Synopsis of: UK Aid Policy and Practice 1974-90: An Analysis of the Poverty Focus, Gender Consciousness and Environmental Sensitivity of British Official Aid


Objectives of the Research

To investigate the extent to which British official aid was poverty-focussed, gender-conscious and environmentally sensitive. The objective of the exercise was to gather whatever evidence existed which would shed any light on both the policy motives of the donors of aid and the effects of aid on those most in need of help. This includes women, who suffer disproportionately from poverty in the Third World. The inter-relationship between poverty and the environment was also examined because the poor are particularly vulnerable to the effects of “development” on the environment.


Summary of Chapter Contents:

Chapter 1: Objectives, Methodology and Literature

·        Consideration of the role of lobby groups in establishment of aid policy.

·        Analysis of Parliamentary debates, Parliamentary papers, government publications, aid pressure group material, press articles, women’s organisations and environmental lobby group proposals.

·        Interviews with aid civil servants; two former Ministers of Overseas Development (Judith Hart and Timothy Raison); Party spokespeople on overseas development; consultants to the ODA; freelance writers on aid.

·        Analysis of ODA statistics, including unpublished internal print-outs of aid sub-sectors.

·        Analysis of internal ODA “flagship” project documents in the areas of poverty alleviation, gender and the environment.



The literature specifically on recent British aid policy and the extent to which it is poverty focussed is not vast. At the time when this thesis was begun, in January 1988, there was little comprehensive academic analysis of this subject. Most of what had been written was in the form of single chapters, articles, reports and booklets, many of them written by pressure groups rather than academics. It was therefore felt that a considerable gap existed, and it is hoped that this thesis will go some way towards filling it.

In terms of the pre-Thatcher period, some general historical background to British aid can be gained from D J Morgan's five-volume Official History of Colonial Development (London, 1979), or his earlier and shorter Colonial Development (London, ODI 1964). The more recent historical background to the establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Development in 1964 is provided by Dudley Seers and Paul Streeten in "Overseas Development Policies Under the Labour Government." in Beckerman, W, (ed) The Labour Government's Economic Record 1964-1970 (London, 1972). An idea of the motivations of the 1974-79 administration can be gained from the books on overseas development written by two of its ministers: Harold Wilson's The War on World Poverty (London, 1953) and Judith Hart's Aid and Liberation (London, 1973). The former is largely technocratic in character, while the latter contains a polemic against the anti-aid schools of both right and left, arguing strongly for the maintenance and reform of aid.

An interesting analysis of the institutional problems of implementing the "More Help for the Poorest" policy in Britain under the 1974-79 Labour Government was contained in Michael Lipton's book, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (London, 1977). This book is very much within the populist tradition (see chapter on philosophical issues). It provides an illuminating insight into the difficulties and pitfalls of implementing the "changing emphasis" in British aid policy at the time.

One of the best attempts to assess the achievements of the 1974-79 Labour Government has been made by Paul Mosley in his article: "Aid for the Poorest: Some Early Lessons in UK Experience", in the Journal of Development Studies (January 1981). This was followed by an Actionaid report: Poverty-Focussed Aid: The Lessons of Experience (London, 1987), also written by Paul Mosley. This was presented at a symposium, the proceedings of which were also published as Actionaid Symposium on Poverty-Focussed Aid: Transcript of Proceedings (London, 1987). The interesting feature of this latter document was the exchange which took place between the then Minister for Overseas Development, Chris Patten, and Paul Mosley as well as the discussion itself. The report contains a thoughtful analysis of the lessons of the poverty-focussed integrated rural development projects initiated under the 1974-79 Labour Government and the collapse of this approach under the Conservatives. Other assessments of the Labour period included Morris and Gwyer: "UK Experience with Identifying and Implementing Poverty-related Aid Projects" in Development Policy Review Vol 1 (1983), and Adrian Hewitt's "British Aid Policy and Practice" in ODI Review No 2 (1978).

