Leeds School of Social Sciences

The politics of UK aid

The provision of Overseas Development Aid (ODA) is a highly political issue, and one that is increasingly linked to the financing of UK Universities and their research capacity.

Mumbai cityscape with a big contrast between poverty and wealth, Maharashtra, India

This link has been evidenced this week as Tory rebel MPs attempt to amend the Government’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill with a pledge to restore the UK’s international aid commitment.

The link between UK universities and the provision of aid might not, at first sight, appear clear. There have of course been parts of the university sector, particularly within Social Sciences, that have an explicit focus on the study of international aid through research and teaching on Global Development, Foreign Policy and International Relations. There are also areas of university research that have more indirect links to the provision of aid, for example through technological innovations that might be ultimately be funded through ODA, such as vaccines and other medical interventions.

Due to political pressure, particularly from the dominant right wing of the Conservative Party, the UK government has in recent years been channelling a greater proportion of its ODA through domestic channels, particularly UK universities and other research bodies. In 2015, £1.5 billion was committed as a 5-year Global Challenges Research Fund to ensure that UK research institutions took a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries, particularly in the areas of antimicrobial resistance, protecting animal and plant health, and emerging viral threats in development countries. £1billion was also committed to the Ross fund for research and development into new health technologies (UK Government 2015:20).

This spending strategy has been designed to offset calls for a reduction in aid provision, by orienting spending towards UK-based institutions and the pursuit of the UK’s national interest (See UK Treasury’s 2015 report UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest).

Any decision to reduce aid spending is politically difficult, not least as the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of its Gross National Income (GNI) was set by international agreement. Within the Conservative Party, this commitment has been a source of internal conflict; as seen this week in Parliament. While Covid-19 has exacerbated this conflict by creating renewed pressure to orientate treasury spending to support the domestic economy, it has also provided the opportunity for the Government to retract from its 0.7% GNI aid spending commitment, at least temporarily.

This decision is likely to play well with Conservative voters, but will have a negative effect on UK universities and other research institutions, already bearing the impact of Brexit and of the Covid-19 pandemic. More fundamentally however, it will have extremely detrimental impacts on the poorest, most vulnerable sections of the world’s population – particularly women and children.

Understanding and engaging with the politics of aid therefore helps us understand not only our own finances, but how the decisions we make have direct impacts on the lives of other people, households and communities around the world.


Price, S (2018), Brexit and the UK-Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Aid relationship. Global Policy, 9 (3) April, pp.420-428.

Price, S. (2019), How Conservatives are Reshaping Overseas Aid in the Brexit Era

Price, S. (2020), Do Black Lives Matter for UK Aid? 

UK Government (2015),  UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest  

Dr Sophia Price

Head of Subject / Leeds School Of Social Sciences

Sophia Price is Head of Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She previously worked for the Open University and the University of Manchester, where she completed her ESRC funded PhD on the European Union’s relations with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Group.

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