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A potentially radical shift in major donors’ provision of overseas development assistance (ODA) is reflected in more funds being channelled into projects intended to stimulate business and reinforce security, rather than following the stricter definition of aid agreed over many years within the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) structure. Where aid flows have increased in the past year, in France and Germany for example, this has been linked to governments allocating ODA to their domestic spending on migrants, rather than to traditional development projects. UK international development secretary Priti Patel, appointed to the cabinet in Theresa May’s post-Brexit government, came into office saying the aid budget should “deliver for national interests” and be used to reduce migration and boost trade.

Critics argue that such shifts reflect the closed view of international relations that has been a factor behind the UK’s Brexit vote, President Donald Trump’s victory in the United States and the expected electoral advance of anti-immigration parties in the Netherlands and France. Antipathy towards the amounts channelled into ODA has been a feature of populist manifestos. In America, development programmes that believe they can survive any Trump cull are those that can present themselves as job-creating initiatives (see Focus).

In Britain, programmes financed and operated by the Department for International Development (DfID) are under increased scrutiny. Typical was a report published on 12 March by The Telegraph, which posed “serious questions… over hundreds of millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money being ‘wasted’ on climate change projects such as an Ethiopian wind farm and Kenyan solar power plant”.

There are reasons to criticise the delivery of such projects, but pressure on DfID also reflects the post-Brexit mood. Projects that would usually be within DfID’s remit have been moved to other ministries – including at least one electricity supply project in sub-Saharan Africa, which was tendered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Shifting priorities are reflected in the way projects are being structured. As in the US, where Trump has talked about shifting spending from aid to defence, projects are being linked to security in London too. Even the British Council must now “link projects to security whenever possible” to secure funding, a Council source said.

Brexit means the UK will lose its influence on European Union aid policy and in negotiating international agreements, such as the COP climate agreements, where the EU is a leading player, Overseas Development Institute senior research officer Raphaëlle Faure told a 9 March conference organised in London by the Royal United Services Institute and Moroccan think tank the OCP Policy Center. Brexit will also have impacts on EU policy, in which the “widely admired” DfID has played a central and largely positive role. Faure expected increased French influence in EU decision-making, while the UK exit will take away around 15% of the EU’s aid budget – “and it is not clear how the other member states will fill that gap”. The UK could continue paying into ODA trust funds and other facilities, but might face hostile publicity for doing so.

The EU is also expected to promote a more security-focused ODA strategy in its External Action Policy overhaul; a communication of priorities for Africa is due by mid-year. Further changes are expected as the Cotonou Agreement for African, Caribbean and Pacific states expires in 2020; negotiations of a potential successor agreement start in 2018, when a major restructuring is expected. ODA and other issues will be on the table when negotiations start in the next few months for the EU’s multi-year budget; the current budget expires in 2021, but decisions are needed sooner than that – and will be highly influenced by the prevailing security/migration focus. These themes will feature large at the Africa-EU summit, scheduled to be held in Côte d’Ivoire in November.