The pre-1988 academic literature specifically on British official aid in the Thatcher period, despite being more abundant than the material on the 1974-79 Labour period, was still scanty and mostly in the form of short articles, reports often produced by academic/NGO-initiated pressure groups, as we have noted. The NGOs with charitable status are restricted from becoming too politically critical of government aid policy. It was for this reason that organisations like the World Development Movement (WDM) and the Independent Group on British Aid (IGBA) were set up to promote reform of official aid policy through lobbying and the publication of critical reports. The NGOs were instrumental in founding these organisations with a non-charitable status so that they could be free to criticise government policy without restriction.

The reports produced by the IGBA, and often authored by leading development academics, have been a particularly useful source of information about British official aid policy – much of it highly critical. These reports were: Real Aid: A Strategy for Britain (London, 1982); Aid is Not Enough: Britain and the World's Poor (London, 1984); Missed Opportunities: Britain and the Third World (London,1986); Britain and Tanzania: The Search for Real Aid (London, 1986); and Real Aid What Europe Can Do (London, nd – 1988?).

The first of these reports does say a little bit about the period of the Labour Government but, generally speaking, and understandably, it concentrates on the period since 1979. The policy criticisms which these reports expressed have been very much within a perspective of reforming rather than abolishing official aid. One of the members of the IGBA, Paul Mosley, presented this perspective in his book, Overseas Aid: Its Defence and Reform (London, 1987). Once again, the weakness of these IGBA reports is their insufficient integration of the critically important gender aspect of aid policy. The absence of any women members of the IGBA might possibly have had something to do with this omission.

The Labour Aid and Development Committee proposed a Programme For Development (London, 1986), which contained a critical analysis of current British aid policy and proposed some quite detailed policy reforms for a future Labour Government on a whole series of development issues other than aid. These included women and development, the environment, transnationals, energy, food aid, trade unions and development education.

A paper published by Oxfam in the late eighties, The Oxfam White Paper (Oxford, 1987) written by John Clark, was a further modest contribution which specifically addressed itself to criticising British official aid policy. It dealt with commercialisation of aid, structural adjustment, and women and development. It also made some brief proposals for reform. This was further developed in John Clark's book, For Richer, For Poorer (Oxford, 1987) which also contained some material on British aid.

An ActionAid report written by Mark Robinson, Aid for the Poorest?: UK Aid to Bangladesh. (London, 1988) was another example of the very small number of brief but useful published critiques of specifically UK aid policy. Its usefulness lay in the fact that it analysed a number of British official aid projects and attempted to assess the extent to which they were poverty-focussed.

A report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs: Bilateral Aid: Country Programmes. Second Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee (Session 1986-87, HCP 32) and the related Minutes of Evidence provided some interesting information: the evidence given by the IGBA was particularly illuminating in relation to the commercialisation of British aid under the Thatcher Government.

The best account of the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA) policy and record on women is a booklet written by Julia Mazza for War on Want: The British Aid Programme and Development for Women (London, 1987). This quite comprehensive critique of ODA gender policy led to considerable controversy and the adoption by the ODA of some of its proposals. As a result it is now somewhat out of date, since some of its criticisms have been taken on board. Many of the ODA policy documents and guidelines have been revised or replaced by new documents.

Since 1988, however, a number of works have appeared which have also filled in much of the gap in the literature on recent British official aid policy. In 1989 Teresa Hayter published a book largely, but not exclusively, devoted to British aid in relation to the environment and poverty: Exploited Earth: Britain's Aid and the Environment (London, 1989). This is a comprehensive source of up-to-date information about British official aid projects. It is highly critical of these projects, but does come up with some very valuable and positive proposals for reforming aid despite the fact that the author is well known for her views about abandoning aid as it is presently constituted. Some of her proposals are integrated into the programme of alternative policies presented in the concluding chapter of this thesis. However, the book concentrates largely on the period of the Thatcher administration and does not deal with the period of the Labour Government (1974-79) in any depth.

