Monday, 30 November 2020

Globally Challenged: the future of ODA funding

Photo by Annie Spratt 

These are uncertain times for those undertaking work with colleagues in the global south. After five years of significant investment through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, there’s a cooler wind blowing through the official development assistance (ODA) landscape. 

The first hint of this came with the damning report from the government-sponsored review of the Newton Fund in July last year. Describing it as ‘poorly designed’ with ‘little effective oversight or management,’ it suggested that there was ‘a lack of transparency and accountability, weak coordination within and across country partnerships, and a lack of a coherent approach across the fund to securing value for money and maximising development impact.’ 


Then, in June this year, Boris Johnson announced the merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). There was concern at the time that international development would play second fiddle to quid pro quo investments that may be necessary post-Brexit. 

This was followed in July by the publication of the government’s R&D Roadmap. Although it promised ‘to strengthen and grow our collaborations with overseas governments and international funders,’ the talk was very much on developing collaborations with ‘existing R&D-intensive nations.’ The shift was clear. 

Finally, in Rishi Sunak's spending review in November 2020, the government stated that it was reducing the aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. 

What will this mean to those of us who support ODA projects? It’s still too early to say, but I expect that, although there will continue to be some investment in overseas development research, it will be at a far lower level. 

As a result we may lose the ground we have gained over the last five years. We have forged new links, developed solutions to significant developmental challenges, and in the process have witnessed a change of culture in how we prioritise more applied research. 

Many of the projects that have resulted from the GCRF are now maturing, and we should be building on their success. There’s a real danger that UK international research funding will become transactional, and will be used for national benefit rather than global good. 

Yes, ODA funding isn’t without its weaknesses (the Newton Fund’s bizarre bilaterals are a particular bugbear), but it is essential that the case for ODA funding continues to be made. As the UK leaves the EU we need to make sure we continue to be part of the wider, international conversation. 

We must take responsibility - and a leading role - in supporting research that tackles significant environmental, societal and economic challenges. It may not have the immediate financial pay off that the government is seeking, but we will all be richer as a result.

This article was first published in The Protagonist and is reproduced with kind permission. Eastern Arc is going to host a webinar on the future of ODA funding on 3 December. To join us, register here. 

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