Britain's international aid overhaul to address climate change and conflict

David Cameron says aid must address 'new reality' as report outlines approach to alleviate global poverty

Helicopters fight wildfires in Greece in August. Britain has published a white paper on using international development aid to tackle climate change fallout and extreme povery. AFP
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Britain moved to put climate change at the heart of a “revolutionary” relaunch of international development aid as officials said the country should mobilise resources to alleviate global poverty in new ways.

The much anticipated report, which is supported by many global institutions, proposes radical changes in tackling global poverty and the impact of the climate emergency.

With progress slipping in many countries, particularly in the Global South, David Cameron, the new Foreign Secretary, used the foreword to argue that international development had “become both more vital and more difficult”.

The world was off track from the sustainable development goals (SDGs) set out in 2015, with 701 million people now in extreme poverty.

“Climate change’s impact on lives and livelihoods is accelerating, affecting developing countries the most,” he said. “Our approach needs to adapt to new realities. Soon half the world’s poorest will live in fragile or conflict-affected states.”

The report contended that there was now a “major opportunity” to scale up finance from multilateral development banks that could unlock hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.

Mr Cameron argued that Britain had “real development expertise” but “we do not have all the answers”.

“We must work with others, especially those whose lives are blighted by poverty and injustice. Development has the capacity to save and improve lives.”

End poverty

The goal was to “end extreme poverty and tackle climate change and biodiversity loss” but this was only possible “if all countries achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth”, the report said.

The paper drew on input from businesses, banks, academics, youth activists and all major British political parties.

Britain would also pioneer a new approach to debt with repayments immediately paused when vulnerable countries are hit by extreme weather events or health emergencies.

“This is simple innovation that will make such a huge difference,” said Andrew Mitchell, the international development minister who has driven the report.

He said the paper represented Britain’s “answer to a world that is under huge stress” that despite previous improvements was “presiding over a dramatic fall back into poverty”.

Mr Mitchell also argued that people’s faith in multilateral institutions such as the UN or World Bank was fading, “at a time when co-operation is needed more than ever; where the climate is heating up, conflict is spreading and the prospect of pandemics is looming”.

Titled International development in a contested world: ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change, the paper backed a more rapid restructuring of unsustainable debt

UN figures show that more than three billion people live in countries where debt interest payments are greater than expenditure on health or education.

The world was also “falling woefully behind our targets” to meet SDGs, Mr Mitchell added.

Climate collapse

Climate change and nature loss was being felt everywhere with extreme weather, sea level rise and ecosystem collapse all accelerating, the paper said.

“The impacts felt most acutely in developing countries,” it added, stating that biodiversity loss will increase food prices by 20 per cent for billions of low-income people

But conflicts are also on the rise and holding back development, especially with growing challenges faced in the Sahel and the Middle East. In 2022, there were 55 violent conflicts and a 97 per cent increase in deaths on the previous year.

“Humanitarian needs are at their highest since 1945,” the paper said. About 360 million people needed humanitarian assistance in 2023, twice as many as five years ago.

Temperature rises would also contribute to greater destruction with almost 7,500 extreme weather events recorded between 2000 and 2020 that killed 1.23 million, affected another four billion people and caused almost $3 trillion in economic loss.

“Degradation of nature and biodiversity is taking place on a vast scale and at rapid pace,” the paper said.

Six points

To address the growing poverty and climate problems requires action across six core areas: mobilising money to finance development; reform of international systems to unlock progress; tackling climate change to enable economic transformation; education; addressing conflicts; disaster resilience; and “harnessing innovation to overcome barriers to development”.

“Our generation can still be the first to end extreme poverty,” the paper said.

“Our generation is the last who can tackle the worst effects of climate change and nature loss.”

Positive step

Gwen Hines, head of the Save the Children charity, told The National that the paper was “a positive step in the right direction” but without “addressing the havoc inflicted by short-sighted aid cuts” instituted by Boris Johnson’s government, there was still a long way to go.

“But it is encouraging that the government has identified the devastating effects of conflict, Covid and the climate crisis for the poorest and most vulnerable children, and is renewing its focus on the SDGs in response,” she added.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said Britain’s commitment to “addressing global inequities” and the ambitious agenda for positive change “are much needed as the world faces unprecedented challenges”.

Ajay Banga, President of the World Bank, also welcomed the report, stating that the challenges the world faces required “turning big ideas into action and partnerships into progress”.

“It will require all shoulders to the wheel because no one has a monopoly on good ideas,” he added. ”

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP who heads parliament's International Development Committee, welcomed the change of tone from the government but said it could not disguise the legacy of cuts in recent years.

“The funding gap is still the elephant in the room – the UK's ability to respond to humanitarian crises in areas of conflict and climate change have been seriously compromised, financially and politically,” she said.

Updated: November 21, 2023, 9:12 AM