Ukraine, Global Challenges and the Future of UK Aid

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By Chris Loughran & Camille Wallen 

Chris Loughran is Senior Policy & Advocacy Advisor at The HALO Trust and a member of the CFID Advisory Council. Camille Wallen is HALO’s Director of Strategy

The war in Ukraine is a stark reminder of why conflict response must sit at the heart of an integrated UK international strategy. Meanwhile, the British public’s outrage at Russia’s invasion of a country on Europe’s borders has been matched only by their outpouring of generosity to Ukrainians

The public response is a far cry from what aid sceptics lead us to believe. It shows that British international values are alive and well. But it also raises the question of why the case for international aid doesn’t usually get this level of cut-through with policy makers and the public. 

The war in Ukraine has already led to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Meanwhile, the extensive bombardment of Ukraine’s towns and cities have presented a threat to civilians, humanitarian corridors and aid delivery. For those of us at The HALO Trust, our primary concern has been for the welfare and safety of our 430 Ukrainian colleagues. But we have also mobilised to respond to the conflict.

Since the war began, HALO teams have been working tirelessly to provide medical supplies and humanitarian aid. They have briefed people in bomb shelters, especially children, about the risks posed by unexploded ordnance and how to avoid them. And our online emergency safety messaging has now been viewed over 50 million times on social media channels from Twitter to Tiktok. 

As we write this, our teams are planning for hazard mapping of humanitarian routes, as well as our core business of clearing mines and unexploded bombs. As we have seen time and time again, the safe movement of people and humanitarian assistance will not be possible while landmines and bombs lie in the way. 

Adapting to challenge and crisis is what our teams do around the world every day. During COVID, HALO colleagues swapped detectors for PPE as they distributed medical supplies. They adapted minefield ambulances to transport COVID patients to hospital. They worked with local NGO partners to create reporting mechanisms for increases in domestic violence. And they continued to protect communities from the deadly threat of mines and unexploded bombs. 

The emergency response work of HALO and many of the other UK’s leading international NGOs is UK Aid at its best. In times of crisis, the UK public rallies, as we have seen with the groundswell of public support for Ukrainian refugees, as blue and yellow flags fly proudly over Whitehall, pubs and local shops. 

Polling by the Coalition for Global Prosperity (CGP) shows that the UK public tends to support a crisis and believes that the UK should be a force for good in the world. Most oppose atrocities and hostile state action. They believe in human rights and media freedom, and believe that the UK should stand up for the rules-based system. 

But polls also show that large swathes of the UK public remain undecided on whether UK Aid is a good thing. It is clear that policy debates about the international development budget do not resonate, not least in the face of COVID and rising inflation. And, important though the return to 0.7% is, it is clear that we need to make the case for aid differently if we are to harness public support. 

There are four key ways in which we can better demonstrate the impact and value of UK Aid: 

First, link immediate crisis response to a strategic approach to mitigate the impact of long-term global challenges. UK Aid is more than crisis response and poverty reduction but this is not well understood by the public, parliamentarians and many policy makers. UK Aid needs to be showcased as one of several key levers of the UK’s international engagement. It should be and presented proudly alongside the UK’s multilateral engagement and our commitments to sustainable and equitable trade, climate change and conservation. UK Aid should be aligned with a cross-government vision to address these challenges and deliver the UK’s commitments.

Second, diversify the message. All of us who support international development believe in the importance, and principle of reducing poverty. But building wider support and engagement requires the aid community and its supporters to make a stronger and broader public case for the aid budget. We need to make the case for national and international peace and security, and the UK’s soft power. We need to be more explicit about how poverty and instability overseas create security threats, threaten supply chain security and exacerbate the planetary emergency. 

Third, develop the business narrative. Conflict costs the global economy over 14 trillion pounds, or £1,500 pounds for every human. It leads to ungoverned space and fuels the illicit markets in people, narcotics, arms and endangered wildlife. Conflict and fragility fuels poverty, but it also leads to infrastructure collapse and weakens supply and value chains. UK Aid to combat conflict and fragility must be presented as not just the right thing to do, but as an investment in peaceful and resilient nations, which are better trading partners. 

Four, show how aid and the private sector can work together. Aid can be a vital catalyst for economic development. But it takes the combination of aid, investment and the private sector to generate genuinely equitable and sustainable partnerships that can go to scale. This is at its clearest in building climate adaptation technology and enabling and supporting green markets in Africa. 

It is time to break down, once and for all, the opposition to combining aid with the scale afforded by the private sector and capital markets. Smart pairing of UK aid with Environmental, Social and Governance funds and private sector investment has enormous potential for sustainable and equitable development at scale. 

It is also time to break down silos between UK Aid and different avenues of international engagement, especially diplomacy, trade partnerships and environment. The UK could follow the example of countries like Germany in linking aid to a strategic approach to global challenges that have public support, such as environment and climate change, and the human impact of conflict.

So while there is no question about the legal and moral case for restoring the UK Aid budget, the aid community needs to make the case better and differently. Fortunately, and despite what we have been led to believe by aid sceptics, the public response to Ukraine gives hope that we may be pushing on an open door.

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