14 December 2023

How aid can help tackle the root causes of migration

By Simon Fell MP

We live in a contested world. As Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron has returned from his first trip to the US in his new role, the danger and instability facing free, democratic nations is very different to the time when he was Prime Minister. 

‘It is hard to recall in recent memory a time of such danger and uncertainty,’ he said, and he is absolutely right. 

Cameron inherits a brief dominated by conflict and competition – a rising China that seeks to expand its influence territorially, technologically, and through trade; a destructive Russia; instability in the Middle East; overarching issues that transcend borders like climate change, pandemics and migration; and technological advancements which will impact the daily lives and work of citizens as well as democratic systems and warfare. 

Be in no doubt: geopolitical volatility that may seem far away threatens our national security, prosperity and way of life at home. 

I recently visited Washington DC with the Coalition for Global Prosperity to deepen transatlantic relations to confront these challenges. Speaking to decision-makers on the Hill, I was struck by the stark terms in which they presented the unprecedented challenge to the international order: an authoritarian alignment of China, Russia and Iran is seeking to undermine global security and prosperity. 

There is no one threat. Instead, a gamut of global challenges face the liberal democratic orders of the West. Food scarcity and climate change begets political instability and puts people on the march. The aggressive policies of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (aid, but at what price?) auctions fragile countries’ futures for the geopolitical equivalent of payday loans, and the global instability encapsulated in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine upsets the comfortable world order that we know so well, turning allies fractious.

The only way to tackle these issues must be an integrated approach to foreign policy – one that champions international development alongside defence and diplomacy as part of our ‘smart power toolbox’. 

The UK’s Integrated Review Refresh and International Development White Paper aims to do exactly that, while setting out how to maximise the impact from our investment, making taxpayers’ money go further. What we do in the development space does not belong in a vacuum; it sits within a wider strategy around counterterrorism, collective security and good governance. 

Development matters just as much at home as it does abroad. Whether this be stopping small boats, tackling climate change, countering national security threats or even boosting UK economic prosperity through trade, development policy is central to all of these domestic concerns.

Taking back control of our borders includes responding to the challenges that compel people to move within their country of origin, because instability breeds immigration. A country that suffers from conflict, poor governance, and lacks growth and opportunities will suffer. Layer this on top of existing challenges such as poverty, access to nutritious food, inadequate healthcare systems, education and empowering women and girls, and people will look to move elsewhere. 

According to the World Food Programme, for every 1% increase in food insecurity, there is a 2% increase in migration. Boosting food, water and energy security across the developing world will therefore lead to lower displacement of people and reduced migratory flows into the UK. 

To support stability in the most vulnerable nations, diplomatic and financial support must be focused at the source, in country. Yet instead of focusing our efforts on the root causes of migration, we are spending too much money at the end of the line, on housing migrants here. In fact in 2022, £3.7 billion, or 29% of the aid budget, was spent on supporting refugees in the UK. 

This money would be much better spent on supporting development overseas. If we invest in developing countries on the frontline of these challenges we’ll help support their reason to stay. We will also win global friends and a remarkable cache of regional soft power – of incalculable value in the future.

Not only will this work towards peace and stability in the areas which most need it, it will help realise the Sustainable Development Goals, hitting key UK goals to reduce poverty and boost gender equality worldwide. It will prevent China stepping in to fund infrastructure projects at a high price. It will help solve problems at home by reducing migrationary pressures on housing and the quality of services. And it will reduce the risk of people risking their lives in small boats. 

So, what can Britain and America do? Next year’s NATO summit in Washington DC will mark the 75th anniversary of the organisation, bringing more opportunities for close transatlantic collaboration. We should use this to build momentum. We must bring together authoritative voices from both sides of the Atlantic to champion this effective foreign policy package. 

International institutions can also be a necessary tool to unlock finance and have major influence on enhancing development in countries that would otherwise struggle to get loans or grants, or that might look towards China for investment. Under the leadership of its new President Ajay Banga, the World Bank has an appetite to reform. As the Prime Minister said in his COP28 speech, reform of the global financial system is a must, including stretching the balance sheets of multilateral development banks, changing how we lend to developing countries and using climate-resilient debt clauses so lending and taxpayers’ money goes further. 

The interconnectedness between global and domestic policy priorities has never been clearer. We are at an inflection point and have an opportunity to change the narrative. There is a geostrategic importance of an integrated approach to foreign policy for the UK, US and our allies. Aid is an investment – and a strategically smart one too. The more we champion its smart use, the safer we will be at home. 

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Simon Fell is Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness, and inaugural Chair of the AUKUS APPG.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.