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Article: In the news: What will the UK’s recent general election result and ongoing Brexit negotiations mean for DfID funding for global health?

Rachel Howard, July 2017

cool heads in a crisis-smallThe UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) was established in 1997 with a mandate to tackle world poverty. Since its inception, it has played a major role in the global health landscape through bilateral programs, health partnerships, and the support of multilateral organisations, as well as influencing global health policy and international health research. Its future has come under increasing scrutiny following the UK referendum result in favour of leaving the EU last year, and again in the wake of last month’s general election result.  

While there continues to be a number of uncertainties about how Brexit will play out, and as development policy was not a central part of the public debate or exit negotiations, the consequences of Brexit on UK and EU aid, including funding for global health, have the potential to be far reaching.  

Aid and trade 

In 2015 the UK government was the first OECD country to make a legal commitment to uphold the United Nations’ 1970 overseas aid spending target of 0.7% of gross national income. Despite this pledge having come under considerable criticism by right-wing pressure groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Prime Minister Theresa May reaffirmed the government’s commitment back in April when the general election was called. This followed a warning from global health advocate Bill Gates that to scrap it would be a ‘disaster’ for the effort to defeat world poverty by 2030.

Assuming the commitment continues to be upheld and the economic uncertainty triggered by Brexit doesn’t spark a recession, the UK’s total public spending on aid is therefore projected to increase to £15.8 billion by 2020.

However the new government has emphasised the need to ensure this aid money is being “spent effectively.” Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, has previously spoken of abolishing DfiD and replacing it with a department more focused on international trade. Indeed we are already seeing a move towards a higher proportion of the UK’s aid budget being spent by departments other than DfID, including the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Security, and the Foreign and Commonwealth office.  While some suggest this raises concerns regarding transparency and accountability, this trend looks set to continue, with the government’s latest strategy outlining a commitment to spending 30% of UK aid through other departments by 2020.  Patel was recently quoted as saying, “DfID needs to be integrated with other departments so that post-Brexit we can be even stronger in the world.”

This raises the possibility for aid to be increasingly channelled into areas which offer greater potential to serve the UK’s domestic interests or generate international trade opportunities, such as middle income countries with closer economic ties to the UK.

With aid spending constantly subjected to questions regarding value for money, the shifting political landscape looks set to exacerbate these debates. It will be important for the global health community to closely monitor how the situation evolves in order to evaluate what the broader repercussions will be. 

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