Michael Jennings: UK Election 2017 manifestos and international development: Common ground and clear water

This post is part of a feature on the 2017 UK elections, moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London).

With the election coming up today, I thought it would be interesting to look at the commitments to international development in the manifestos of the Labour PartyConservatives, and Liberal Democrats.

The day-to-day realities of election campaigns tend to soon undermine the carefully calibrated and plotted plans of campaign managers. So this election that was intended (by the Conservatives) to be the Brexit election has moved in new directions as the policies put forward in the manifestos came under scrutiny and attack.

International development rarely featured centrally, and mostly not even peripherally, in election campaigns. In part this reflects the fact that, by and large, elections are fought on domestic issues not international ones, and where foreign policy issues do feature in the debate, they are often around reactions to wars and other military ventures (the 2005 election in aftermath of the disastrous Iraq War, which saw many people switch from Labour, though not enough to prevent reelection, and the 1983 election, which saw a big increase in the Conservative majority following the Falklands War).

But the lack of debate also points to a level of historical consensus around policy in this area, a consensus that since then Prime Minister David Cameron publicly committed to spending 0.7% of national income on international development as part of the strategy to detoxify the Conservatives, has grown. The transformation of the Department for International Development into one of the largest and most influential global development organizations has further made it harder to highlight show-stopping policies that might lead DFID in radical new directions.

This general consensus is not a new thing. Generally, Britain’s overseas development activity has had broad support, for overall approach if not always on specific policies. Baroness Linda Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development from 1989 to 1997, was largely respected across party lines and by many working in the sector. The shift to a new ministry—the Department for International Development (DFID) under former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first Labour administration in 1997—was a shift in scale and ambition, more than a radical break in policy.

But the creation of DFID has had important consequences, not just for international development (with far more resources available, DFID has been far more ambitious over the past two decades, and has turned into a global leader in international development), but also for foreign policy and Britain’s global presence. This transition has quickened since 2010, and the gutting of foreign office budgets as part of the Conservative-led austerity drive. As DFID’s budgets were not only protected, but increased, those of its former home, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), declined. And power has followed the money. The DFID in-country offices increasingly have more influence than the ambassadors and high commissioners. Indeed, many new FCO appointments have come from DFID rather than up through the FCO ranks following the traditional route to diplomatic service (some voices in the FCO are complaining that the brightest of bright sparks are choosing to go to DFID rather than FCO, further undermining its influence within government).

This means that DFID and the United Kingdom’s international development strategy really should matter in an election, especially one which is still dominated by questions as to Britain’s place in the world, to whom it has its closest links, and how it seeks to promote global change. International development manifesto commitments should, perhaps, be given greater scrutiny.


Department for International Development building in East Kilbride (photograph by Elliott Simpson via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0).

But if there is so much common ground, where are the key points of difference? Are there any? The main differences are less in policy than in the tone and emphasis the promises imply. And this is not unimportant: tone matters. We can see subtle shifts in policy change and direction flowing from the transition from Clare Short’s period as Minister to Baroness Valerie Amos, and subsequently Hilary Benn in 2003. Similarly, from 2010, with the appointment of first Andrew Mitchell under the new Conservative administration, again a tonal shift, this time one that saw a gradual turn toward emphasizing jobs, economic growth, and the private sector that continued under Justine Greening. And with Priti Patel, a further shift toward identifying international development policy with UK national interests, especially post-Brexit. The impact on policy is subtle, and emerges slowly, but it does impact.

So tone matters, and here, more so than in 2015, we can perhaps see real differences opening up, differences that could potentially if not change direction, then mark a slight but significant march off the center line depending on who wins.

The common ground

The big area of common ground is the 0.7 percent commitment, found in all the Big 3 manifestos. So this means international development spending is safe, right? Well, perhaps not. But we’ll come to that at the end (spoiler alert: it definitely isn’t safe—at least, not in its current form, and it is an important potential change).

The specific promises for what DFID would focus on under Labour, Liberal Democrats, or Conservative governments are hardly surprising: health, climate change, education, and to on extent taxation.

Health, a long-standing priority of DFID under previous Labour and Conservative administrations, remains central. All three promise to invest in research for treatments and programs for preventable diseases. The Labour Party pledges to create a Centre for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) to push for UHC across developing countries: a policy that sounds more radical than it is (even the World Bank is a supporter of UHC). The Conservatives identify microbial resistance as a key area for investment; the Lib Dems go for the standard (but important) HIV, TB, and malaria, and talk of research for vaccines. But the Lib Dems also promise that as a response to “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning, they will protect global spending in these areas. On balance, the Lib Dems look more carefully thought out and precise in their plans, and their promise to support family planning and vaccination is important.

