect overlaps with a lack of geopolitical relevance one finds the intractable places of the world: Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, or Afghanistan. But more stable and prosperous low- and middle-income countries also face challenges that cannot be met with financial transfers alone. Intractable problems like corruption, market regulation, and public service reform call for savvy technical assistance and coalition-building efforts. These are contentious issues where reform may take decades to come to fruition, due to vested interests or deeply-rooted social norms.

Luckily, a host of committed and creative actors within the aid community – and increasingly the broader development community – have spent the better part of two decades breaking down these challenges, taking an honest look at business as usual, and developing new concepts, frameworks, and modalities for making aid impactful in intractable places or intractable problems. It is a nascent agenda, an inchoate insurgency that cuts across bilateral agencies like DFID and USAID but also think tanks, charities, and private providers. There is no shortage of good ideas, or people willing to test them. What this community lacks, crucially, is political coverage.

It is unclear whether the foreign aid system as we know it can survive in a time of populism. Identity populism has legitimized the moral discrimination between nationals and foreigners, undermining the fundamental humanitarianism that led to the establishment and expansion of the aid system. Economic populism, in turn, has undermined the fundamental internationalism that underpinned the liberal, rules-based world order that emerged from the ashes of World War II. Humane internationalism was for decades the underlying moral vision of foreign aid, in Britain as in other OECD countries. However, the current crisis of public confidence in aid is but a sideshow in a much larger struggle between internationalism and populism.

There is little that the aid community can do by itself to stem the tide of morally and intellectually suspect yet emotionally persuasive populist claims. DFID has defaulted to a reactive modus operandi in which Daily Mail scandals are met with meek press releases. The charity world has internalised a siege mentality that responds to criticism with an impossible commitment to the highest ethical standard, while still peddling the kind of poverty porn that breeds popular resentment and plants the seed of populist backlash. The firms that implement DFID projects around the world are terrified of headlines and reputational costs in a world where accountability is often understood in a strictly contractual sense. And academia has grown increasingly distant from the realities of aid practice, gladly taking ODA funds without bothering to understand the very hand that feeds them. Only ICAI dares to question some of the worst excesses of the aid counterbureaucracy, despite having been set itself to keep an eye on the aid system.

An isolated aid community pins all its hopes on the promise of enlightened leadership. Practitioners yearn for a minister who truly believes in aid, instead of someone for whom a DFID appointment is merely a stepping stone towards better, more important things. They look to Parliament for understanding, succour, and protection. But their insularity has propelled them into a downward spiral, retreating to the safe and comforting camp of Guardian readers, instead of reaching out to fellow internationalists in business, religious congregations, or the free-trade wing of the Conservative movement. It is, by all appearances, a self-defeating strategy. But it is what short-term incentives allow.

Seen in this light, the aid system poses a much larger and more fundamental question for Labour (and the other parties): will our leaders fight to protect and expand the kind of humane internationalism that advances peace, prosperity, equity, and dignity for all? Or will they bow down to our worst instincts, let Britain sleepwalk into a new era of populism, and thereby jeopardise one of the world’s best aid systems?

Aid should remain focused on the world’s poorest

Our reaction to the Penny Mordaunt’s call to spend UK aid “in the national interest”:

Penny Mordaunt is right to praise the generosity of the UK public, who want our aid budget to be spent on the people who need it the most. Therefore, her call to reshape our aid to address UK interests is not only a betrayal of the public’s generosity, it also threatens to weaken public support for aid.

In speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Penny Mordaunt said that “For me the bar we need to set on aid spending is not just are we spending this money well, but could we spend it better in the national interest”. This agenda directly contravenes UK legislative requirements on aid which require all UK aid to be driven by the goal of supporting poverty reduction.

Penny Mordaunt also suggests there are simple win-win outcomes from directing aid to the UK’s national interest. However, she is not being straight with the UK public. There is already evidence that new programmes – overseen by the Foreign Office – to develop commercial relationships with the likes of Argentina, Chile, Malaysia and Turkey are leading to cuts in aid to the poorest countries.

Penny Mordaunt must immediately get on with her job of securing the development and poverty focus of our aid budget, as demanded by the UK public and UK legislation.

Everything You Need To Know About The New Secretary of State for International Development

They say a week is a long time in politics – but for the Prime Minister this is a week she will want to end pretty quickly. With 40 questions tabled for answer on Monday, however, pressure is still on No. 10, DfID, and the FCO.

After days of half-truths, alleged cover-ups, and a Secretary of State on the run to Kenya, a new Secretary of State for International Development has been appointed and a new dawn has begun.

But who is the new Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt MP?

What the papers will tell you

  • Elected in 2010 in Portsmouth North, Penny Mordaunt was the first female Minister for the Armed Forces in 2015 before moving over to the Department for Work and Pensions in 2016.
  • Probably the only MP ever to have been a magician’s assistant – she says she was regularly “sawn in half and chopped to bits”.
  • Worked for George W Bush as head of foreign press in 2000 and worked on his campaign again in 2004
  • Took part in the Channel 4 programme – Splash!
  • Came 2ndin the Westminster Dog of the Year contest in 2015 – borrowing a vehicle search dog from the army


What we really need to know



Aid spending

  • She has previously been critical of aid going to countries like India with “considerable wealth” and called for DfID to “encourage and support them to ensure that they sort out their social problems”.



  • As a DWP Minister, she amended the rules on the past presence test for refugee children who had a disability.


