The politics of aid in the run-up to the General Election


At our recent international development conference we convened a panel of think-tanks, to compare the aid-related priorities of the three main political parties.

The topic of overseas aid may not be a vote-winner, but it can still arouse strong reactions - according to PwC’s Citizens’ Jury, for example, only 15% of people polled, agree with the ring-fencing of the aid budget and 60% are against it.

During the panel, it was clear that the three main parties have a lot of common ground with regard to overseas aid policy. All are committed to maintaining the target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid - and a bill enshrining this commitment is now only awaiting Royal Assent before becoming law. All three parties seem to be committed to maintaining the Department for International Development (DFID) as an independent department – as recommended by the recent House of Commons International Development Committee on the future of UK Development Co-operation. All seem keen to focus aid resources on fragile states, on growth and employment, on climate change, and on women and girls.

The panel suggested that, in the event of a Labour Government, Douglas Alexander (Shadow Foreign Secretary) would have a major influence on Labour’s international development policy, given his previous experience leading DFID. However, since then, it’s become clear that Douglas Alexander faces a real risk of losing his seat to the SNP. Other Labour candidates for the post of Foreign Secretary are not yet clear.

A particularly interesting area of discussion was on possible coalition scenarios and how this might impact DFID. The discussion in the room focused on the Liberal Democrats as a potential coalition partner, to either Labour or the Conservatives. The apparent position of the Lib Dems is that they want to control specific ministries as part of a coalition, rather than have junior ministers across a wider range of ministries. The ministries mentioned so far in this regard do not include DFID. It can’t be ruled out though, that coalition negotiations might result in the Lib Dems taking DFID instead of other possible departments such as Business Innovation and Skills or Energy and Climate Change. If there is a Lib Dem international development minister, then the policies in their ‘pre-manifesto’ do not suggest radical departures for DFID.

The party considered by many to be the potential ‘kingmaker’ of a possible coalition, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), also has interests in overseas aid policy. The SNP are “big supporters of the 0.7% target”. The SNP’s Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s international development minister has suggested that a proportional amount of the aid budget should be devolved to Scotland, thereby allowing Scottish aid organisations better access to funding. However, it seems unlikely that this will be a key focus of any post-election SNP negotiation strategy – especially given that DFID already employs some 600 people in Scotland.

The UKIP position on aid is predictable and clear. Their main policy statement contains three commitments with regard to aid:

  • UKIP will cut the foreign aid budget by £9bn per annum (or some 85%);
  • UKIP will target foreign aid at healthcare initiatives, inoculations against preventable diseases and clean water programmes with a much-reduced aid budget administered by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO);
  • British organisations will be offered the contracts to deliver the remaining aid following removal of the EU Procurement Directive.

The available data on who is winning DFID contracts suggests that over 90% are going to British organisations already. More broadly, UKIP’s desire to reduce the aid budget stands in contrast to the three ‘mainstream’ parties and to the SNP. In a coalition negotiation with the Conservatives, it’s hard to imagine UKIP pushing through major reductions in aid – but it is just about conceivable that they could succeed in reducing aid spending through the EU, for example (which in 2013 accounted for just over £1.2bn in spending, or over 10% of the total aid budget); or, perhaps, in giving the FCO a greater role in aid policy.

The overall feeling from our panel was that there were only two likely possibilities for DFID after the election – a Conservative minister or a Labour minister. But with a roughly 50% chance of a hung parliament, there are some intriguing possible implications if either Labour or Conservatives form a coalition.

The panel ended by noting how strong DFID’s reputation is globally. The challenge is for politicians to persuade the UK’s domestic audience that this is worth maintaining.

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