The environment and climate change are central to all three, too. The Lib Dems make much of the need to build international cooperation, and strengthen multilateral responses against isolationism; with Labour pointing to the Paris Declaration commitments as a priority. The Tories don’t frame their response in such an internationalist language but do add habitat degradation and species loss to their list of priorities. Again, no big differences here, but perhaps top marks again to the Lib Dems for the greater emphasis on global action, with Labour a close second.

Labour and the Lib Dems both promise to tackle the thorny issue of taxation. Labour promise decisive action on tax havens (though the manifesto focuses largely on UK overseas territories and crown dependencies, ignoring the haven that is the City of London). The Lib Dems are more interesting, focusing not just on tax havens but on ensuring British companies pay more taxes in the developing countries in which they operate, and promising large companies will be required to show how much tax they pay in each country.

Meanwhile, the Tories and Lib Dems both promise to prioritize education. The Conservative manifesto pledges to focus on education of women and girls. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems move beyond bland generic statements and add some specifics, saying they will develop a global education strategy and push for global commitments to ending the funding shortages that result in 263 million children missing school.

So if on the big areas (how much should be spent, health, education, climate, tax) there is broad agreement across all three (or in some cases across two), where are the differences?

A labor commitment for the Labour Party

In addition to the commitments described above, the Labour Party also promises:

  • An annual report to parliament on how DFID has performed in relation to meeting the SDG targets.
  • The reinstatement of the Civil Society Challenge Fund (which ran from 2000 to 2015), and the closure of which was seen as further evidence by some of growing antagonism between the Conservative government and civil society groups (especially NGOs) who in the absence of an effective opposition, were often leading the criticisms of government policy.
  • Least developed countries to have full access to UK markets to protect export revenues: a continuation of existing policy.
  • New regulations will ensure for-profit DFID contractors must spend money on reducing poverty, not on generating profits (a policy that also looks more radical than it is: such companies will be able to still bid for projects, and demands for greater transparency and regulation are fairly universal, from left-wing political parties to orthodox international finance and development institutions).
  • A Labour government would seek to improve conditions in global supply chains. British businesses operating globally will be required to respect human rights for workers, ensure compliance with regulations on environmental sustainability, and regulations on corporate responsibility for abuses in global supply chains will be tightened (motivated, no doubt, by relatively recent scandals in textile factories, as well as less publicized, but equally shocking treatment of workers producing goods for UK markets). Workers producing goods for UK supermarkets will be protected by UK regulations no matter where they live.
  • The Labour Party also promises a review on refugees through a cross-departmental strategy on meeting international obligations in respect of the refugee crisis within a hundred days. Disappointingly, no actual commitment to honor previously made commitments to child refugees at the very least. And will there even be a hundred days before crisis hits, if French President Emmanuel Macron decided to push for changes to the current border regime in Calais.

The Labour manifesto signals a tonal break with DFID discourse under the Conservatives. The focus on the private sector is quite clearly being replaced by greater emphasis on civil society and the role of the state. There is a shift from looking to the importance of job creation as a means of reducing poverty, to protecting the rights, conditions, and treatment of the workers already in employment. Unsurprisingly, given the rest of the manifesto commitments, British companies could expect more regulations over their foreign activities; and in the long run would we see a decline in the number of for-profit development organizations bidding for projects, and an increase in consortia of nonprofits?

Trying hard: The Lib-Dem commitments

To seasoned manifesto watchers, the Lib Dems have often come up on top with carefully thought-out proposals, and appear more embedded in the language and discourse of international development (reflecting, perhaps, a greater influence of development experts in writing policy in this area).

In terms of tone, this is (unsurprisingly, given other pledges around Brexit) a set of development commitments that put their internationalist credentials front and center: calling for commitments to international cooperation and rules and supporting multilateral organizations against the threats from the rising ride of unilateral, bilateral, and isolationist politics. For Lib Dems, the purpose of international aid is to “promote the liberal values of human rights and democracy throughout the world.”

Kudos as well for use of the term “resilience,” showing someone has been paying attention to DFID and other development organization publications and project calls. The Lib Dem manifesto is bang on trend with its promise to focus on building resilience in poor countries against disasters through investing in health care and infrastructure, and training emergency response teams, as well as generously responding to new humanitarian crises.

And respect, too, for responding directly to He Who Shall Not Be Named But Whose Tweets Cannot Be Avoided, in openly attacking “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning. This is especially interesting given the questioning of Tim Farron over his stance on abortion. Let’s hope the Yellow-Haired One doesn’t read the manifesto, or his surety [sic] that he is the most maligned politician in history will be reaffirmed.

