What will aid and development look like under UK Prime Minister Johnson?

Blog Inclusive Growth

As the Conservative Party leadership contest draws to a close, Britain has finally seen a new Prime Minister enter the famous black door of 10 Downing Street. It’s a surprise to few that Boris Johnson has won the race to succeed Theresa May, opening a new chapter in the nation’s Brexit saga. What lies ahead for the development sector?

In the 2016 referendum, Johnson was a leading figure for Vote Leave, the official campaign for Brexit. Later that year, he was appointed as Foreign Secretary in May’s Cabinet, but resigned from his role in 2018 in opposition to the government’s proposed Brexit deal with the EU.

Johnson will not only be tasked with securing Britain’s departure from the EU, but he must also reset the UK’s relationship with many countries around the world as the nation looks to set-up new trade deals.

As part of this new policy agenda, both aid and economic development will be tightly interwoven. So what might the future look like for the Department for International Development (DFID)* and the UK’s attitude toward developing countries?

What does Johnson think about aid?

It would be fair to say Johnson is in favour of changing the UK’s approach to aid and development.

In 2017, he was reported to be lobbying for DFID to be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and for the Foreign Secretary to oversee the aid and development portfolio. Proponents of the merger suggest it would reduce waste and ensure aid money is better targeted and spent. On the other hand, this would be a return to the arrangement before 1997 and aid experts have criticised it as a regressive measure that would undermine the UK’s place as a global leader in aid.

In February 2019, he backed a report that called for the UK to broaden the definition under which the government spends its aid budget, arguing it should be  “...spent more in line with Britain’s political commercial and diplomatic interests.''

Rory Stewart, who until recently was heading DFID, resigned shortly after Johnson was elected. Stewart had previously commented that he believes that while Johnson does not want to scrap current levels of aid spending -- 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) -- he does support repurposing aid so it can be spent across government departments and on projects that increase Britain’s soft power. Supporters of this move argue that it will allow the UK better assert values such as freedom for trade, from oppression and for thought around the world. It would also allow the government to use more money on peacekeeping missions and to support disaster hit middle-income countries, such as British overseas territories in the Caribbean, which is currently capped at 15% of official development assistance (ODA). However, aid campaigners have criticised broadening the definition of aid spending as an indirect cut.

Johnsons’ previous speeches in parliament on the matter seem consistent with this view. In a 2017 parliamentary debate, he praised aid spending levels but said it should be “...used so as to deliver the political and economic objectives of this country”. Although this has largely been the mantra of many Conservatives since the 2016 Brexit referendum, there have been no moves to broaden the definition of aid in such a manner.

In terms of using economic growth to reduce poverty, Johnson has twice praised the role of free trade in reducing global absolute poverty from 37% in 1990 to less than 10% in recent times during parliamentary speeches. Therefore, it would appear growth figures into his wider approach to aid.

Yesterday, Alok Sharma was named DFID’s new Secretary of State – the fifth in the last four years. He was previously Employment Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions. Prior to which he was Housing Minister in the Department for Communities – handling the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 -- and Local Government, and Minister for Asia and the Pacific at FCO. An accountant by training, he previously worked under Johnson in the Foreign Office. In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, he openly campaigned to remain in the EU, but now believes that the government must deliver on the Brexit promise and supported Johnson’s Prime Minister candidacy.

Sharma is new to the development sector and not much is known about his views on aid. However, in a statement yesterday, he said: “Investing 0.7% of GNI (gross national income) on international development shows we are an enterprising, outward-looking, and truly global Britain that is fully engaged with the world. I am committed to transforming the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, giving them access to quality education and jobs, while promoting Britain’s economic, security, and foreign interests.”

Can Johnson achieve his policies?

During his campaign to become Prime Minister, Johnson’s supporters were reportedly lobbying him to halve the number of government departments if elected. This would almost certainly include a DFID-FCO merger given his previous record on such a change.

It is completely within the Prime Minister’s power to create, abolish, and merge departments without consulting parliament. Therefore, such decisions could be made very quickly, although they may take longer to implement due to the sheer logistics needed.

Changing how aid is spent, on the other hand, will be more difficult. Although it’s unlikely Johnson will scrap the UK’s statutory levels of aid spending, broadening the definition of how it can be spent would require the agreement of fellow OECD countries. This will be dependent on priorities for the new government in relation to Brexit.

Similarly, the International Development Act (2002) requires all UK aid to have poverty reduction as its primary focus, meaning the government would have to propose new primary legislation to redefine aid spending if it did not align with this goal.

What lies ahead for UK aid?

How aid might change under Britain’s new Prime Minister largely depends on how the current Brexit negotiations go. If a Brexit deal is successfully agreed, then reforms to DFID and aid policies seem likely, including a bigger focus on ideals like ‘aid for trade’.

However, without a Brexit agreement, aid reform will not be a priority. In addition, there is wide support for UK aid across parliament, meaning any reforms will likely face heavy scrutiny in a House of Commons where Johnson’s party lacks a majority.

*Disclaimer: The IGC is majority funded by DFID. All views in this piece are those of the author and not the IGC.