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Aid hand-outs alone are not enough to help poor countries, and the United Kingdom must find ways to move beyond this model — so ran a Reuters report following the release this month of a UK parliamentary report from the International Development Committee. [1,2]

British aid is already more coherent than Reuters implies, so this forward-looking report does not contest the need for continued aid and welcomes the UK commitment to give 0.7 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) for development assistance. But it also takes a deeper, systemic approach to global development needs. One thing this includes is scientific cooperation.

First, let’s look at the big picture. The report takes us well beyond an aid agenda that deals in what Lant Pritchett, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development think-tank, has brilliantly called the “politics of penurious poverty lines”. Pritchett makes the point that by focusing on extreme poverty, defined by an arbitrary daily income of, for example, US$1 or $1.25 a day, global development ignores most of the very poor population in developing nations — some of which are now defined as middle-income countries. [3] He argues, in line with the report, that we have to increasingly engage with developing countries on their terms.

Against the background of hostile attention (“why should we give India aid when they’ve got their own space programme?”) the International Development Committee is robust in its defence of working with middle-income countries — many of which still have high levels of poverty because of inequality. But the work needs to be done in a new way.

According to the report: “The UK may no longer have a traditional aid relationship with these countries, but it is spending [official development assistance] in Brazil, India and China — and is rather diffident about admitting this. We believe the Government should stand up for this course of action.”

One exciting, emerging area of official development assistance to middle-income countries that will need further expansion is in the field of science and technology cooperation.

Since 2005, the UK Department for International Development has worked with Research Councils UK to provide nearly £400 million (nearly US$616 million) in such funding, and more is promised through the Newton Fund, a £375 million (around US$577 million) commitment to science and technology funding for emerging middle-income economies. This is still a relatively small part of the British development aid budget, but is a significant investment. [4]

If we look at development as an expansion of human wellbeing then science, technology, engineering and mathematics have their place alongside primary education and healthcare. It is good to see some more-intelligent, joined-up thinking emerging.

This is a smarter approach in two senses. It is a more comprehensive view of what development is, in terms of investing in research in the global South, the reverse of the ‘brain drain’. It is also in line with the priorities of developing countries: to achieve functioning modern economies that generate employment for their citizens and make them less dependent on aid.

Roger Williamson is an independent consultant and visiting fellow with both UNU-WIDER and the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Previous positions include organising nearly 80 international policy conferences for the UK Foreign Office and being head of policy and campaigns at Christian Aid.


[1] Magdalena Mis Britain urged to go ‘beyond aid’ for global impact (Reuters, 2 February 2015)
[2] The Future of UK Development Co-operation: Phase 2: Beyond Aid (International Development Committee, 2 February 2015)
[3] Lant Pritchett A development agenda without developing countries? The politics of penurious poverty lines (part I) (Center for Global Development, 4 September 2014)
[4] Newton Fund: building science and innovation capacity in developing countries (UK government, 16 February 2015)

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