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Brexit threatens Britain’s reputation as an agenda-setter for foreign aid

Soft power, getting softer? DFID - UK Department for International Development/, CC BY

The world is facing a host of complex challenges, from climate change to migration to the spread of infectious diseases. No nation acting alone can hope to solve them. Britain has been serious about tackling these problems, but to do so it needs to influence and shape the international development system to reflect them and make efforts to get other donors on board to pursue similar goals. But Brexit means Britain’s ability to do so hangs in the balance.

Britain is currently a highly influential actor in the international development system, due to a combination of its financial clout and soft power, which enables influence without resorting to force or money. The UK has been one of the most important donors to multilateral initiatives such as the World Bank’s International Development Association and the EU’s European Development Fund. This gives it a lot of input into decisions on how these funds are spent.

Britain’s soft power stems from the reputation it has developed in the past 20 years as a highly generous and effective bilateral donor of foreign aid. This reputation has increased British influence even further in the international development system. The previous Labour government’s support for increasing British aid spending, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s commitment in 2010 to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, enshrined in law in 2015, have been instrumental in building this reputation.

The UK is now the world’s second-largest foreign aid donor after the US, providing £14 billion (US$18 billion) to more than a hundred developing countries in 2015. The Department for International Development has emerged as an internationally respected aid agency, amassing considerable expertise on development issues.

Until now, Britain has had a huge influence on the EU’s aid policy and aid delivery, and it was instrumental in transforming EU aid from one of the worst in the world at the turn of the 21st century into a global agenda setter today in terms of its usefulness and helpfulness. And the goals of the EU’s aid policy are well aligned with British interests: prioritising global poverty reduction, combating climate change, or addressing state fragility. The UK has been able to use the EU to project its national interests through EU development policy, achieving disproportionate influence.

Chance for change

There is some hope that the EU’s development policy will remain aligned with UK interests after Brexit. There are a number of “like-minded” EU members, such as the Nordic countries, who share a similar vision of international development to the UK.

But there are also a number of EU members who would want aid policy to change direction after Britain leaves the bloc. The Central and Eastern European members, for example, would prefer more aid to be spent in the countries on the EU’s eastern borders, such as the Balkans and Ukraine. The southern members would prioritise spending in the Mediterranean.

The migration crisis has also strengthened calls for diverting EU aid away from the poorest regions of the world to be spent on helping migrants and refugees arriving in Europe. All this would decrease the poverty-reduction focus of EU aid, and so go against British interests to date. The EU will also lose Britain’s substantial contribution to its aid pot, forcing it to scale back expenditure on international development.

Without the ability to project power through the EU, Britain’s influence in other international forums will also diminish. Brexit also threatens the UK’s reputation as a generous donor for three reasons.

It’s not clear what will happen with the money that the UK contributed to the EU’s aid efforts – about US$2.1 billion in 2015 according to the OECD. There is no guarantee that the post-Brexit government will use these resources for aid. And although it hasn’t quite hit yet as forecasted by experts, a Brexit-induced recession is still on the cards. A major recession would put significant pressure on any government to abandon the 0.7% aid commitment. There are already strong voices arguing for this.

The campaign leading up to the referendum has also revealed how parts of British society have become more inward looking. Together with increasing hostility towards immigrants and the EU, the British public’s support for foreign aid has been decreasing – a poll of 2,000 people published in The Telegraph suggested 57% of respondents wanted to see the 0.7% commitment scrapped.

Brexit opportunities

All is not lost however, and the challenges caused by Brexit can be turned into opportunities. The emphasis Brexiters have put on making Britain a global trading nation outside of the EU can hold a key role for foreign aid with its ability to boost trade. Aid can increase incomes in developing countries and so also markets for British products and services. At the same time, there have also been talks about using aid for leverage to secure trade deals.

After Brexit, Britain will also remain part of other key forums which set the global development agenda, such as the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, where the UK can make efforts to increase its influence. Being outside of the EU doesn’t mean that a constructive dialogue with the integration on development policy matters will not be possible – but Britain will have to do it outside of the channels it has grown most accustomed to.

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