International Development Committee sub-inquiry on philosophy and culture of UK aid

Evidence submission from the Institute of Development Studies

About the Institute of Development Studies

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a global research and learning organisation for equitable and sustainable change. IDS is ranked best international development policy think tank (2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index) and first in the world for development studies with the University of Sussex for the fifth year running by the QS University Rankings.

This submission draws on evidence from researchers and staff across the Institute of Development Studies. Evidence for section three International Relations has been submitted by Sir Richard Jolly, research associate at IDS and former UN Assistant Secretary General. For further information relating to this evidence submission please contact: Sophie Robinson, External Affairs Manager, or +44 (0)1273 915763.



  1. Fundamentals of aid

What do you think international aid should be for?


Covid-19 has made us acutely aware of how interdependent and interconnected the world is. The global pandemic has devastated societies and economies and exposed weaknesses and power imbalances in traditional models of development. Alongside the merger of FCDO and new international development strategy, presents an opportunity for a re-think for aid and development. It is an opportunity to evaluate ‘aid’, integrate international development and foreign affairs expertise to find lasting solutions for the interconnected global challenges we all face.


The pandemic has reinforced how much there is for dominant northern powers, including the UK and the US, to learn from the global South. The response and recovery to Covid-19 up-ends a north-south hierarchy that has dominated for too long and underlines the need for global solidarities and mutual learning. A universal, and decolonised approach to aid and development that equitably includes a diversity of voices and perspectives is fundamental to our future ability to tackle the global challenges from health to climate change.


Aid as defined as the financial contribution made by the UK via Official Development Assistance (ODA) can and should be used for some distinct purposes.


Firstly, humanitarian aid is needed to respond to urgent humanitarian need arising from natural disasters, famine or conflict, for example. Contributing assistance in this form of international human to human solidarity is hugely important and as an act of international cooperation it also plays an important role in the UK’s global reputation and soft power.


Secondly, funding longer-term development programmes towards meeting universal challenges such as disease, poverty, conflict and climate change that have been exposed by Covid-19 and underpin the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is critical because they affect us all, in the UK and internationally. This aspect of financial contribution to development should be viewed and termed as an investment or cooperation towards the benefit of all rather than as ‘aid’. For example, in the Netherlands the government refers to its equivalent of UK aid as international cooperation.


Thirdly, UK ODA plays an important role in funding international science, which is vital for tackling universal vulnerabilities. The UK should prioritise investment in sciences of all disciplines. The starkest examples of today’s universal vulnerabilities are climate change impacts and health securityGlobal investment in science and research has been vital for the international response to Covid-19, and although the UK has recently significantly reduced ODA funding for research on zoonoses, this is an area that will see and require significant global investment in the years to come. This illustrates how it is more appropriate to view financial ‘aid’ for these purposes as investment towards a safer world for the future.

Alongside funding UK-led international research, it is important for the UK Government continue to support via ODA those providing research, innovation and solutions in a wide range of lower- and middle-income countries. Research in other counties provides opportunities for learning but can also benefit the UK directly with the emergence of new technologies, approaches, methods and relationships that can be adapted (and in some cases even directly applied) in UK contexts. Learning together between countries on common and shared problems is extremely valuable to our overall economic and social progression, serving mutual interests and global public goods.

UK ODA investment in international science and research of all disciplines also plays an important role in the strength of UK’s soft power and global standing. Many ‘emerging’ middle-income countries have, or are rapidly developing, strong science and technology capabilities – China, India, Brazil, South Africa are notable. The UK has opportunities to learn from them for its own security and prosperity, and should therefore seek to foster knowledge exchanges, mutual learning and joint research/innovation with a wide diversity of partner countries internationally – not just the most obvious strong science leading nations.

Fourthly, international funding mechanisms are required for collective international action on pressing global challenges and to fund global governance institutions and services we rely on, such as the WHO, which has had such a large role to play globally during the Covid-19 pandemic.


How should the rules and norms of international aid be set?