Another recently-published book dealing with the period of the Thatcher administration is a collection of essays edited by Anuradha Bose and Peter Burnell: Britain's Overseas Aid Since 1979: Between Idealism and Self-Interest (London, 1991). This is another mine of extremely interesting information on British official aid, much of it critical in a positive way of the Thatcher Government aid policy, written by some of the most well known academics and NGO officers in the development lobby. Its comprehensive span includes aid policy and the environment, the relationship between NGOs and official institutions, an excellent contribution on the role of the business lobby in relation to aid and an essay on the aid lobby. This otherwise comprehensive span, however, does not include a contribution on the crucial issue of aid and gender.

The most recent book to be published on British official aid during the Thatcher years is Morrisey et al: British Aid and International Trade: Aid Policy Making 1979-89 (London, 1993). This is another excellent contribution but, again, is confined to the Thatcher period and is limited in its span to the relationship between aid and trade.

In relation to the environment, the most detailed critique of projects on the ground in a particular country has been by made in a booklet by S Percy and M Hall: British Aid to India: What Price? (London, 1989) and an unpublished follow-up report, British Aid to India: Turning Green? (London, 1991) written by Percy, a freelance writer who has visited Karnataka in India on several occasions. The value of these contributions is that they are some of the very few independent first-hand accounts of the progress of a number of ODA projects in India.

Chapter 2: Theoretical frameworks

·        Background analysis of Harold Wilson and Judith Hart books on development issues – one took a religious, “moral” stance in defence of aid (Wilson); the other an ideologically socialist stance. Linked to Keynsian economics.

·        Contrast with extreme economic liberals such at Peter Bauer, who argued that there is no moral case for aid.

·        Discussion of ideas of Bauer and his influences among the Tory right.

·        A critique of Bauer, including extracts from an interview with him.

·        Discussion of Nozick’s views attempting to justify inequalities of wealth if “acquired justly”. Critique of his views and defence of idea of social justice based on needs. Other writers cited to support this (eg Riddell, Moore Lappe).

·        Discussion and comparison of different left-wing positions on aid (Judith Hart and Teresa Hayter). Evolution of Hayter’s views towards accepting need for aid in certain circumstances. Similarly, Myrdal and Seers evolved in opposite directions (pro-aid to being more critical).

·        Comparison of different right-wing views on aid (Bauer vs the export lobby).

·        Discussion of role of liberal, centrist views on aid – the Brandt Report and the idea of “mutual interests, enlightened self-interest” between North and South. Critique.

·        The idea that “self-interest” or “national interest” is paramount. Critique.

·        Environmental arguments in relation to aid; influence of populist ideas in the environmental and development lobby. Critique.

·        Discussion of environmental priorities vs social priorities.

·        Discussion of problems related to gender. Does the women’s movement in the North have the right to “interfere” in gender relations in the Third World?

·        Family planning and population issues: is population the cause or effect of poverty? It is argued that it is the effect of poverty, not the cause.

·        Discussion of theories of justice in relation to women: women either do not exist or, when they do, they are relegated to the private, domestic domain where the law does not apply. Internationally, while their lives are affected by foreign capital, international moral obligations are disavowed.

·        It is argued that the Northern women’s movement does have the right to intervene in the South.


Chapter 3: Labour Aid Policy 1974-79

·        Analysis of 1975 White Paper, “More Help for the Poorest” – relationship to World Bank policy shift (1973).

·        Limitations of White Paper

       political and commercial objectives in the paper contradict developmental objectives;

       local and recurrent cost restrictions limited a substantial poverty focus;

       sovereignty of recipient nations was used to limit scope of policy shift;

·        IMF-inspired cuts in aid budget and controversy surrounding it.

·        Problems of implementing rural development projects.

·        Commercial influence on aid resulting from export lobby and underspend on poverty-focussed projects resulting from local/recurrent costs restrictions, eg Indian ships deal. Judith Hart’s defence of this (interviews with her).

