The UK government’s long-awaited International Development Strategy makes the case for a competitive geopolitical approach to development assistance centred on British priorities, interests and ‘expertise’. Kit Dorey argues that this approach is another missed opportunity to decolonise the ‘aid system’, prioritise local agendas and knowledge, and create transformative change.

All week, international development policy teams throughout the UK have been picking apart the long-expected UK International Development Strategy (IDS) to see how their organisations’ priorities are included. Formally announced in the Integrated Review of March 2021, an official direction for UK development has been anticipated ever since the creation of the merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) back in autumn 2020.

Peace Direct has reviewed the strategy to understand its implications for local peacebuilding. We are also interested in the ideological framing of the strategy and what it could mean for the current civil society efforts to decolonise the “aid system”, when faced with a government strategy that has taken a decidedly opposite turn.

International development in the national interest

This IDS marks the first since 2015’s “UK Aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest” document. Despite the ominous title, the strategy did attempt to ride the two horses of national interest and poverty reduction by arguing that international contributions to health, resilience and disaster response bolster the UK’s moral leadership and soft power.

The major innovation of the 2022 IDS is to replace these fuzzy moral arguments with a more explicit case for domestic benefits. Some commentary already noticed the near absence of references to “poverty” versus about 50 mentions of “investment” and the focus on “aid for trade”.

Far from a clear commitment to supporting local peacebuilders, who Peace Direct argues are right at the centre of community responses to conflict, “peace” is only mentioned a few times, referring to the UK’s role on the UN Security Council and plans to lead globally on women, peace and security. Conflict receives some more attention. A re-warmed promise of (but no more detail on) a new “Conflict and Atrocity Prevention Hub” and commitment to ensure “all our work takes account of its impact on the causes and effects of conflicts” are encouraging. However, the framing of conflict throughout in terms of global, international challenges seems to leave little space for locally led approaches.

A consideration of UK exceptionalism

The wording of the strategy places the UK at the centre of global development, championing its “proud record of global leadership” in crisis response, humanitarian action, science and technology. Numerous claims to UK “expertise” make the document read like a Positive Affirmation of our continued importance on the world stage.

Last week, Peace Direct launched the second report in its series on decolonising the system, “Race, Power and Peacebuilding”, based on consultation with over 160 people from 70 countries. Our recommendations call for donors, INGOs and others to acknowledge structural racism, remain humble, and to “reframe what is considered expertise”. This last point highlights patterns of knowledge production in international peacebuilding that “obscure and undermine the role and agency of peacebuilding actors in the Global South”.

The IDS does exactly that, neglecting the power imbalances behind what we consider as valid “expertise” by claiming that we (i.e. the British people) “know what works”. The strategy’s plan to create “Centres of Expertise” to help governments pursue economic growth sits uncomfortably with the explicit goal to prioritise UK business and civil society.

The announcement that by 2025, 75% of FCDO funding will be spent directly in country rather than through multilateral organisations is justified as a way to “focus funding on UK priorities” (p.22) rather than as a way to support communities directly in line with their own goals.

Decolonisation and the role of international advocacy

There is some cause for cautious hope in the document’s only reference to local leadership.

Those who benefit from our work must have a voice in what we do, and how we do it. The difficult reforms and good policies that drive progress must be locally owned. Our country partnerships will be anchored in our respect for the rights of our partners to self-determination. Our support will strengthen their sovereignty

The UK government’s strategy for international development, May 2022, p.29.

This language will be important for attempts to influence the UK towards a decolonised form of development in the coming years.

However, the quote seems out of step with the rest of the strategy and lacks a clear plan for how this would be delivered in practice. What does it mean to suggest local partners will “have a voice” in international development when elsewhere it is UK technical expertise that receives priority?

Ever since the launch of “Global Britain” in 2016, international organisations have made sincere, thoughtful and imaginative attempts to interpret this vision in a progressive way. They have championed high levels of international development assistance, cooperation and support for human rights. There have also been efforts to engage with (often thin) government-led consultations on the Integrated Review and IDS.

Such attempts may have been more successful, or had greater influence, if government agendas like “Global Britain” were based on substance, over snazzy taglines. However, it is becoming clearer at this point that these phrases represent specific objectives and political commitments, which those of us calling for a truly decolonised international sector should counter rather than simply accept and adapt.

Fortunately, this work is already being delivered, by civil society networks focused on local leadership and fundamental reform of the international development sector.  Advocates for this approach, from the Global North and Global South, refuse to promote “UK leadership” on the world stage or to overestimate the role that UK international development has played in social change. Instead, they call for governments in the Global North to move towards deep partnership, on terms set by local communities themselves, while also grappling with and addressing their historical legacies and the harmful impacts of their current foreign policies.

This new vision has not fully influenced the approach of international development advocates so far. There is a sincere belief that it is necessary to adopt the government’s framing in order to “be heard” in policy circles. This may well be true, but begs the question of who is being heard, and to what end, especially if it is not achieving the desired results. Affinity also has a role to play. Charity So White has powerfully pointed out the Whiteness and middle-classness of policy departments in the UK charity sector, which applies no less (and perhaps more so) to INGOs.

The publication of the International Development Strategy represents a crossroads for UK INGOs. Can we refrain from promoting and implicitly supporting the ideological biases, based on UK “expertise”, “leadership” and technocratic neutrality? And can we work to build our own strategies and visions, led by and in partnership with local communities? We must surely work in-step with these communities and local organisations to set an agenda according to their own objectives. This is and must be a vital step we need to take to decolonise international development and help create transformative, lasting and sustainable change.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: FCDO: UK aid branding guidance, October 2020.