Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly called for a review into how the UK spends its overseas aid budget, with potential changes expected within months.
The review is intended to ensure that aid spending is “closely aligned to the country’s foreign policy objectives,” the Daily Mail reported.
The UK is currently a world leader on aid spending, both in terms of the level of spending but also in terms of accountability and transparency over where and how it's spent. In fact, the UK's Department of International Development (DfID) is one of the best spenders of aid funding in the world.
Meanwhile, figures published in 2019 showed that the UK was one of just five countries in the world to meet the international target of spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid — and the only G7 nation to meet the target.
The Conservative party also pledged in its 2019 election manifesto that it would maintain the UK's commitment to hit the 0.7% target — which is also enshrined in UK law.
But while it's important to maintain the quantity of UK aid, it's even more important to maintain the quality of UK aid — and make sure that it's always being spent in the mission to alleviate poverty.
An overhaul of spending, however, could result in the quality of UK aid spending being diluted, instead shifting its spending priorities to include areas in the UK's interest as well.
One example of how the review could lead to aid being spent differently, it has been suggested, is that research into green energy produced by British universities could qualify for funding, because the technology could then be used by developing countries.
A decision is expected before the Treasury department finishes its multi-year spending review due in 2020, the Mail reported. That will then set departmental spending for the next few years.
How international aid is spent is governed by a strong set of guidelines set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and all 30 countries in the OECD have agreed to these guidelines.
It's not yet clear what the overhaul on aid spending will mean in terms of how the UK approaches these guidelines.
The Times has reported that officials have been told to redraft the legislation that currently requires UK aid to be focused entirely on the mission to reduce poverty.
A Whitehall source told the Times that the plan was for aid to “develop a clear link with foreign policy and strengthen ‘Global Britain’ [the government’s vision to boost the UK’s influence around the world]”, adding that initiatives like “clean energy research benefit developing countries, but also our own”.
In December, the aid sector expressed concern after reports that DfID might be merged with the Foreign Office and would lose its independence. That plan has since been shelved, but there is still the possibility that DfID will lose its Secretary of State — a role currently held by Alok Sharma.
Global Citizen was one of over 100 non-profits to sign a statement calling for DfID to be kept as an independent department, and for its Secretary of State to maintain oversight of spending the aid budget.