·        Initiation of the Aid for Trade Programme (ATP) by Judith Hart in return for quantitative increase in aid. Implications of this in preparing the ground for greater commercial emphasis of the Thatcher government.

·        Analysis of other writers’ balance sheets of the Labour aid record – the lessons of the attempted shift to a poverty-focussed approach.


Chapter 4: Conservative Aid Policy 1979-90

·        Assessment of the influence of different policy approaches on Thatcher government policy.

       negligible influence of extreme economic liberals (Bauer et al)

       continuing predominance of export lobby in policy

       essentially a continuation of Labour policy “nibbled at edges”. 1975 White Paper not disavowed

       this encapsulated in Marten statement (1980) to Commons

·        Examples of commercially motivated aid deals continuing the trend under Labour.

·        Growth of Aid for Trade Programme (ATP).

·        Origins of current Malaysian arms scandal: Pergau dam affair examined.

·        Comparison of Raison and Patten periods of office at ODA.

·        Analysis of a number of critical pressure group reports in this period in response to quantitative as well as qualitative decline in aid.

·        Foreign Affairs Committee deliberations on this decline in aid. Weaknesses in final report despite critical evidence given.

·        Shift to co-option of critical NGOs under Patten: greater openness, but “carrot and stick” used to suppress their criticisms.

·        Similar constraints on consultants in universities and lobby groups as a result of dependence on ODA funding.

·        Ability of Patten to adapt to powerful criticisms of gender and environment lobby.

·        Labour Party press release exposing “doctored” ODA evaluation reports on ATP – quotations and analysis.

·        Interview with Timothy Raison (extracts quoted to give background to government motivations. Critical of Thatcher.

·        British response to 1984 Ethiopian famine reviewed. Britain’s previously poor showing in Ethiopia analysed. Controversy in press examined. Britain’s hostility to “Soviet client” contrasted to neighbouring countries.

·        Review of All-Party Group on Overseas Aid report on African agriculture – devastating statistics on British record.

·        Declining contributions to multilateral aid institutions aimed at poorest countries (IDA, IFAD etc) at time of famine.

·        Interview with Joan Lestor (Labour spokesperson) and Jim Lestor (dissident Conservative) – interesting insights into Raison as an individual; also Chris Patten.

·        Extracts from interviews with ODA social development advisers and assessment of their ability to scrutinise projects. Grossly under-staffed. Cannot properly scrutinise – let alone alter – projects.

·        Actionaid symposium examined – debate between Patten and development lobby. Absence of poverty-impact evaluations revealed.


Chapter 5: Quantitative Comparison of Labour and Conservative Aid Policy 1974-90

·        In 1990 Official Development Assistance (ODA) down by a third of its 1979 value.

·        Public Expenditure on Overseas Aid (PE) cut more than Public Spending as a whole under Thatcher – in 1990, it was down by 20 per cent on 1979 figures, indicating low priority to aid.

·        While ODA declined by a third under Thatcher, Other Official Flows (OOF), representing less concessional aid on more commercial terms, increased in percentage terms while purely private flows collapsed as a result of debt crisis. Voluntary grants from private charities increased their relative importance within private flows.

·        In terms of ODA as percentage of GNP, British aid in 1990 was 0.27 per cent – half the 1979 figure. The target is supposed to be 0.7 per cent.

·        The percentage of total financial flows of GNP was negative for the first time in 1990. This was embarrassing for Britain, which has always argued that this was more important than percentage ODA.

·        The Thatcher period saw multilateral aid increase and bilateral aid decrease, despite efforts of Thatcher to reverse this trend. The figures reflect cutting of overall aid while long-term multilateral commitments prevented cuts.

·        Within bilateral aid, concessional project aid has declined, commercial-terms aid (CDC aid) has sharply increased. Programme aid has waned despite Thatcher government pressure to increase this highly conditional form of aid. Debt cancellation did not rise significantly under the Conservatives, despite the Lawson initiative. It was higher under Labour.