International cooperation requires global level agreement, including on global governance and financial contributions. This requires equitable and inclusive cooperation between higher, middle and lower-income countries.  Countries need to acknowledge that flows of financial aid change over time and a more nuanced global view is required, rather than the traditional dominant global north versus global south. Acknowledging also that aid recipient countries can become donor countries in the future and vice versa. Examples of this include the dependence of European countries post-war, South Korea, which is now ranked the 16th largest ODA donor by the OECD and the role of rising global powers such as China - a country with substantial aid investments in the past and now a significant player in research for development and via the Belt and Road Initiative.


Who decides what success looks like and how do we measure it?


Measuring success of development programmes is an essential component of research for development to ensure that impact and value for money is being achieved. However, development gains can take a long time to achieve, and evaluation needs time and investment to ensure learning and evidence uptake.


In response to growing pressure on politicians and policymakers to demonstrate results and value for money, and criticism of conventional evaluation approaches for lacking rigour and/or being too narrowly focused and unable to capture complexity, initiatives such the Centre for Development Impact (CDI), seek to broaden the range of evaluation designs and methods, providing funders and evaluators with valuable insights and tools for evaluative thinking.


We believe that improved, more effective measurement and evaluation can be achieved by delivering training and learning programmes. For example, the Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development (K4D) programme is currently supporting the FCDO, and devising evaluations that provide scope for innovation.


Effective measurement and evaluation relies on the perspectives of the poor and most marginalised in society being reflected in evidence and their voices amplified through the process of measuring change (design, data collection, analysis, and use). Often people are viewed narrowly as the ‘subject’ of research and evaluation, yet different perspectives and their framings can enrich both our understanding of the impact, and through the process, empower people to influence transformational change.


Should aid be conditional, and what should those conditions be?


Some conditions placed by donors for aid are necessary, particularly to ensure transparency and prevent corruption in fragile states, but feedback from IDS researchers suggests that on detailed aspects of projects they can restrict their effectivenessImposing restrictive conditions can result in a lack responsiveness and prevent UK aid funded projects from acting with the agility needed to respond to rapidly changing contexts. In turn this can delay programmes and make them less effective.

Another challenge relating to conditions of aid regards programmes designed to work with hard-to-reach groups, as part of the SDGs priority to leave no one behind.  For example, IDS researchers working within disability-focused programmes, that require local partnering with small groups. These can be advocacy groups run out of a home-setting with bank accounts in the name of an individual and therefore the conditions on payment transfers present a barrier to partnering with such local yet highly effective and locally engaged groups.

Is it helpful to distinguish between humanitarian aid and long-term development spending?


A problem that has persisted overtime is the issue of development and humanitarian actors operating in siloes. This prevents them from working well together and is part of a wider aid culture that needs to change. We all work in what can still be a quick-fix, short-term sector and aid can still be delivered with a ‘paper-over-the-cracks’ mentality, which means the most challenging, root causes are left unseen. This can result in a failure to properly engage with those who experience the greatest inequalities. Failing to take long-term action to address underlying causes in favour of short-term emergency action for financial or political expediency is also likely to create greater challenges for efficiencies and effectiveness of aid in the future and is why humanitarian aid and long-term development need to work together more coherently.

For example, the increasingly protracted and recurrent nature of crises arising from conflict, combined with high numbers of displaced persons is not an issue that can be addressed by humanitarian aid alone. Whilst it provides some form of short-term relief, it is not configured to address structural problems such as systemic inequalities and injustices, which are often most acute in humanitarian contexts – issues of social injustice such as of women’s rights, marginalisation, or equitable access to services, security, justice. Humanitarian contexts are constantly changing and are becoming more and more complex. Emergencies occur in places affected by underdevelopment, involved in armed conflicts or facing natural disasters or endemics. Each of these situations requires a specific and adapted response which the humanitarian sector cannot and should not deal with alone.

