Ryan Henson is Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity. James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.
Earlier this month, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) merged into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), a new “superministry” charged with representing and projecting British interests around the world.
Appearing before Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee this week, the Prime Minister said that within the new department, overseas aid should serve ‘the diplomatic, the political, and the values of the UK.’ We wholeheartedly agree, for we believe the UK must continue to be a force for good in the world.
Indeed, as the international system starts to experience profound geopolitical change – a shift that looks set to accelerate over the next decade – it is in all our interests that the integration of Britain’s foreign and development policy be a success.
According to Britain’s most recent national security assessment – The National Security Capability Review (2018) – the world is witnessing “the resurgence of state-based threats, intensifying wider state competition and the erosion of the rules-based international order”, which has made “it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.” Likewise, the assessment also emphasised the detrimental impact of climate change.
Geopolitics can no longer be ignored. For the 700 million people who still live in extreme poverty – many in dysfunctional or failed states – will be the first to suffer as authoritarian, revisionist powers continue to expand their influence or if climate change accelerates.
Make no mistake: Russia and China have burst onto the international scene over the past decade. They are deeply authoritarian powers, and their vision of how the world should look is very different to our own. Both regimes see democratic values and liberal principles as dangerous to their own existence. Both seek to extinguish them.
This can be seen by Russia’s “non-linear” offensives in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, the Kremlin has fermented civil war to prevent the country from opening up and moving closer towards the European Union and NATO. In Syria, Russia has engaged in the country’s decade-long civil war to boost its own position in the Levant and broader Middle East and prevent reformers from gaining in influence.
Meanwhile, China has weaponised international development with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as its geo-economic and geopolitical push into Africa and South America. Underpinned by a US$1 trillion budget over the next thirty years, China’s efforts through the BRI provide investment for developing countries, while seeking to capture their political elites so they support, or at least do not challenge, China’s broader international objectives. This has often been achieved through the establishment of so-called “debt traps”. By providing developing countries with loans they will never be able to repay, China is able to compel them, often by stealth, into dependency.
While China’s BRI could not be more different to Britain’s lifesaving overseas aid work, it may have had more impact. It is certainly more well-known. With the creation of its new world-facing superministry, the UK ought to strengthen its position as an effective force for good in the world.
While the FCDO should retain and entrench DFID’s lifesaving development expertise, it should also better ensure that Britain adapts to both prepare for, and combat, the emerging threats to the world’s most vulnerable people. If the UK is to stand up for them, it must also stand up for their right to determine their own destiny, free of the threat of climate change and interference from foreign despots.
The FCDO would therefore do well to initiate an internationally recognised programme of its own – an “International Prosperity Initiative” – to provide an alternative to the “aid” agendas of authoritarian rivals. In practise, this would mean the UK continuing to lead the fight against preventable diseases. Over the past 20 years DfID has helped defeat Ebola in Sierra Leone, saved 6.2 million people from dying of malaria, and immunised 67.1 million more children against preventable diseases. The emergence and spread of Covid-19 only makes this work more important.
It would also mean continuing to support girls’ education, so that the next generation of women are more able to participate as equals in society. The FCDO could make girls in school safer by rapidly and significantly ramping up efforts to eliminate violence in schools, while supporting governance, taxation, and redistribution projects that will be essential to lifting the poorest women out of poverty.
At the same time, an “International Prosperity Initiative” would seek to revolutionise poverty alleviation by combating environmental degradation and promoting more inclusive, open, and responsive, democratic government. Britain could fund more efforts to develop green technologies and help spread them to developing countries, while boosting educational programmes to encourage critical thinking in schools so that the next generation of young people are able to challenge authoritarian narratives.
It’s time to gear up for the future. The UK is not without capacity: we spend on Official Development Assistance approximately 70 per cent of what China spends per year on the BRI. It goes without saying that we should not devise an “aid” programme like China’s, but if we can seize the opportunities the new FCDO offers, Britain can strengthen its capacity to extend international prosperity. In doing so, we will save and improve lives, defend vulnerable people from authoritarian advances, and keep British values at the heart of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.