·        Grants have increased and loans decreased – this linked to Britain’s desire to keep trading links with traditional African Commonwealth countries hit hard by debt. This merely reflected that they simply could not repay the debt.

·        Tying of British aid has not declined significantly – about two-thirds of aid continues to be tied.

·        Local costs have declined consistently as a percentage of bilateral aid since 1983, when the last projects initiated under Labour were filtering through the system.

·        There was a 40 per cent drop in the aid to the poorest 50 countries during the 1980s. There was also a decrease of 50 per cent in per capita aid to these countries in the same period.

·        The two key poverty-related sectors of project aid, Renewable Natural Resources (RNR) and Social and Community Services (SCS), accounted for less than 30 per cent of project aid on average over the 1980s.

·        In 1984 a staggering two-thirds of UK project aid to African agriculture went on roads, paper and rubber schemes; a further 10 per cent went on non-staple cash crops; while only 1.5 per cent on livestock and 1 per cent on rural water supply. There was a low allocation to subsistence farming, agricultural research (especially in arid areas), farmer services and credit.

·        Non-staple cash crops received more priority than cereals and livestock (critical to subsistence food supply).

·        The UNDP Human Development Report 1989 claimed that only 8.8 per cent of British aid went to “human development” priority areas such as pure water supply, sanitation, nutrition, family planning, primary education and primary health.

·        Primary education accounted for less than 15 per cent of total education on average.

·        Primary health sector aid was largely devoted to family planning – other key aspects of primary health were neglected.

·        Human development priorities accounted for 7 per cent or less on average of total project aid if commercially motivated projects are discounted.

·        There are massive differences in aid to dependencies compared to non-dependencies. Ethiopia during the 1984 famine got the same aid as Gibraltar with its much smaller population.

·        Aid to “Soviet clients” and radical redistributive regimes (eg Nicaragua under the Sandinistas) got much less aid (if any) than neighbouring, “friendly” regimes.

·        ATP distorted significantly the destinations of aid towards the NICs (eg Malaysia!) – linked to arms sales in some cases.

·        A small group of companies benefited enormously from ATP – they were also noted for contributions to Conservative funds.


Chapter 6: British Aid and the Environment

·        The Bruntland Report, the concept of “sustainable development” and the British response.

·        Reaction from environment lobby: the critique of growth. This is in turn criticised. Instead of “nil growth”, it is argued that it is necessary to replace “accumulation for accumulation’s sake” with production for need. Wasteful production undertaken simply because it is profitable should be eliminated.

·        Critique of population as cause of poverty – as argued by Bruntland, the ODA and the environmental lobby. It is argued that genuine land reform to alleviate poverty is what is most needed. This need is obscured by the emphasis on population growth as cause rather than effect of poverty.

·        Discussion of relation between migratory and commercial causes of forest destruction. It is argued that commercial causes are very important. Migration and colonisation of frontier forest regions does cause destruction, but this migration is a result of the failure to implement genuine land reform in non-frontier regions.

·        Discussion and analysis of British policy documents responding to Bruntland – hiding behind population to evade need for land reform.

·        Account is given of the debate over social forestry and the environmental lobby’s criticisms of the ODA Karnataka (India) Social Forestry Project. The role of eucalyptus in this. Evaluation reports are analysed and the views of consultants to the project are reported (extracts from interviews).

·        Analysis and criticism of a subsequent “flagship” forestry project: the Western Ghats Forestry Project. Contrast is made between two approaches to projects: the “blueprint” approach and the “process planning” approach typified by the above two forestry projects.

·        Interviews with independent freelance writer Steve Percy, who is critical of the Western Ghats Project.

·        Discussion of attempts to co-opt Indian NGOs.

·        Interviews (extracts) with ODA officials in defence of what they are doing in forestry.

·        Other ODA flagship projects which promote “green revolution” methods are criticised because they narrow the genetic base and are only available to middle farmers, not the poorest or landless.