The need to link humanitarian and development – most recently called ‘nexus’ - has been a common feature in global policies and has promoted a local approach with localisation high on the agenda. However, global humanitarian actors have struggled to understand community level dynamics and how to recreate a new understanding of protracted crisis in terms of agency.  As such, we need to refine social norms from the bottom-up to go beyond the humanitarian – development nexus. This is why, the IDS-based Humanitarian Learning Centre is focussed on research into new ‘bottom-up’ approaches to humanitarian protection, with the aim of successfully identifying examples of local protection measures and sharing these with similar communities experiencing violence, and aid agencies.

  1. Donor countries

What should be included in the UK’s international development strategy?


The UK development strategy needs a research and evidence-based approach to implement co-ordinated and coherent policies across government to support the poorest people, wherever they are in the world. A successful strategy requires facilitating bottom-up transformations and including the lived-experiences, voices and knowledge of the poorest and marginalised to help achieve the SDGs and meet the development priorities as set out by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab

Long-term UK-led development support for the poorest and most marginalised, and for increasing opportunities for other countries, would be best channelled via international science and research partnerships that go beyond the UK’s own interests, as part of the ‘Science and Technology superpower’ ambition. This would involve investing in all disciplines – social sciences and humanities as well as natural sciences - to tackle global challenges and develop mutual knowledge exchanges between UK and lower and middle-income country researchers. Trade and economic development policies across Whitehall also need to go beyond UK interests to align with development aims.

Security, society and prosperity at home and overseas requires an international development strategy focused on transformative research and action in key global challenge areas:

A joined-up FCDO at the country mission level creates important opportunities to enable work that is fully embedded in local contexts and able to build strong partnerships with local business, civil society and research organisations. The UK is well-positioned and respected as a convenor of partners from multiple countries, to develop mutual learning about localised approaches in practice and what works well, when and how. One clear example of this was tackling the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in west Africa, which brought together this integrated, bottom-up science to implement more effective locally sensitive and integrated responses on the ground. This localised ‘bottom-up’ approach has become even more important in the context of Covid-19, which has reinforced the importance both of global solidarities and multilateralism, and of local solidarities and grassroots groups.

Should all donors work towards the collective aims set out in the Sustainable Development Goals or should they have flexibility to pursue their own priorities and development strategies outlined by recipient countries?


The Sustainable Development Goals (UN Global Goals) were established to ensure that no-one is left behind. Yet more needs to be done to make the universality of development – across all countries - a driving force for change. This is needed as part of an overall commitment and contribution to multi-lateral efforts, in ways that help promote necessary reforms.

Recognising the connections between the goals must inform action to make the fundamental changes to social, economic and political structures and systems needed to accelerate progress towards 2030. The 17 goals set out an agenda to improve the lives of everyone on the planet by 2030. However, implementation of these goals is particularly challenging because of complex and innumerable connections among them. For example, if the goal to provide energy for all was achieved by burning more fossil fuel, this would negatively impact on the goal to minimise climate change. Or if the food production goal were to be attained using pesticides, this would affect targets for biodiversity and freshwater. Therefore, the SDGs are best viewed as a whole, as goals that are interconnected and will not be achieved if viewed as a ‘pick and mix’ menu from which to choose which goals to support

The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report identifies the need for transformations in which groups of goals are viewed together. Jeffrey Sachs and others have pointed to six key transformations. The first of these refers to education, gender and inequality and underlines the importance of investment in higher education as well as research and development in all countries in order to foster much-needed innovation and skills, and to reduce inequalities. As research at IDS and the University of Sussex has argued, such transformations are always political; a politics of transformation for the SDGs must involve fostering positive interactions between citizens, states, businesses and knowledge-holders in progressive directions, but also challenging the power relations that act against these.

Investing in research ecosystems nationally and globally and ensuring they have the capacity to undertake challenge-led research that cuts across disciplines and sectors should be a priority for governments and multilateral institutions across the world.  This is particularly important in countries where research infrastructure is weak, but the need for contextually grounded evidence – for example, on how climate change is affecting populations and they in turn are responding it – is high.

