The Past, Present and Future of British Foreign Aid


SEATTLE — The rise of British foreign aid in the 1960s was a culmination of its responsibility to its old colonies and Cold War politics. During the years prior, the British government sent economic assistance to its colonies and eventually ex-colonies in exchange for profit, but Western nations soon felt the need and duty to do more to aid the recovery of these “third world” countries after they had gained their independence. For countries that were teetering on the edge of communist ideology, the West saw foreign aid as proof that its economic system, capitalism, was superior and that it was the “first world” compared to the communist “second world”. 

Targets of British Foreign Aid Have Grown and Changed Over Time

The top recipients of British foreign aid in 1960 may surprise people today. The two main recipients were Cyprus and Malta, both island nations that were beginning their journey to independence and were important naval checkpoints for the British Navy. Malta was heavily bombed during World War II and Cyprus was home to a split population of Greeks and Turks as well as two British military bases. Malta would regain self-rule in 1963 and independence in 1964. Cyprus would gain independence in 1960, under the agreement that the U.K., Turkey, and Greece would intervene as needed to prevent ethnic conflict. 

In 1961, the majority of British foreign aid was redirected to India, where it remained through the 1960s and ’70s. It is important to note that this first wave of aid was sent to cover the basic needs of the people. However, due to the oil crisis in the 1970s, aid began to shift towards helping governments maintain economic stability. British foreign aid would continue to spread around the globe to conflict zones and countries in economic or political turmoil, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Serbia during the early 2000s.

United Kingdom One of the Few Countries to Reach Global Spending Benchmark

Although the number of targets of British foreign aid grew, the amount the British government spent each year fluctuated. For example, in the year 1970, foreign aid was just under 0.4 percent of the United Kingdom’s gross national income (GNI). This number rose and fell until 2000 when it hit its lowest mark at less than 0.25 percent of the U.K.’s GNI. That number steadily rose to 0.7 percent in 2013  to reach a benchmark set by the United Nations General Assembly in 1970. This was the first time that the U.K. hit this benchmark, and in 2015 it surpassed this at 0.71 percent.

According to the Organization for Economic Development and Co-Operation, the United Kingdom was the only G7 nation to reach this goal. Other nations, such as those in Scandinavia, consistently spend at least 0.7 percent of the GNI on foreign aid if not more. Due to their small populations the total amount of money spent is much lower than the United Kingdom, the United States or Germany, which spend much more money but at a lower percentage of their GNI. In 2016, the United States spent only 0.18 percent of its GNI on foreign aid, but the total money spent was just under $35 billion. The United Kingdom spent 0.7 percent of its GNI at $18.01 billion.

Commitment to Foreign Aid Spending Remains in Face of Opposition

A breakdown of British foreign aid spending in 2016 sheds light on how and where the money is spent. According to Full Fact, around 15 percent of this aid is spent on humanitarian and crisis relief, with the rest of the money being spent on long-term projects and goals. Of the money not spent on emergency relief efforts, 36 percent was spent on multilateral projects with organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. The remaining 64 percent was spent on bilateral aid programs. Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan receive the most British foreign aid. In 2016, 51 percent of aid was spent in Africa and 42 percent was spent in Asia.

There has always been domestic opposition to the British government’s decision to increase its foreign spending, and opponents were startled in 2015 when Parliament passed a law requiring that British foreign aid must be at least 0.7 percent of the nation’s GNI. Opposition to this flat spending rate has renewed since Prime Minister Theresa May took office after the Brexit vote. Some Conservative Party MPs claim that the spending is irresponsible and would be better off in the pockets of Britons or spent at home. According to The Week, Conservative MP Andrew Brigen said, “one of the justifications of adopting the 0.7 percent target for foreign aid was to encourage other countries to also achieve that target, but unfortunately that appears not to have happened.”

Despite the opposition to lower British foreign aid spending within her own party, May refuses to give in to pressure. This bodes well for the future of post-Brexit United Kingdom’s place on the world stage. It is still uncertain what will happen after the U.K. officially leaves the European Union, but it seems that it will continue to do its part on the world stage.

– Nick DeMarco
Photo: Flickr


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