What do you mean that doesn’t count? The Tory manifesto and international development

The only major difference in actual focus offered by the Conservative manifesto is a focus on modern slavery. But there are some important tonal differences, ones that will impact policy. And there is also a nasty sting in the tail.

In terms of tone, the most significant is how the purpose of international development is framed. The manifesto states:

British aid helps millions and is a powerful statement of Global Britain’s place in the world. It protects our interests: by building a safer, healthier, more prosperous world, we can protect our own people from disease, conflict and instability.

This focus on international development as a means for protecting and enforcing “our” interests has been an increasingly dominant feature under the direction of the latest Minister for International Development, Priti Patel, who has even suggested UK aid should be used to help secure post-Brexit trade deals. So this naked self-interest is not surprising, even if it is disappointing that it is framed in such a way in the manifesto.

While the Lib Dems and Labour focus on human rights and internationalist values (to a greater or lesser degree), the Conservatives also write about the importance of extending “around the world those values that we believe to be right.” Those values?

The United Kingdom will be a champion for an open economy, free trade, and the free flow of investment, ideas and information.


We will continue to promote democracy, the rule of law, property entitlements, a free and open media, and accountable institutions in countries and societies across the world. (emphasis added)

In other words, the steady shift in the framing of DFID’s mission toward building up the private sector, encouraging and helping create conditions for foreign direct investment, and seeing job creation and economic growth as the solution for poverty, will continue under a Conservative government.

And now the sting in the tail. And this should be deeply worrying to anyone involved in or who cares about international development and poverty reduction, not least because it is extremely likely that May will be returned to Number 10 on 8 June. Hidden among all the nice pledges to end the subjugation and mutilation of women, end slavery, eradicate child poverty, and so on is a more troubling pledge:

We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent, on whom and for what purpose. So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target.

What is going on here? Aid (or official development assistance, to give its proper title) as we know is defined as funds that are provided to promote economic development and welfare, which is concessional and has a grant element of at least 25 percent. But importantly there are other restrictions on what can, or more importantly cannot, be counted as aid. Governments can claim as aid the costs of military delivery of humanitarian aid. But:

  • The costs of military equipment or services are not counted as aid
  • Anti-terrorism activities do not count as aid
  • Peacekeeping expenditures are mostly excluded from consideration as aid
  • Cultural activities count if they are aimed at building cultural capacity of recipient countries, but not if they are one-off tours by donor country artists, sportspeople, musicians, and so on.

One has to assume that the Conservatives are not worried about whether they can send Ed Sheeran on a global tour, or the triumphant Bournemouth football team (finished ninth, you know) to play East Africa’s finest teams, and have it count toward the 0.7 percent. This is about the use of aid by and through the military.

The Conservatives are desperate to be able to build military spending in some capacity into official aid spending. This not only relaxes pressure on budgets (by transferring some of the commitment to 0.7 percent to the military, and meet the increased spending commitments it has promised on defense through a reallocation of funds rather than finding new resources); it would also further cement the idea that international aid is part of the United Kingdom’s tool kit for working toward UK national strategic interests, by more closely linking military strategic interests with those of UK-supported international development.

They are not alone in this ambition. The United States would also like to see a relaxation of the rules to allow military spending to count. It’s worth noting that this would be a spectacularly bad idea. There is a reason there is a (now threatened) consensus on the role of the military in aid. The securitization of aid over the past couple of decades has already served to weaken the previously harder division between humanitarian and military intervention sectors, with poor consequences for the safety of both humanitarian actors and civilians with whom they are working, and making conflicts more intractable through their internationalization and embedding in outside interests. A full-out assault on what remains of the barrier would undermine the central defining feature of aid: that it is for economic development and welfare in recipient countries.

So, given a likely Tory victory, this is going to be a key battleground for those who care about international aid, not as a means for narrow national self-interest but as an idea that is greater, wider, more encompassing and internationalist than the Conservative vision. I started off by suggesting that the manifestos reflected differences of tone more than of policy. But here is a major policy difference, and one that, if enacted, could destroy the idea of aid as we know it. So, my pessimism over the likely outcome notwithstanding, here’s yet another reason to go out and vote on 8 June.

Michael Jennings is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and London (SOAS), and has taught and researched at Oxford and the Centre for Development Studies at Swansea University. His research interests include the politics and history of development processes in sub-Saharan Africa: governance, civil society, nongovernmental organizations and faith-based organizations, and social aspects of health in Africa. Several of his publications are available here.

This post was originally published on Michael’s blog on 25 May 2017.

Cite as: Jennings, Michael. 2017. “UK Election 2017 manifestos and international development: Common ground and clear water.” FocaalBlog, 8 June. www.focaalblog.com/2017/06/08/michael-jennings-uk-election-2017-manifestos-and-international-development-common-ground-and-clear-water.