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Challenges and opportunities for the UK’s new Foreign Secretary

Published on 17 September 2021

The UK has a new Secretary of State to lead the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office at a crucial stage for the future direction of its international development strategy.

The Rt Hon Liz Truss MP has been appointed the UK’s new Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) this week in a cabinet reshuffle by the Prime Minister.  Following the merger of the Foreign Office and DFID last year, she becomes the UK’s chief diplomat with responsibility for foreign policy and international development alongside retaining the largely domestic focused role of Minister for Women and Equalities. It is an exceptionally large and complex policy brief to contend with.

High up in the Secretary of State’s new inbox are urgent foreign policy tests including ongoing challenges in Afghanistan, deteriorating diplomatic relations with China and, most significantly, taking action to repair the significant reputational damage caused by the government’s action last year to cut UK aid. The commitment to ‘Global Britain’ is under scrutiny, including what role international development has in the UK’s foreign affairs policy.

This could be addressed in one of the first tasks faced by the new Secretary of State – to launch the UK’s new International Development Strategy. It presents a much-needed opportunity to reset the strategic direction of UK-led development when there is a significantly reduced ODA budget (since the cut from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GNI) yet exceptional need due to the ongoing global impacts of Covid-19 and climate change. This will be made more complex by the notable lack of detail on development strategy within the government’s Integrated Review.

We believe that in response to such challenges the new international development strategy must rely on research and evidence to design coherent policies, which can be joined-up across the whole of government to support the poorest people, wherever they are in the world.

In an interlinked, hyper connected world, our security, societies and prosperity require new approaches and there are some key areas that the International Development Strategy needs to address, and through which the new Secretary of State could immediately begin to realise change. These include:

Re-thinking aid and development

Covid-19 has made us acutely aware of how interdependent and interconnected the world is and reinforced how much there is for dominant northern powers, including the UK and the US, to learn from the global South. The response and recovery to Covid-19 up-ends a north-south hierarchy that has dominated for too long and underlines the need for global solidarities and mutual learning. A universal, and decolonised approach to aid and development, which equitably includes a diversity of voices and perspectives is fundamental to our future ability to tackle our global challenges, from health to climate change.

Supporting international research for global challenges

Long-term UK-led development support for the poorest and most marginalised, and for increasing opportunities for other countries, would be best channelled via international science and research partnerships, as part of the Prime Minister’s ‘Science and Technology superpower’ ambition. This would involve investing in all disciplines – social sciences and humanities as well as natural sciences – to tackle global challenges and develop mutual knowledge exchanges between UK and lower and middle-income country researchers.

Fostering healthy and fulfilling lives

A more equitable approach to recovery from Covid-19 and vaccine distribution is required as the health and economic recovery will not be possible until all countries are protected.  Despite major investments in UHC, health inequities are worsening in many countries, intensified by Covid-19, environmental change, conflict and violence and social inequalities. Longstanding health problems are being joined by new ones linked to epidemics, poor diets and nutrition, and social exclusion and stress.

Advancing climate and environmental justice

COP26 requires the FCDO to take a leading role in support of climate and environmental justice. Climate and environmental challenges stem from many of the same processes that cause inequity and marginalisation, and to address the consequences of climate and environmental change we therefore need to focus on the social, economic and political drivers or root causes.

Reducing extreme inequities

The world continues to become more unequal economically, socially and politically and this has been exposed and exacerbated by Covid-19. Extreme economic inequality intersects and interacts with other forms of inequality, such as gender, race, place, education and more, to produce extreme forms of inequity – exclusion, silencing of voice, marginalisation. The eradication of extreme poverty can only be achieved if the inequalities and inequities that harm people in rich and poor countries alike are tackled.

Creating more inclusive, democratic and accountable societies

With increasing examples of autocratic governance and attacks on civic space and freedoms globally, an ongoing priority should be given to supporting open societies and governance. Actions that protect civic space is a crucial component of ensuring inclusive political settlements that preserve human rights and support responsive and accountable governance. The UK should support efforts by those campaigning for these inclusive settlements on the ground, and international efforts to develop and hold governments to standards of transparency and accountability.

Taking localised approaches

A joined-up FCDO at the country mission level creates important opportunities to enable work that is fully embedded in local contexts and able to build strong partnerships with local business, civil society and research organisations. However, the Integrated Review included very little on the areas of development and science that the UK has established a global reputation for, including the bottom‑up, partnered approach. This includes working through local development partners to deliver development that responds directly to the priorities of those on the ground and is informed by evidence including the lived-experiences, voices and knowledge of the poorest and marginalised.

Supporting the universal Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (UN Global Goals) were established to ensure that no-one is left behind. Yet more needs to be done to make the universality of development – across all countries – a driving force for change. This is needed as part of an overall commitment and contribution to multi-lateral efforts, in ways that help promote necessary reforms.

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