Aid after Brexit: Why we should continue investing in multilaterals

As we leave the EU, the UK will play a new role in the world. Some have called this a ‘Global Britain’, others have called for a ‘world for the many, not the few.’ But does leaving the EU mean we should change our approach to spending aid? Should we stop pooling our funds with others, stop spending it through big multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, Global Fund or Gavi (global Vaccine Alliance), and spend more through our own, bilateral, programmes?

In an era of ‘taking back control’ and talk of using aid for the UK’s national interest, handing over large cheques to global organisations may not seem terribly fashionable.

Here’s why cutting multilateral aid would be short-sighted:

Multilateral organisations are saving millions of lives

The Global Fund has helped save 27 million lives since 2002, 2.3 million of them with support from the UK.  Gavi has vaccinated 640 million children, preventing more than 9 million deaths.

Multilateral projects are making a real difference in the lives of poor and marginalised people

Multilaterals tend to spend more money in poorer countries than bilaterals. A study in 2014 found that bilaterals and non-DAC donors gave only 19% of their aid to low-income countries whereas multilaterals gave an average of 55%.

Multilaterals are also good at meeting the needs of poor and marginalised people:

  • In Yemen, almost 9 million people have been given income support to protect them from malnourishment in the ongoing conflict, through a joint World Bank/UNICEF project.
  • The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced polio cases by more than 99% since 1988.
  • In Mali, the World Bank has funded bicycles enabling more girls to attend school and has trained teachers and counsellors on gender equality.
  • UK investments in the World Health Organisation (WHO) have helped respond to the Ebola outbreak in the DRC and diphtheria amongst the Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazaar.
  • In Afghanistan, the World Bank is supporting small scale hydroelectric power plants that are helping economic development, providing irrigation for farmers, and stop women having to walk long distances for water. Small scale hydro plants are ‘clean energy’ helping to prevent climate change.
  • In Honduras, the World Bank has supported land rights. 50,000 new land titles have been awarded, 48% of which went to women.

Multilateral aid is more effective and transparent than bilateral aid

Real aid — which makes a real change for the world’s poorest people — is poverty-focused, effective and transparent. Multilaterals tend to do this better. The Centre for Global Development’s index of aid quality found that of 7 donors who provide the best quality aid, 5 are multilaterals. The Aid Transparency Index also finds that of the 7 ‘very good’ donors, 5 are multilaterals.

Multilaterals can pool resources to save costs, delivering better value for money for UK taxpayers

By using its large-scale purchasing power, the Global Fund has achieved a 38% reduction in the price of insecticide-treated bed nets since 2013. Overall, the Global Fund saved $205 million in 2017 that was used to help more people.

Supporting multilaterals can also help the UK’s global reputation

Countries such as Norway, Belgium and Brazil, who might otherwise lack influence in international affairs, spend money through multilaterals to bolster their place on the global stage. For example, Norway’s 2016 budget proposal argued that ‘effective engagement in policy opens the doors of important global actors, and gives Norway a positive visibility that means a lot in the work to promote Norwegian interests’ (Utenriksdepartmentet, 2015). The UK might do well to follow Norway’s lead post-Brexit.

Spending through multilaterals means the UK can push other countries to do more and helps multilaterals themselves to reform

The UK’s role as a ‘development superpower’ means that we can use our voice to push others to be more effective. DFID already links payment to results for 20 multilateral organisations and has linked almost £500 million in funding to results. Through multilaterals, we can also push developing countries to do more. For example, countries supported by the Global Fund have increased their own health investments by more than 40% over the last few years because of the Global Fund’s domestic financing policy.

This is not to say UK bilateral programmes aren’t useful too. Bilateral aid can be more flexible, can tackle issues that multilaterals, with their multiple partners, cannot. But let’s not forget that being a ‘Global Britain’ means continuing to play our role in the global organisations who do so much to create a safer, healthier, more prosperous world for us all.

Want to know more about the UK’s approach to international development? ONE’s Real Aid Index gives a detailed breakdown of how each department spends aid (over £100 million). 


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