Time to reset the UK’s approach to international development?

Opinion piece by Alexander Carnwath, Head of Public Affairs at the Fairtrade Foundation



The UK Government recently announced that it intends to publish a white paper on international development by the end of 2023. This is a welcome step, as it represents a chance to reset the UK’s approach to this, through to 2030, in a way that could transform millions more lives.

Quite rightly, humanitarian needs arising from conflicts and natural disasters often occupy politicians’ minds when it comes to the question of ‘development’: but at Fairtrade, what also matters for us is the UK’s role in supporting farmers and workers in low-income countries to thrive and leave poverty behind for good.

This is important not only for their lives, but also for us here in the UK too. 500m smallholder farmers – a large proportion of the world’s poorest people – supply around 30% of the world’s food, and around 10-15% of overseas food imports into the UK come from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Fairtrade Foundation recently raised these points when responding to the Government’s call for evidence for its white paper. In our response, we argue in favour of a number of ways that UK government policy can change to ensure greater cross government coherence in development policy, and in doing so increase UK food security, and Britain’s standing in the world.

As a funder, as a convenor, as a fair trade negotiator, and as a regulator, we urge the Government to take further steps to support some of the world’s poorest farmers and workers.

Focussing on the first two roles, we know the Government supports the need to promote resilience and investment in what are currently fragile and threatened supply chains. The Vulnerable Supply Chain Facility, a rapid Covid-19 response fund set up by the UK FCDO,  showed how the UK Government, businesses and NGOs can work together to support farmers and workers who still earn too little to cover their daily and future needs. In this case, the FCDO supported Fairtrade to work with partners, including a major flower importer and UK retailers, on programmes that benefited over 6,000 people.

In addition to providing funding, we believe the FCDO could also play a key role as a convenor and facilitator of multistakeholder working. The German and Dutch governments have played a valuable role in bringing together key players in the cocoa and flower sectors to create new sustainability initiatives. The FCDO could assume a similar role here, encouraging UK stakeholders (retailers, buyers, manufacturers) involved in the cocoa, flowers, tea and other commodity supply chains to work together to improve incomes, sustainability and build resilience.

The forthcoming White Paper should demonstrate how we can ensure cross-government coherence. That’s why Fairtrade also wants to see the Government commit to publishing a trade strategy that aligns with its development and climate objectives in the next 12 months, before a General Election. And as a regulator, the Government should commit to mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence that includes legislation on purchasing practices and a commitment to the payment of living incomes and wages.

Given that many producers are still denied a voice or power in global supply chains, we believe the Government must consult smallholder farmers as key rightsholders in responsible business legislation. This would ensure that it is not designed in such a way that inadvertently disadvantages them, for example by placing the costs and burden of compliance onto them.

Ultimately, all of these aims are best served by a strong, independent aid department and a higher aid budget. A stronger seat at the Cabinet table means a stronger voice for development policy. It would also promote better cross-government coherence by ensuring development priorities are not subsumed behind foreign office objectives – a concern many of us in the NGO sector share. A return to the legally enshrined 0.7% aid target will mean more funding for the type of programmes that will benefit farmers and workers and their families – and benefit UK consumers who rely on the crops they grow.

Through the White Paper process, the Government has the opportunity to set out a new vision for development that responds to the priorities and improves the lives of workers and smallholder farmers, and makes a crucial contribution to a fairer and more sustainable system of trade.