·        The Indian RainFed Farming Project and British Tropical Agricultural Mission Project (Bolivia) are counterposed to the above as examples of good poverty-focussed, environmentally-sensitive projects carried out by the ODA. They account for a tiny fraction of the ODA budget, however, and are unlikely to become more than this.

·        Critical National Audit Office reports are analysed in relation to commercially-orientated ODA projects.


Chapter 7: Gender

·        Effect of UN Decade for Women and the Nairobi conference proposals, “Forward-Looking Strategies”, on Britain’s aid policy.

·        Analysis of ODA Gender booklets setting out the policy, along with a damning critique of this by War On Want report.

·        Debate in Parliament on War On Want report is presented.

·        Criticisms of other development and gender lobby group discussed in relation to need for an ODA gender unit; special measures needed to correct institutional bias against women in various areas.

·        Interview with Timothy Raison (former Minister at ODA) on gender issues: reveals lack of commitment to this question.

·        This confirmed in interviews with ODA social development advisers.

·        An account is given of attempts to integrate gender into ODA by women social development advisers. Internal documents reveal that only 10 per cent of projects were at all consciously relevant to women and less than 1 per cent were systematically aimed at women.

·        A “flagship” gender project was found not to be consciously initiated for women. References to gender were sporadic. It was typical of a project initiated for other reasons and into which gender was incorporated on the basis of “damage limitation”.

·        Discussion of problem of relating to Third World women when the ODA staff is overwhelmingly male.

·        Discussion of how some projects worsen the position of women, such as the effect of shifts from subsistence production to production for market and some land reforms which transfer communally-owned land into private male-owned property in a gender-blind way.

·        Discussion of need for lower level education and training to benefit women as well as prioritise the “caring” subjects they tend to study, rather than the infrastructure and “hardware” related subjects favoured by the ODA aid projects.

·        Analysis of ODA research into the above problems.


Chapter 8: Conclusion and Alternative Proposals

·        Comparison of proposals of “development lobby” and the “Third World solidarity” approach to aid.

·        What political forces exist in Britain to effect a change in favour of more help for the Third World? Discussion.

·        Do working people in Britain have common interests with their counterparts in the Third World? It is argued that they do, regardless of subjectively chauvinistic and “me first” attitudes. There is an objective relationship between working people North and South which results from the fact that they are both in conflict with the same northern elite interests (and the neo-colonial elites which are largely bound up with them). Evidence is provided from British labour history to support this view – foreign wars and revolutions have helped shape British labour history. Likewise the Mexican oil expropriations in the 1930s are cited as an example of this phenomenon across the North-South divide: the rise of the militant US CIO trade union confederation aided the ability of Mexico to carry out the oil expropriations.

·        The concept of aid as a reform is examined. When conditionally given it is argued that it is not a reform but a lever for Northern interests.

·        The dangers of “green conditionality” are discussed, and it is rejected on the grounds of unwarranted “neo-colonialism” as well as expressing naive illusions in the ability of the North to play a progressive role in the South.

·        It is concluded that the Third World should avoid all kinds of conditional aid, and that pressure should be applied in the North to abandon conditional aid.

·        It is argued that quantitative increases in aid, without eliminating conditionality, makes matters worse rather than better.

·        A long list of alternative proposals for British aid is presented, premised on the need to eliminate conditional aid. These proposals include briefly:

       vastly increased volumes of non-conditional aid;

       ending of all commercial and political influences on aid; abolish ATP;

       increases in poverty-focussed project aid aimed at the landless and very poor;

       opposition to Structural Adjustment Lending (SAL);

       more focus on gender questions and an ODA gender unit to initiate projects aimed at women;

       greater sensitivity to the environment and opposition to green revolution methods and more emphasis on agricultural research into rainfed, arid farming.


This is essentially that there was a continuity of policy from Labour to Conservatives dictated by DTI, FCO and the Treasury. ATP initiated by Labour laid the basis for the Thatcher aid policy. It is necessary to say: abandon conditional aid, but since this will not happen at present we must try to reform it – to remove as many “strings” as possible.