Five years since the Brexit vote: implications for global development

Published on 8 July 2021

Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Last month saw the five-year anniversary of the Brexit vote, culminating in Brexit itself in January 2020. At IDS, we have been reflecting on its implications for global development, cooperation, our staff and students, and research. We have seen tangible, emerging impacts, including uncertainty around our participation in European development and restrictive residency requirements.

There can be no doubt that the sense of being “global Britains”, connected to and part of Europe, has taken a hit through Brexit and even more so with the announcement of UK government reductions in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). From within and outside the country, we sense a perception of Britain withdrawing from a global arena of collaboration and mutual support. Regardless of well-meaning individuals wanting to connect people, when the structures around global collaboration and respect are weakened, and trust in governments and multilateralism decreases, our commmitment to global citizenship are threatened.  

In terms of collaboration and collective effort, already we see walls being put up; some by the UK and some by European nations that see the UK as determined to have its way at any cost. Brexit is already compromising the UK’s ability to be part of functioning regional, European systems, and reducing opportunities for the exchange of ideas, people and information.  One example is where UK organisations face restrictions to, and in some cases exclusion from, European Union development funding. These impacts will inevitably lead to the exclusion of research partners and collaborators from multiple platforms and channels of information and people, which before were more readily available, and mutually beneficial.  

The UK government’s decision to cut investment in international aid  (ODA), and the way these radical changes were introduced – with minimal consultation or notice – has immediate impact. It endangers lives and our capability to tackle global challenges like poverty, disease, and climate change. While we may still question whether this threatens our multilateral commitments, it does cast uncertainty on the sincerity and commitment to engage in multilateralism in general. Are we becoming a nation that lets national interests trump global interests? This shift in approach presents a significant threat to our ability to respond, as part of a global community, to universal challenges like pandemics and climate change.  

One of the most immediate effects of Brexit has been to increase the challenges faced by a number of our community – our students, staff and partners- to work, visit and live in the UK. Our concern is that this could result in a huge loss of opportunities to attract researchers and students to IDS, reducing our opportunity to learn from their wealth of experience. Data released by UCAS on 18th February saw a 40 percent fall in the number of applications for undergraduate courses from EU nationals for the January 29th application deadline, ahead of a spike in tuition fees caused by Brexit. Although Covid travel and social distancing restrictions may have had an impact, many attribute this drop to the tuition fee increase.  

Overcoming the impact of Brexit – the IDS European Engagement group

At IDS, our response to the Brexit result five years ago was to form a support group for staff and students that could be affected. Over time, this has evolved into the IDS European Engagement Initiative which sets out our ambition of leading research collaboration and knowledge sharing on universal development challenges in a region undergoing intense geopolitical change. This is a particularly exciting forum that creates new opportunities for us as an institute to engage with partners, researchers, and policymakers in Europe for mutual learning, collaboration, and knowledge exchange.  This includes connecting a network of researchers from IDS to those within and outside of Europe with governments, civil society, and the private sector in Europe.

We hope our focus will lead to a better understanding of fast-emerging perspectives and ensure the inclusion of diverse voices from across the region and beyond.  In turn, this will contribute to reinforcing engagement between researchers with policymakers, strengthening development thinking and practice towards policy improvements and more effective interventions. More broadly, it is also part of the evolving network of IDS International Initiatives that includes Brazil, China, Ghana and Pakistan with emerging opportunities for global learning through shared experience. 

Since its launch, the European Engagement Initiative has included the formation of a network of mutual partnerships with research, learning, teaching and policy work underway.  Its research focus spans migration; youth unemployment; social policy, health systems and inequalities.  

Key projects include:  

  • Advocating for a ‘global Britain’ approach, including through investment in world-leading research, innovation and cross-disciplinary collaboration; designing a fairer visa system; showing leadership on rules-based international order; and utilising the strengths of the FCDO to promote the values of fairness and openness, and provide global leadership and thought leadership on ending poverty and tackling conflict, disease and climate change 
  • Reinforcing and strengthening our position as a European partner through research projects. For example, our collaborative research has documented and shared lessons on how pastoral systems in Sardinia, Kenya, Ethiopia, India and Tunisia respond to uncertainty. A second project explores how the structures, dynamics and processes through which people who are enduringly displaced succeed or fail to become part of European and Indian cities.  
  • Championing a mutual learning approach to universal development challenges. Our project Covid-19: Disconnected Workers and Rapid Digitisation explores how digital marginalisation is playing out for vulnerable workers and the unemployed during the pandemic, in Brighton, London and New York City. A recent webinar series on Youth Employment and Politics brought together diverse perspectives from academia, civil society, government and UN agencies from Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa region. The webinar series focused on the themes of youth mobility, employment, rural livelihoods, politics, peace and security, and youth in humanitarian settings 

Walking the talk of our commitment to being European  

Into the future, we will remain committed to expanding our research, policy and practice partnerships with European institutions that share our vision of a more equitable and sustainable world. This aligns with our belief that together we can create a greater platform for advocating for a respectful, equitable and transformative approach to global development research, practice and collaboration. Finally, as outlined by IDS Director Melissa Leach and colleagues in Post-pandemic transformations: How and why COVID-19 requires us to rethink developmentour research will reflect the core ‘universality’ principle of the Sustainable Development Goals. The challenges of ‘development’ are the concern of everyone, everywhere. We will not let Brexit or a return to nationalism place limitations on our ability to learn, collaborate and achieve change with our European partners and collaborators. 

For further information about the European Engagement Initiative please contact Peter Taylor ([email protected]uk) 


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