Position Paper: ODA Funding

Overseas Development Assistance ODA) funding has allowed our research to have an impact beyond academia, and beyond the UK. It has enabled us to think globally, and to work for the benefit of the global community, particularly in overcoming deep-seated socio-economic problems and developmental challenges. 

It has supported our academics in co-creating projects with significant real-world impact, and it has encouraged us to focus our new five year Eastern Arc strategy on sustainable development, using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a de facto metric for measuring progress and success.

However, we are concerned that a shift in government policy may lead to these achievements being undermined or reversed. There is a very real danger that the UK’s research leadership in the world will be lost, as will the opportunity for our research to have a significant impact on the life chances of those in the global south. 

Eastern Arc and global research and innovation

Our history of socially aware, radical and disruptive research, rooted in a region that is outward-looking and open, has meant that we have always understood the importance of a global perspective. 

This has manifested in our international and world-leading research, such as the work done by  UEA’s School for International Development, and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Essex’s Human Rights Centre and Department of Government, and Kent’s Durrell Institute for Conservation Ecology (DICE). 

ODA funds (particularly through GCRF QR funding) have been crucial in furthering our ambitions globally, and have helped realise our vision of working in partnership with colleagues in DAC list countries for their social and economic development. It has meant that we – and UK research more broadly – can provide leadership and share the benefits of excellent research.

Examples of how this has been manifest include Kent’s South East Asia Research Collaboration (SEARC), which enabled colleagues in Thailand to produce life-saving drugs in order to increase access and reduce costs. 

The UEA Global Research Translation Award has targeted 14 of the 17 SDGs, working with 15 partners in 10 countries to address issues of literacy, food systems, and pollution.  

In central Asia, the Kent-led COMPASS project links world-leading universities in the region to support the development of good governance and regional security. 

At UEA, researchers have worked with UNESCO to develop literacy and thereby overcome inequality, and the Essex Transitional Justice Network has enabled stakeholders to better understand and facilitate the move from repressive to democratic regimes. 

We also use ODA funds in training the next generation of research, through initiatives such as the UEA ‘Global Talent Research Fellowship,’ through which it has developed strategic partnerships with eight institutions across seven DAC list countries, and the Global Challenges Doctoral Centre at Kent, one of only two nationally.

ODA funding has not only benefited research, but innovation as well. Researchers at UEA have worked with innovators to develop low-cost supplements for children to combat micronutrient deficiencies; fertility experts at Kent have developed a technology for use on avian eggs to support Ukraine’s poultry industry, and machine learning experts at Essex have created an affordable neurorehabilitation programme for stroke patients.

Benefits to the UK 

Although the focus of ODA projects is rightly on DAC list countries, they do benefit the UK as well. Given our regional identity around agriculture, trade and transit, our global work on migration, biodiversity, equality and justice has fed back to our work in the UK. 

For instance, all three members have very strong migration centres (at UEA, Essex and Kent), and their work focused on the Global South informs and deepens our understanding of race, identity, conflict and integration in the UK.

However, although there is clear benefit arising from ODA funding for both the UK and the global community, we believe that this is not always understood more widely. This may be down to the somewhat divided and devolved nature of the ODA funding system; a stronger message could be achieved by presenting the impact of ODA research in a more coordinated and cohesive way, regardless of the channels through which it was funded. 

Strengths and weaknesses of GCRF and Newton funding

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) has foregrounded the importance of impact. While impact is important to other schemes, the GCRF takes it far more seriously and prioritises the difference that a project will make beyond academia – and beyond the UK. 

It has allowed those working globally, and particularly those addressing the SDGs, to access funding – and encouraged others to consider the impact of their research. In addition, the QR (or ‘block’) GCRF funding has allowed the EARC universities to act more quickly and more flexibly, particularly in how we fund pilot projects, and how we support early career researchers.

However, both GCRF and the Newton Fund have presented challenges. These include: 

  • Issues around due diligence and compliance when dealing with organisations and institutions that do not have the same systems in place.
  • Ensuring equitability of partnerships, when different systems and infrastructure mitigate against this.
  • Safeguarding of research staff and processes of gaining ethical approval of research projects in ODA partner countries.
  • Timeframes: the call period can be very short, as can the time available to starting the project and spending the grant. We appreciate that this is often the result of specific circumstances, but it does make it difficult to plan as we would like.  

In addition the Newton Fund has been problematic because of the limited, often bilateral, nature of the funding. The challenge is often in identifying colleagues who have existing – or potential – links with a specific country. The funding also tends to be small scale and there is usually a requirement to have co-funding in place.

Potential threats to ODA funding 

Nevertheless, we are concerned that the government’s R&D Roadmap, to which we responded in August 2020, appears to be more supportive of developing links with those countries that already have strong research infrastructures, rather than those on the DAC list. 

The recently announced plans to merge DfID and the FCO heighten these concerns. We believe that there is a danger that UK global research funding will become transactional, and is used for national benefit rather than global good. This has the potential to undo much of the progress that has been made. 

In addition, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) will have a knock-on effect on ODA funding. The UK, in common with other donor countries, has made a commitment to providing 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) as ODA funding. With the reduction in the UK’s GDP, the overall amount it commits to ODA will therefore be reduced.

The current cycle of ODA funding has led to the establishment of many fruitful new collaborations, which are now in the position to develop larger scale projects. There is a danger that, if funding is now cut, these collaborations will not be able to grow further, and therefore the previous groundwork will be wasted.

It is imperative that the case for ODA funding continues to be made to the government, using agendas such as the SDGs. Responding to the broader global context and drivers was imperative for us in justifying our four themes. As the UK leaves the EU, we need to make the case that we are part of a wider conversation, and that the challenges we face globally need to be met with collaborative responses. 

ODA funding will be a key enabler of Eastern Arc’s ambition ‘to deliver real and tangible change through a close collaboration to address pressing issues of sustainable development,’ and without it our work will be that much more difficult. 

We will, of course, continue to support and develop our excellent research, but it will inevitably be the case that fewer colleagues will be encouraged to look to projects with global impact, and will instead turn to UK-focused efforts. This would be a loss for vital global research, but also for UK leadership and, on both an institutional and individual level, a significant reduction of opportunity. 

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