Can prosperity really be mutual?

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel hosted by the as Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) at the launch of its latest report The Use of UK Aid to Enhance Mutual Prosperity. ICAI is a rare thing in the development world, a truly independent agency set up by the British parliament to scrutinise aid spending. Its reports are an important reality check on the impact the UK’s work in international development is having.

Its new report is particularly cautious because a) no-one can clearly define what mutual prosperity means and b) there’s not much evidence yet of what effect the UK’s efforts are having.

But the term is becoming more and more common in the pronouncements of UK ministers, including at Monday’s UK Africa Investment Summit. Mutual prosperity means that the UK should also benefit from the aid we give to countries, although the government is careful to say that this should always be a secondary consideration and that aid should always be untied (ie, that recipients are not forced to use UK companies). ICAI’s report is clear that there is no evidence that the UK’s economic interests are outweighing considerations of poverty reduction. However, it sets out concerns that need to be answered as the mutual prosperity agenda develops.

Tied aid was made illegal in the UK in 2002 following the Pergau Dam affair, where UK aid was given as part of a bribe to Malaysia to buy British arms. Also on the panel yesterday was Sir Tim Lankester, who was the Permanent Secretary to the Overseas Development Administration (the former wing of the Foreign Office that was the precursor to the Department for International Development) and has written and presented on the affair. If you’ve not heard about this before, it’s worth watching this presentation on  The politics and economics of Britain’s Foreign Aid: The Pergau Dam affair.

Save the Children wants aid to be transformative. We do not see it as a charitable donation but as the way to help develop the poorest countries for the long term, including promoting economic development to reduce the injustice of global inequality. We want to see inclusive economic development that reduces the growing inequality within countries and benefits the poorest children and communities. However, if the UK is trying to get economic benefits for itself , these projects are unlikely to focus on the poorest countries. Amid recent reports of DFID being merged back into the Foreign Office – since dismissed by Number 10 – one of the main concerns expressed was that this move would stop UK aid being focused on the poorest countries. And while the UK, post-Brexit, is interested in increasing its trade, negotiations between the UK and much poorer countries cannot be negotiations between equals.

Aid is often described as an investment and, of course, it should be. But the return on investment should not be about profits for the UK. Rather, it must be to help transform the lives of the poorest children and communities.

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