Humanitarian crises


Sexual violence in conflict and forces abroad


Tax avoidance and evasion

  • In a 2012 debate on tax avoidance and evasion, she argued for tax simplification, stating that although evasion and aggressive avoidance was “wrong”, more focus needed to be on the Government and HMRC as compliance was “a two-way street”.



  • She has consistently voted for equal gay rights and same-sex marriage, including for armed forces abroad (unlike the current defence secretary).
  • However, she has generally voted against promoting equality and human rights through measures such as making caste discrimination illegal.


What can we expect from the new Secretary of State?

With a military background, voting record against promoting equality and want for tax simplification a shift in direction may take place; recent questions over the role of peacekeeping and the use of the Aid Budget in military spending, the leak of the Paradise Papers and Kate Osamor’s recent speech at ODI setting out a Labour vision of tackling inequality as a driving factor in what DfID does no shift or even step in a different direction will take place without serious scrutiny.

One thing we do know, the Shadow Development Team will keep the pressure on all within DfID to ensure poverty reduction stays at the heart of UK Aid.

A Labour Approach to Development – LCID’s manifesto for 2017

We’d like to share with our supporters LCID’s submission to the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto. Building on our 2015 manifesto, and our campaigning on aid and Syria and the Responsibility to Protect, below are the our policies we would like included in Labour’s manifesto:


  • Labour should maintain our global leadership position on aid, spending 0.7% of GNI on eradicating extreme poverty and delivering our life-saving support through an independent Department for International Development.
  • Labour should support poor countries to build their public health and education systems, increasing budget sector support to pre-2010 levels.[1]

Responsibility to Protect

  • Labour should pursue an ethical foreign policy, including upholding the 2005 UN Responsibility to Protect Civilians agreement,[2] and the Arms Trade Treaty.[3]
  • Labour should push for a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians strategy to protect civilians in Syria, help Syrians to establish a democratic, free and socially just country. In the short term, an internationally-led no-fly zone should be set up in Idlib province as soon as possible to prevent further civilian deaths.[4]

Trade Post-Brexit

  • Labour should offer a non-reciprocal preference scheme for imports from economically vulnerable countries immediately upon Britain’s exit of the EU.


  • Labour will review all UK tax policies to ensure they do not undermine global agreements, are fair to poor countries, and consistent with the UK’s development objectives.
  • Labour will push for public country-by-country reporting of tax information by multinational companies within 2 years, either multilaterally, or if that fails, unilaterally.

A whole Government approach

  • Labour will ensure a coherent and comprehensive UK Government approach to eradicating poverty and protecting human rights, by ensuring all relevant policies – on tax, climate, energy, trade, immigration, defence, foreign policy alliances and growth – are ‘pro-development’.[5]


[1] Budget sector support enables Government to build public services over the long term. The Tories have slashed this since they came to power in 2010.

[2] This stipulates that when a government either wilfully fails to protect the security of its citizens, or is unable to do so, the international community has a clear obligation to intervene, choosing timely and decisive action from a wide range of approaches, including diplomatic means, sanctions and in the most extreme cases, military operations.

[3] Including suspending UK arm sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, where there is a clear risk that those arms are being used to violate international humanitarian law.

[4] As proposed by Syria Solidarity UK:

[5] This is the only way to ensure that we do not entrench poverty with one hand whilst trying to relieve it with the other.

Syria’s people deserve our protection

LCID’s statement on the chemical attack by the Syrian regime in Idlib.
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We believe civilian protection should be at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy. The UK is a signatory to the UN’s Responsibility to Protect civilians agreement, and it is time for that to be recognised. Where a government is responsible for mass murder, genocide or war crimes, the international community has a clear obligation to intervene, choosing timely and decisive action from a wide range of approaches, including diplomatic means, sanctions and in the most extreme cases, military operations.

The horrific chemical weapons attack in Idlib, undeniably committed by the Syrian regime, is yet another act of barbarity in the conflict which shows no sign of ending. For too long, the international community has stood back and done nothing, whilst hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, tortured, or forced to flee their homes.

The US. missile strikes on a Syrian government airbase should only be the start of a wider and coherent strategy to protect civilians, and ultimately to help Syrians to establish a democratic, free and socially just country. In the short term, an internationally-led no-fly zone should be set up in Idlib province as soon as possible to prevent further civilian deaths. In addition, whilst DFID’s support for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan is welcome, we, and other European countries, must take our fair share of Syrian refugees too, something this Government has so far failed to do.

Where chemical weapons are used, and where civilians are harmed, we must demonstrate to the perpetrators that such actions will not be tolerated. Inaction has consequences too, and we cannot allow the slaughter to continue, and that is why we support immediate action to prevent further atrocities.

Signed by;
Rachel Reeves MP, LCID Co-President
Alison McGovern MP, LCID VP
Gareth Thomas MP, LCID VP
Ivan Lewis MP, LCID VP
Lord Jack McConnell, LCID VP
Stephen Doughty MP, LCID VP
Angela Smith MP
Ann Coffey MP
Anna Turley MP
Ben Bradshaw MP
Chris Leslie MP
David Lammy MP
Emma Reynolds MP
Jim Dowd MP
John Woodcock MP
Julie Ward MEP
Liz Kendall MP
Luciana Berger MP
Margaret Hodge MP
Maria Eagle MP
Mary Creagh MP
Michael Dugher MP
Mike Gapes MP
Neil Coyle MP
Rosena Allin-Khan MP
Ruth Smeeth MP
Stella Creasy MP
Steve Reed MP
Tracy Brabin MP
Virendra Sharma MP
Wes Streeting MP

Dominic Breslin Warrington North CLP
Caroline Hibbs
Kevin Peel Manchester Central CLP
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