From Superpower to Shambles—and Back Again?


“I will give the Committee just this one set of statistics. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in government, we spent 0.51 percent on international development and we were, without question, a development superpower. I would argue that, in 2012, when David Cameron was our Prime Minister, we were also spending 0.51 percent and, in my view, we were, without question, a development superpower. Today, we are actually spending 0.55 percent and—let us not beat about the bush—we are not a development superpower at the moment. That is bemoaned around the world by our many friends and people who look to Britain for leadership on international development.”

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s new Minister of State for International Development, tends not to mince his words. On  6th December he gave evidence to the International Development Committee in the Houses of Parliament and spoke the words quoted above almost immediately. It was a characteristically plain spoken and accurate assessment of where the UK’s development programme finds itself. 

In a new note, published today, we set out how this situation came about and what Mitchell can do to rescue it. And rescue it he must, for without action the UK may disappear as a serious international development presence. That would be bad for the world—losing a highly respected, influential and effective partner—and bad for the UK, for whom international development was one area of global engagement where it genuinely punched above its weight and achieved high impact for a relatively modest outlay

How UK development policy lost its way

We pinpoint four forces pushing the UK’s development work towards irrelevance—some of which have much deeper antecedents than the recent merger of Department For International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), or the subsequent aid cuts.

First, the UK’s development work has been undermined by the encroachment of non-development spending into the aid budget. Though the recent aid cuts and sudden escalation of spending on domestic refugee costs have attracted the headlines, they are better understood as the culmination of a slow subversion of the UK development policy. Like Mike Campbell in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the development programme has gone bankrupt in two ways: gradually, and then suddenly.

The second force undermining the UK’s objectives as a development actor is the lack of a coherent vision of what its development programme is for, and what it seeks to achieve. This is partly driven by the splintered administration of development resources (with an increasing proportion run from other government departments), but also by the disruption wrought by a merger undertaken without a clear idea of what it sought to achieve. The recent International Development Strategy launched by the then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss did little to alleviate the sense of listlessness about development policy in this country.

The merger can also be—at least largely—blamed for the third force damaging UK development policy: the weakening of the institutional safeguards and evidence assessments that DFID set up, and which governed the majority of UK development spending. These have been damaged by the shifting of more resources away from the main development agency (now FCDO), and by their diminished status within FCDO post-merger.

The last force threatening the UK’s very status as a serious development player is the loss of expertise and technical engagement with developing countries, through both staff attrition—indeed Mitchell went on to point out that 200 development posts are currently vacant, and through a longer process of shifting towards project management and a spending-based model of development work, rather than policy engagement.

Collectively, if left unchecked, these forces will fundamentally compromise the UK’s role in international development; the damage runs much deeper than the cuts to foreign aid. But there is a—narrow—channel through which Mitchell can steer the ‘D’ in FCDO back towards relevance and its former quality.

Three actions to take—now

We propose three immediate actions that Mitchell can take to arrest the decline he so forcefully communicated to the IDC.

First, he must articulate a vision and strategy for UK development policy, and define development clearly. This means keeping what is good in the International Development Strategy (such as the stated aim of ‘long term, patient development’), but putting into service of a clearly articulated vision about what the UK thinks development is. We strongly suggest that this vision recentres what aid and development engagement is good at: poverty, supporting the poorest people and countries. They should get most of the grant aid, and most of technical support. Support for global public goods that do not primarily benefit the poorest countries, and on middle-income countries should draw more on diplomacy and less- or non-concessional finance. 

Vision will also needto be backed up by a clear plan for implementation—even in the absence of the large budget the UK has been recently accustomed to marshalling. The FCDO should use the multilateral system extensively where an effective platform for delivery at scale exists, such as the Global Fund, or where leverage can make a serious difference to the volume of resources available. Bilateral support should be used where agility and flexibility is required, and where political engagement can make a real difference. This kind of bilateral support should focus on government-to-government engagement, not just of money but of expertise, technical engagement. Combining money and advice to reinforce each other should be the aim—whether the money is spent as grants or through investments, guarantees or other instruments.

To enforce this vision across government, there needs to be a mechanism to assess the fit of other government departments’ spend and policy action in the international development sphere; we set out options in the note, ranging from using the existing processes more clearly to the establishment of an independent body to assess whether and how spend and policy can be counted as towards development (we also suggest the UK take an active role in reshaping how aid is counted internationally).

Alongside this, Mitchell needs to establish controls to promote strategic and effective spending, both within his own department and across government. To do so effectively in his own department, he needs to re-establish the primacy of the ex-DFID’s accountability structures over all FCDO development spending, answerable to a single Accounting Officer (the civil servant responsible to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee for the quality of public spending). This will involve an internal restructure, but one much less intrusive than what has already been imposed recently.

Across government, a system to assess the evidence base and quality of aid spending by other departments is required. Taking advantage of concessions made to FCDO in the Autumn Statement, Mitchell should push for a role in making cross-government impact assessments of aid spending, focusing on development impact. Such a system would allow FCDO development experts to take a central role in defining development impact, as well as how it should be measured and assessed, and would create a mechanism through which the spending of other departments could be improved towards the level that FCDO spend achieves. Specifically, it should:

  • Require that all programmes across ⁠government explicitly set out their development objectives, what they specifically seek to achieve and alignment to the objectives set out in an updated International Development Strategy

  • Establish a system in which all programmes across Government using any aid money are assessed on the basis of their expected impact, realism and alignment to UK development objectives

  • Extend this system, in the first instance, to all ongoing programmes as well—with programmes performing poorly in the assessment being closed in the event of cuts being required

Underpinning this should be a renewed commitment to the generation and use of evidence in deciding policy, selecting and designing programmes and evaluation impact. Doing this will make the (mis)use of aid resources by the Home Office and Treasury (in the form of charging SDR reallocations to the ODA budget at a level unsupported by the actual fiscal effort involved) more difficult.

Lastly, Mitchell must act with urgency to rebuild and reverse the loss of development expertise from the FCDO. It took the UK around a decade to build the human capital that made it one of the world’s most admired development institutions. The rate at which the mission-driven, development-focused civil servants are leaving the organization is undoing this hard work. Part of the job of stemming the outflow will come simply from articulating a compelling vision of where the UK’s development policy wants to go in five years time: to give the development specialists a clear sense of what will come after the immediate (and demoralizing) work of yet another round of cuts. But he will also need to reverse the increasing tendency to centralization of development work that predates the establishment of the FCDO and once again empower experts in-country to make decisions and use their resources in the best way they can see to influence the overall path of development in these places—be those resource financial, human or diplomatic. 

Mitchell faces a very difficult task. It will help him enormously that he has a clear-eyed sense of the problems he faces and the scale of the challenge. But to reverse them will take decisive action, with support from elsewhere in Whitehall, too. Our note suggests one way to do so.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.