For too long, knowledge hierarchies – who produces knowledge, whose knowledge counts – have limited understanding and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.  Strengthening research capacity and promoting equitable and sustainable partnerships across country borders, academic disciplines and sectors, working together towards the collective goal is imperative to meeting the Global Goals.

Is there a ‘gold standard’ that donors should aspire to and are there examples of best practice among donor countries?


Feedback from IDS colleagues and partners suggests there is no single donor held up as the standard to meet, but that country donors have varying strengths and benefits funders of research for international development. Our colleagues highlight the importance of donor countries being flexible in their conditions of funding to allow for rapidly changing contexts and adaptation throughout the life of a funded programme, and for long-term funded programmes for progressive, transformational change to be available.


There is also awareness of the comparative benefits of private, philanthropic donors where funding conditions can allow for more adaptive, agile programmes that allow increased opportunities for learning, compared with country donors, which understandably focus on shorter-term impact results to justify taxpayer-funding and value for money.


How is the UK Government held accountable to the UK taxpayer and the countries and communities where the programmes it funds are delivered?


Established methods of accountability for UK aid spending exist within the UK, such as parliamentary mechanisms, including the International Development Committee and the crucially independent watchdog, the ICAI.

Internationally, IDS colleagues report a frustration from local partners with regards to a perceived lack of accountability from the UK Government of UK aid spending in their country. The view of lack of accountability among partners and among local communities, has reportedly been further reinforced by the recent cuts to UK ODA. The significant negative effects of sudden and in some cases deep funding cuts to many smaller partners, have strengthened the belief that the UK has acted without accountability to the countries and communities it fundedIDS colleagues draw a comparison with when DFID funding to Latin America was cut in the 1990’s and the long-term damage that caused with regards to trust and how it undermined the view that the UK was a reliable and accountable donor.

  1. International relations

What impact does aid spending have on international power dynamics?


There is no doubt that aid has far less impact on international power dynamics than the much larger economic flows of trade and investment. But, in a complex and fast changing world, aid has served and continues to serve an important role in awareness and engagement on issues of global inequality, poverty reduction and human concerns more generally in influencing the international arena of policy, action and assessment of progress.  Every leading global power including the USA and Europe, Russia and its allies and more recently China - use aid to supplement their global influence. Ireland is also a good example of a relatively small country that uses its international aid contribution to increase its influence on the world stage.

The full impact of aid and its impact on soft power dynamics is difficult to quantify because it is mostly part of wider measures of political and economic influence. The UN and other groups have emphasised the importance of aid as an international measure towards such goals as achieving greater economic stability, diminishing global inequalities and moving towards environmental goals as reducing climate change, diminishing rates of deforestation and ocean pollution.

What is the role of different development actors such as International financial institutions, multilateral organisations, large International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), small INGOs and national NGOs?


International financial institutions (notably but not only the IMF and the World Bank) were generally slow to give priority to human and environmental concerns, but since the Earth Summit of 1992, the MDGs of 2000 and the SDGs since 2015, they have been playing a leading role.  Different parts of the UN were active much earlier, depending on their mandates, focus and the closeness of their involvements with progressive NGOs, especially international ones such as Oxfam and Save the Children.  Smaller INGOs and national NGOs almost by definition have less influence though in specialist fields and countries they can play an important role.

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


The UK Government has in the past through DFID had an international reputation for leadership in development, including the move to 0.7 ODA spend, expertise in research for development and international leadership within OECD and the UN. Aid in effect enabled the UK topunch above its weight” in international affairs. This is no longer so - and some outside observers believe that the UK no longer seriously seeks to demonstrate such leadership. The relatively limited and weak leadership in preparation for COP26 is viewed as an example of this.  


Some of UK aid’s former policy leaders now have important positions of leadership within the UN in New York and Geneva, but as international civil servants their loyalties are international and their reputations only indirectly contribute to the UK’s international standing. When and if the UK could regain some of its earlier international influence would also depend on how much the UK is willing to enhance its power and international influence by working with European countries, which have always been more willing to work internationally through the UN than the US, for which the UN is a body to be influenced rather than depended upon.