LONDON — Even as the U.K. continues to reel from the results of the June 2016 Referendum, also known as “Brexit”, Theresa May, the new British prime minister, told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that she would honor former PM David Cameron’s pledge of spending 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP on foreign aid.
There will be no cuts to the U.K. foreign aid budget, which currently stands at 11 billion pounds ($14.6 billion). Instead, the government will use the money and the access to foreign heads of state that it provides for negotiating new trade agreements, according to Conservative Party politician and new Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel. She believes that international aid can be used to develop relationships with the country’s future trading partners.
Patel’s approach is in line with the government’s new cross-government aid strategy. The plan involves delegating aid spending to other departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The renewed focus on trade as part of Britain’s international aid strategy drew criticism from the opposition. For example, Kate Osamor, a Labour Member of Parliament who is also Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, told the BBC that Patel’s approach is mistaken and that aid should not be tied to trade.
The May ministry is likely to receive backlash from some in the Conservative Party as well for maintaining the U.K. foreign aid budget. The Telegraph noted that a petition, circulated after the 2015 general election to rescind the 0.7 percent pledge for spending on foreign aid, received more than 200,000 signatures.
While many across the political spectrum find fault with the changes May and her cabinet are making to the Department for International Development (DfID), there are some in the development community who see it as a smart decision.
Speaking with global development media platform Devex, Charlie Matthews, head of policy at ActionAid International, argued that the focus on trade “can really be a good thing, it just depends on how it’s done”. He believes that Patel can make a difference in her capacity as DfID chief.
According to Aly-Khan Jamal at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, one challenge for Patel and her team is how to coordinate the various government departments in a way that puts aid to the best use, and there is certainly a lot of work to be done.
One could argue that Patel was striking a compromise. By placing emphases on trade and the U.K.’s national interest, she appeases fiscal conservatives, maintains the current U.K. foreign aid budget and allows the country to continue helping the world’s poor.
“We will continue to tackle the great challenges of our time: poverty, disease and the causes of mass migration, while helping to create millions of jobs in countries across the developing world,” Patel proclaimed.
– Philip Katz