Scotland as a Good Global Citizen: Small Time Donor but Growing Soft Power Influencer?

Jane Salmonson | 17 June 2021

© 2018 SCER

The SNP made some far-reaching commitments to international development in its 2021 manifesto[1]. Fulfilling those commitments, now the SNP is returned to government, will shift the gears on both the scale and the nature of engagement in the international development arena. The Scottish government’s contribution to international development remains very small scale compared to the UK’s but it is well worth watching. What seems to have evaded much notice is the addition of new tools to Scotland’s international soft power toolkit.

As regards scale, the manifesto promises an increase in the international development budget from £10m to £15m each year and a doubling of the climate justice fund from £3m to £6m. This still pales into insignificance besides the UK’s development spend of £15bn in 2019. Nevertheless Scotland’s budget is increasing at a time when the UK Government’s is moving in the other direction, slashing £5bn off its budget as the commitment to allocate 0.7% of gross national income to development is reduced to 0.5%.

As regards content, six new activities were promised by the manifesto:

(1) the creation of a fund earmarked for the empowerment of women and girls in Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia

(2) the establishment of a Global Renewable Centre, working with low income countries on knowledge exchange in renewable technologies

(3) the creation of partnerships between Scotland’s Centres of Expertise for Climate Change, Waters and Flooding and their counterparts in low income countries

(4) support of the establishment of an Institute for Peacekeeping

(5) support of the establishment of a Scottish Council for Global Affairs

(6) introduction of a bill to require all public bodies to take full account of the sustainable development impact of their decisions.

This bill would operationalise the concept of ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’[2]. If it passes into law and adherence is policed, this represents radical progress for Scotland, well in advance of the UK government (and, incidentally, in line with stated EU principles[3]) in ensuring that sustainable development objectives are not promoted by one branch of government while being undermined by others.

What effect might these new commitments have on Scotland’s externally facing objectives, as set out in ‘Scotland’s International Framework’[4]? One of the four principal objectives of the Framework is ‘to build our reputation and international attractiveness’ – or in other words, build soft power.

The international development community has traditionally been averse to the mingling of the projection of power, whether soft or hard, with development assistance. The former is driven by national interest and the latter is driven (or should be) by response to needs expressed by potential recipients. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon publicly endorses this distinction. In an address to Scotland’s International Development Alliance, in 2019, she said:

“For our part, promoting international development is an absolutely essential part of being a good global citizen. It’s worth stressing that point, given some of the discussions taking place elsewhere on these islands. The Scottish government does not believe, we never have believed and will never see, that aid is given primarily for our own national interest. It’s important that as a developed country, we believe that it is our moral duty to play our part and create a better world. That is, and always will be, the main purpose of our international development funding – a point I don’t think needs to be made but with such division elsewhere it’s important.”

However, I expect the manifesto writers had half an eye on the potential to use international development to support accumulation of soft power. Scotland already has a high profile internationally, thanks to its attractions as a tourist destination, the reputation of its fine universities, its culture including its international festivals and of course its whisky. International development, even with a small budget and with no deviation from the multilaterally agreed definition of official development assistance[5], could add further to Scotland’s soft power ‘portfolio.’ It is interesting to see that the reorganisation of ministerial responsibilities following the recent Holyrood election see Minister Jenny Gilruth has culture added to her brief, making her Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development.

A recent British Council report[6] highlights the value of international development in measurements of soft power. It is one of the key indicators it used in its research on perceptions of the UK in seven focus countries. Sir Ceiran Devane, British Council Chief Executive writes in his foreword: “Crucially the data confirms that the UK’s commitment to international development plays a very significant part in shaping positive attitudes towards the UK.” (Research was undertaken before the UK Government’s back-tracking on its commitment to allocate 0.7% of Gross National Income to development assistance). The report states: ‘soft power is rooted in values’ and ‘perceptions are king’.

Where perceptions are concerned, the Scottish government could do well to invest more in drawing public attention to its role of good global citizen. It could support civil society organisations in Scotland in their ongoing public engagement work for example. This is an integral part of the Irish government’s Policy for International Development[7]: “…strengthen our collaboration with Irish civil society partners on public engagement and outreach, to effectively tell the story of Ireland’s global solidarity and development.”

The Irish government’s international development department, IrishAid, has other pointers for Scotland too, including where strengthening relationships with Europe are concerned, another key objective of Scotland’s International Framework. As it is not itself a member state, nor part of one, Scotland has no direct route of entry into the European Commission’s new international development programme for 2021-2027, ‘Global Europe’[8]. However, its new manifesto commitments might widen the field of possible collaboration opportunities with EU member states. IrishAid could be interested in joint work on gender, for example, which is of priority interest to the Irish government, is a newly stated priority for Scotland and is a longstanding priority for the European Commission[9]. The European Commission has recently attracted criticism[10] for regression in the area of gender equality and has called on the twenty-four member states endorsing the need for progress to exert their influence on others member states who do not. Perhaps, if Scotland was able to demonstrate real achievement in reaching the gender equality targets in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5[11], both at home and through its contribution to international development, it might prove an attractive partner to Ireland or other small EU member states looking for innovative ways to improve the impact of a necessarily small budget.

Multilateral engagement is one of Scotland’s strategic objectives. Collaboration with small EU member states, such as Ireland, within the framework of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, would not only add a new soft power ‘tool’ in the way Scotland is perceived. It also has the potential to add to the effectiveness of the human and financial resource it commits to creating a better world.


[1] pp71-74


[3] Policy coherence for development | International Partnerships (


[5] Official development assistance – definition and coverage – OECD

[6] The sources of soft power: how perceptions determine the success of nations | British Council

[7] Policy for International Development – Department of Foreign Affairs (

[8] pp71-74

[9] pp71-74

[10] pp71-74



Jane Salmonson | Twitter

Jane Salmonson has held a number of leadership positions in international relief and development, most recently as CEO of Scotland’s International Development Alliance, the membership body representing and supporting the sector in Scotland. Prior to joining the Alliance she worked for CBM, an international federation specializing in disability inclusive development, and for L’Arche Overseas Development Fund, L’Arche UK’s response to the needs of L’Arche communities with little or no government support locally. She led Mercy Corps Europe as Executive Director from 2000 to 2006, overseeing emergency and development programming including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Eritrea, Kosovo and Zimbabwe.