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Britain’s greatest export: Making the UK a 21st century global development leader


As the prime minister announces the UK’s long-awaited integrated foreign policy review today, we look at how we can make the most from Britain’s greatest export: UK Aid.

From cultural domination in music, sport, and film, to our world-leading science and research institutions, Britain’s influence is truly global. The Premier League is broadcast in 188 countries. The BBC World Service, which is partly funded by UK aid, reached 426 million people weekly in 42 languages in 2019. The UK was the first country to approve a vaccine for COVID-19, which is a testament to our strong research and development institutions.

There are many more examples of Britain’s soft power. The UK consistently ranks in the top three countries in indices measuring soft power, demonstrating Britain’s extensive diplomatic networks and its reputation as an international development superpower. However, this reputation is at risk, as the UK seeks to reduce its aid spending target from 0.7% to 0.5%.

The UK’s support to the poorest countries through aid and development is a significant soft power asset. A British Council study with young and engaged citizens from 78 countries showed that the vast majority consider the UK an influential country, with diplomacy and international aid boosting their perceptions of the UK.

Now is not the time to step back

Cutting the aid budget is an economic misstep. The 0.7 commitment is set in place so that when the economy fluctuates and contracts, the amount we spend on aid decreases accordingly. The UK is the only G7 country decreasing its aid budget. Indeed, France has just put in place legislation to ensure that it spends 0.7% of its GNI on aid. The US has also committed to increasing its aid budget. China is increasingly becoming dominant, particularly in Africa. The UK has strong relationships with African countries through the Commonwealth. It should be utilising these relationships and supporting nations to grow, instead, it is stepping back.

As Prime Minister Johnson welcomes President Joe Biden and President Emmanuel Macron to the UK this year for the G7 summit, it is imperative that the UK government thinks long and hard about the image it wishes to portray to the world. Is it wise to cut the aid budget, which contributes to efforts in tackling climate change, just as we are hosting COP26? Is the UK a country that steps back and reneges on its promise to the poorest, or is it a country that empowers the marginalised, and leads on tackling global challenges that impact us all?

Now is not the time to cut aid; there is growing inequality in the world today, and three of the world’s biggest challenges — COVID-19, injustice, and climate change — have exacerbated this. The pandemic is threatening to wipe out decades of economic progress and development gains. COVID-19 could push between 143 million and 163 million people into extreme poverty. This includes nearly 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. COVID-19 has also affected education, with 290 million children in Africa impacted by school closures.

Investing in development makes us safer

Cuts to humanitarian aid of nearly 60% to Yemen have been deeply alarming. There already was an increasing concentration of extreme poverty in fragile and conflict-affected states. At present, over half of those states in extreme poverty are also considered fragile, by 2030, this proportion is expected to rise to 85%.

Investment in development makes us all safer. War zones are poor zones, and countries with poor state capacity and limited opportunities for young people are breeding grounds for extremism. The global economic cost of conflict and violence was estimated to be $14.5 trillion in 2019, an amount equivalent to 10.6% of global GDP, or $1,909 per person. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that $1 of peacebuilding would lead to a $16 reduction in the cost of armed conflict. Financing defence is important, but it is a short-term solution. Investing in development, on the other hand, is a long-term solution.

A new African partnership

The UK should lean into the opportunity to forge a new partnership with Africa, utilising the aid budget to support countries in the immediate economic recovery. Longer-term investments would create jobs for young people and develop the infrastructure that will drive growth and opportunity.

Support and partnership could yield dividends both for the UK and African countries in years to come. The continent is set to become a growing and important market that, through partnership in development, could become the UK’s next-generation trading partner.

Responsible global leadership

ONE’s report, “Britain’s Greatest Export,” outlines exactly what the UK does best, and how it can continue to be a renowned global soft power. The UK should work with partner countries to herald a new era of responsible global leadership. Leaders should be willing to step forward and play a central role on the global stage, working with the UK’s international partners to deliver a cleaner, greener, more equal, and just world. As a matter of priority, the UK should:

1. Reverse the planned cuts to the aid budget. The UK government should publicly recommit to the 0.7% aid target and should not proceed to enact any planned cuts to the aid budget.

2. Protect aid spending on health, education, and social sectors. The UK should build on its legacy of leadership in response to the ongoing health and education emergencies. The UK is co-hosting the Global Education Summit this year alongside Kenya. It should use this opportunity to step up financing to education and leverage further funding from donors.

3. Ensure a fair and equitable distribution of vaccines against COVID-19. The UK was among the first countries to recognise that in our global village, none of us will be protected from COVID-19 until we are all protected.

4. Support the people worst hit economically with a financial support package, including debt suspension for the most vulnerable countries.

For more, read our new report “Britain’s Greatest Export.”

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