While debates rage on about the UK’s relationship with the European Union, interwoven with discussions about a possible general election, I believe it is important to look beyond the short-term and focus on the future of Britain’s role in the world. Here are four ways the UK Government can help establish its vision of ‘Global Britain’ as an outward facing advocate for international cooperation and a leader of world-class science to tackle the global challenges of poverty, inequality and climate change:
1. Invest in world-leading research, innovation, and cross-disciplinary collaboration
The UK’s research and innovation expertise is an absolutely vital component of the ‘Global Britain’ offer. Supporting the diverse research ecosystem must remain a top priority for the UK Government. Alongside developing new technologies and commercial products we also need investment in high quality and contextually grounded social science research that promotes international, equitable and interdisciplinary research partnerships. These must be partnerships that genuinely involve the people and organisations on the ground in low- and middle-income countries as well as developed countries, and not just as data collectors or receptors, but in conceptualising and designing work. For example, it was only when local, social and anthropological knowledge was brought to bear on the tackling the Ebola outbreak 2014-2016, alongside existing clinical expertise, that interventions to stop the spread of the disease became more effective. The importance of social knowledge and local ownership is now being shown again in the current Ebola crisis in DRC.
A part of being a world-leader in research and innovation also means retaining our important partnerships with European research organisations; upholding commitments to underwrite existing European funding, and negotiating participation in future European funding programmes or establish credible alternatives, which the review being led by Professor Sir Adrian Smith Review is consulting on. The UK received the second-highest level of funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020, around £5.7 billion since 2014, and there is a real risk, following the departure from the EU, to the UK’s research income and its ability to shape international research agendas.
2. Design a fairer visa system
The UK should be welcoming the best and brightest minds from across the world to our universities and nurturing a new generation of global thinkers and leaders. We need to make it easier not harder to study in the UK and we welcome the announcement by the Home Office to extend the length of time international students can stay in the UK after graduation from four months to two years. International students should not be included in net migration targets. And we need to welcome visiting scholars and partners to share ideas and knowledge.
While reforms to the UK Tier 4 Visas for international students make the process of obtaining a visa easier and the announcement by the Prime Minister regarding removing the cap on Tier 1 visas for scientists was welcomed, many academics and researchers, particularly from African countries, still face significant hurdles in acquiring visas to visit the UK. At IDS we have seen many research partners – the majority from African nations – denied visitor visas at the last minute. Their visits are critical to capacity development and to the co-design and development of research programmes funded by UK government. These Home office decisions are thwarting the UK’s ambitions to build its reputation as a home for international research and learning excellence.
3. Show leadership on rules-based international order
As part of UK government, DFID and the FCO work together to support a rules-based international order, championing values of fairness and openness and promoting international cooperation.
In the current time with volatile politics playing out in the US and geopolitical tensions growing between the US and China, instability in the Middle-East and crises in Brazil, as well as Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK, we must use every opportunity to present ourselves as a trusted and credible international partner and lead support for multilateral organisations such as the UN. This leadership can also be demonstrated through summits such as the G7 and G20 and through capitalising on potential future summits such as the COP 26 UN Climate Change Summit in 2020, which the UK is seeking to co-host with Italy.
4. Utilise the strengths of DFID
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is a world-recognised and trusted brand. Through DFID and the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), the UK continues to espouse and promote the values of fairness and openness, and provide global leadership and thought leadership on ending poverty and tackling conflict, disease and climate change.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously suggested that DFID could be integrated within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, at a time when the UK is seeking to re-establish itself on the world stage, it would be remarkably short-sighted to lose a Department that has so significantly contributed to the UK’s global credibility and reputation.
Evidence, not ideology must drive efforts to improve coordination across UK Government and the evidence on merging departments to achieve greater efficiencies and effectiveness is at best mixed.
Furthermore, it is not just the 0.7 percent ODA commitment that we should focus on but how that UK aid is spent. It funds both practical programmes and the supportive science that will end the suffering from deadly diseases such as Ebola and malaria, supports initiatives that are helping poorer countries to collect the taxes that can fund their own health and education systems, and contributes to global efforts to tackle urgent climate and environmental problems which already are, and will continue, to impact on citizens everywhere. This is something to be proud of.
UK aid should remain focused on tackling extreme poverty and inequality, and not be diluted across initiatives designed for the purposes of UK national interest alone, and it should fund the vital research necessary to inform international development policy and find the best solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.