Golden threads: 9 reflections on the white paper on international development

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Commentary

Golden threads: 9 reflections on the white paper on international development

WFD's CEO Anthony Smith picks out nine highlights from the new UK Government white paper on international development, which is a big step forward in the integration of democratic governance into international development policy.

The latest in a distinguished line of UK government white papers on international development dropped this week. Having been a DFID staffer half a lifetime ago when the first DFID one was published in 1997, this was an event bound to tug at my heart strings.

But this white paper is the first since I moved to WFD and the first published since DFID and the FCO became FCDO, so there were some new perspectives to manage.

Here are nine things I like about it:

1. The recaptured sense of purpose of UK International Development

Perhaps most importantly, this white paper has rekindled a flame for those wanting to turn the corner from a period that Andrew Mitchell pretty frankly described as disastrous for Britain’s international development reputation.

The white paper recaptures a sense of purpose. The 1997 white paper focused on eliminating extreme poverty – that is what built UK’s development reputation through DFID. The world has changed since then, but I think the approach set out in the 2023 white paper, maintaining the focus on ending extreme poverty and adding climate change, marks a sharp change from the position a year ago, provides a pretty clear agenda, and in so doing helps make the debate about the FCDO merger less important. 

2. The reset for the UK’s relationship with most of the world

The White Paper has welcome things to say about resetting the UK’s relationship with most of the world. UK leadership is not taken as a given, and there is commitment to respect for partners, listening, recognising differing national interests and pathways, and working with local leadership. Let’s try to live up to all those shifts.

At WFD, our partnerships are built on the commitments of both parties to deepening democracy and our recognition that local political contexts will ultimately determine the pace and shape of change. Our local staff, who build and maintain long-term, trusted relationships that are sensitive to local politics, are essential to our success.

About our approach

In the context of an interdependent and complex world, we support partners by ensuring they have the capability and agency to manage the external and internal risks that their country faces, whether from climate change, economic crises, debt, disinformation, or unbalanced relations with other states. Supporting their capability and sovereignty helps to secure a trusted relationship that in turn deepens our collaboration. The key ingredients in our partnerships are:

  • Local leadership – evidence and experience show that support for reform of political systems can only be successful when working with local leaders that are embedded in the political culture of their own country. WFD’s partnerships are invariably responding to demand from local leaders for UK engagement with their own reform objectives. Our activities are therefore designed to support, not replace, local systems.
  • Problem-solving – democratic governance needs to solve the problems that citizens face. Support for democratic governance therefore needs to ensure it tackles issues identified locally, such as anti-corruption, healthcare, and the impacts of climate change. Our partnerships remain grounded in real problems and locally-led solutions.
  • Investing in expertise – our partners are experts in their own political systems and seek further knowledge and experiences that can add value.

The fact that we are also learning is fundamental to this approach and our relationships.

3. The continuing commitment to our values and standing up for them

The reset of UK relationship will go along with a continuing commitment to our values that is neither dominant nor arrogant. We are talking about human rights, the rule of law and accountable institutions – or what I would call democracy (see paragraph 2.13). What really counts is the promise to stand up for those values. Equally important, the paper also says that there are also global rights and norms and that they are fundamental to the SDGs. I would argue that there is a big overlap between the UK values and the global rights, and we might need to be clear about this given the push back by some self-interested autocrats in undermining the idea of universal values.

4. The integration of democratic governance

Compared to the International Development Strategy, there is a big advance in the integration of democratic governance into the range of areas of policy focus. It is not always in exactly the language that WFD would have used, but that is not what matters. What matters is that we can see just how work on accountability, inclusion or climate fits with a range of the issues in the paper.

For example, on debt, paragraph 4.29 points out the weak debt management capacity of many countries and points to the need for support to finance ministries. WFD would also highlight the need to support parliamentary capacity on debt management, which we have published material on. You could say something similar about the sections on illicit finance and anti-corruption, health, and social protection, and indeed on climate, as parliaments are the invisible heart of the Paris Agreement, in charge of translating multilateral commitments into just, inclusive, and effective action, and of providing much-needed oversight on delivery, or with the AI safety summit in mind, the digital environment. Our experts will be sharing their views on this in forthcoming blogs.

A 50% target for focusing UK ODA resources on the poorest countries (paragraph 2.22) makes sense since that is where poverty is increasingly concentrated. And the reasons for that concentration include important governance issues – conflict, fragility and a range of vulnerabilities. There is a huge agenda there but part of it will be the need to tackle how countries are governed so they can develop credible pathways out of extreme poverty and become climate-resilient.

5. The charting of a way forward to stay engaged with those who challenge our values and commitments

The approach in paragraph 2.31 resonates with a recent WFD publication on how (not) to work with authoritarian states by academics at the Universities of Birmingham and Ottawa. We and others have always struggled with the question of how to work with countries whose priorities, as the paper puts it, “run counter to our principles, values and commitment to the SDGs.” The white paper moves the debate and policy forward – stay engaged by firstly, following humanitarian principles and secondly, “supporting those trying to bring about positive change” including by standing up for human rights, including environmental human rights, and the rule of law (or in my words “democracy”). This is a task where FCDO could really deliver coherence and improve the UK’s effectiveness.

6. The clear link between inclusion and democracy

Inclusion = democracy. OK the text (paragraph 6.3) doesn’t quite say this but it makes the UK position clear: that the push to roll-back the rights of women and LGBT+ people are attacks on democracy. That is important clarity, which I think is now pretty firmly established in our society as a UK value. Other countries aren’t there yet and we need to show that respect for sincerely held religious or social beliefs can fit with protecting the rights of all people – that’s what democracy means.

7. The focus on conflict resolution and peace building

A lot of space is dedicated to conflict resolution and peace building. How could it not be when two vicious wars are raging and there are so many people affected by other conflicts, whether in Sudan, Myanmar, DRC or many other overlooked tragedies. WFD’s role is in helping to, as one of my colleagues put it last week, break the cycle of violence which her own community has experienced for a generation. So the words in paragraph 7.12 rang true in talking about fostering sustainable peace and the need for governance and reform that is politically informed, conflict and gender sensitive, creates clearer democratic control, prevents future conflict and increases public accountability. Those are issues that will inevitably occupy more of WFD’s attention. 

8. The crystal clear case that deepening democracy is part of development success

The Open Societies section starts (paragraph 6.18) with the, to us, crystal clear case that deepening democracy is part of development success. We would add that, because it is well established that the climate crisis is a governance failure, deepening democracy is required for successful climate action, as recent WFD publications elaborate, including as regards climate change adaptation, which is a core focus of the White Paper. Despite the technocratic language – personally, I find it hard not to be passionate about these things rather than restrained – this section makes the points it needs to. Along with paragraphs 6.20 – 6.27, there is enough material there to make the clear case that democratic governance has to be part of everyone’s development programmes. And at the end of that section, in paragraph 6.30, comes a real milestone, namely the promise of an FCDO Strategy on Open Societies and Human Rights. This should deliver on the recommendation made by the ICAI Review of the UK’s work on Democracy and Human Rights published in January. 

9. WFD’s role

Last, but by no means least, is the WFD name-check in paragraph 9.11. Our own commitment is to do everything in our power to support our partners in so many countries that are working to secure fairer and more effective political systems that help their communities to solve problems and live the lives they deserve.