Philosophy and Culture of UK aid – International Development Select Committee inquiry

Response from VSO


VSO is an international development agency with over 60 years’ experience of addressing poverty and marginalisation through our unique approach of working through international, national and community volunteers.

By bringing together different perspectives and working at all levels of society, from communities to government ministries, volunteers can build trust and provide the right support to ensure that national development efforts deliver lasting change. VSO has a particular focus on social inclusion, social accountability and resilience, seeing the absence of these as fundamental causes of marginalisation and vulnerability.

We welcome the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry, and in line with our approach to development would be happy to facilitate the committee hearing directly from one of our primary actors (the people with and for whom we work) or volunteers.

Despite the economic impacts of recent years, the UK remains the world’s sixth-largest economy, and one of the most developed countries in the world. We believe the countries of the Global North, including the UK, have a moral duty to help support people living in poverty and address issues of marginalisation, inequalities and social exclusion.  Evidence shows that inequality and marginalization are a key feature of insecurity and conflict and in turn, lie behind mass movements of people either through displacement because of war or economic migration. Investing in a more equal and fairer world as a global good, is therefore in the UK’s national interest.

While spending on aid and development does result in benefits for the UK, from an increase in our soft power to boosting peace, security and economic development across the world,  we take the view that the strongest argument for aid and development is moral. It is estimated that UK aid saves a life every two minutes[1]; in the past 5 years, UK aid has supported six million girls into education, helped to ensure 5.6 million safe births, vaccinated over 76 million children from infectious diseases including measles, polio, yellow fever and cholera and improved the access of over 60 million people to nutrition. These achievements have changed the lives of millions, and the UK should continue to support this work throughout the 2020s and beyond, in order to ‘build back better’ from the reversal of development gains caused by the pandemic.

As the pandemic has shown, it is clearer than ever that no strict binary exists between national and international interest, and that no country can consider its own ‘national interest’ in isolation. As President Aday of Ethiopia said, “if Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa, it will return to haunt us all”. The UK should be rightly proud of its support for vaccination programmes through initiatives like GAVI, and should be at the forefront of efforts for worldwide Covid vaccination. This will be in both the UK national interest, and in the interests of developing countries, as every nation will remain at risk from the pandemic unless and until there is widespread global vaccination against Covid-19.


Despite years of tabloid campaigning against the UK’s aid commitments, polling suggests that the British public increasingly support these commitments to the world’s poorest, with a recent poll showing that a majority of British adults support the UK’s aid commitments increasing or staying the same. [2]


The primary purpose of UK aid spending should be to help deliver on the globally agreed targets set within the Sustainable Development Goals, to which the UK is a signatory and which aim to bring about a better and more sustainable future for all.  The UK’s international aid spending should continue to adhere to OECD-DAC spending rules[3], and remain targeted at the economic development and welfare of developing countries, and not primarily used as a tool of political influence.


At VSO, we use the term ‘primary actors’ rather than ‘beneficiaries’ to refer to those we work both with and through. From initial design through to final evaluation, our programmes are designed with individuals and communities, empowering them to lead their own change to ensure long-term, resilient and sustainable impact. 


We see primary actors themselves as the best catalysts of change, and believe that in order for development work to be long-term and sustainable, local communities must themselves take ownership of development. The majority of VSO’s work is now carried out via national, community and youth volunteers with the support of international volunteers, trained and supported by us to contribute to humanitarian and development work in their own communities. In this way, we see how volunteering can function as a ‘first step’ into active citizenship, and is a way for citizens to obtain a stake and voice in their country’s own development, of particular importance in countries with limited civic space. 


Volunteering has a particularly transformative impact on young people, facilitating them to productively participate in society and giving them a stake in development outcomes. The International Citizen Service (ICS), funded by the UK government and led by VSO, supported over 40,000 young people from the UK and the Global South to volunteer across Africa and Asia. Many ICS alumni have continued to volunteer in their own countries (including the UK) with National Youth Networks, and throughout the pandemic, were involved in tackling the spread of disinformation related to Covid2, and advocating for accountable and inclusive responses by governments, significantly enhancing VSO’s reach to marginalised communities, demonstrating the ongoing value of youth networks, and the impact that support for youth volunteering can have on sustainable development.

Aid can help support the development of more open societies, with our evidence at VSO  demonstrating that volunteering for development fosters active citizenship, drives greater accountability and performance from duty-bearers and supports greater inclusion in policy-making processes[4]. In order to do this, we work on strengthening institutions and public services to improve their effectiveness, and improving the ability of ordinary citizens to hold power brokers and duty-bearers to account.

Our volunteers, partners and the people with and for whom we work (our “primary actors”) have seen firsthand how international aid can be an effective tool in reducing poverty and increasing opportunities for people around the world. Aid should not be a transactional or top-down relationship, but work through partnerships and networks to ensure that local communities have ownership of development work, and that it is long-term and self-sustaining.

With support from the UK Government, over the past 3 years through its “Volunteering for Development” programme, VSO has been able improve access to basic health and education services for 4 million people across the world - including making sure thousands of vulnerable children are able to access education in refugee camps in Kenya and Bangladesh - and has worked with hundreds of organisations to develop and launch a Global Standard of best practice for volunteering, helping to ensure that people can volunteer responsibly and safely. It has supported young people in conflict affected communities in Pakistan and Nigeria to come together across ethnic and religious divides and is using sport to help provide young people with essential knowledge and confidence about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.


How does the UK’s aid spending affect how the UK is seen by other countries?




[1] “New UK support for global immunisations to save a child’s life every 2 minutes”, 27 November 2014,

[2] ‘Foreign Aid: Is Public Opinion Shifting on the Cuts?’, BBC news, 27 June 2021, available at:

[3] Official Development Assistance (ODA), available at:

[4] 1 VSO, Institute of Development Studies. (2015). The role of volunteering in sustainable development. 


[5] Advocates: UK Integrated Review spells end of 'development superpower status', Devex, 16 March 2021,