Johnson Criticised For Merger Of DFID And Foreign Office

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been widely criticized for his decision, on the 16th of June, to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign Office. According to Johnson, the merger seeks to “integrate all the strands of [the U.K.’s] international effort” by collapsing “outdated and artificial” distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development. Large international charities, however, have been alarmed by the move. They fear that it will diminish efforts to reduce global poverty, prioritising Britain’s geopolitical interests. Three former Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from the Labour Party, and David Cameron from the Conservatives, also spoke out against the decision.

Danny Sriskandarajah, the chief executive of Oxfam, said that the move “puts politics above the needs of the poorest people.” He also questioned the timing, saying it was “scarcely believable” to make such an announcement at a time when poorer countries are desperately struggling with the global pandemic.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Landale, described it as a “politically controversial move.” He also noted a distinct shift in the justification the PM provided when he moved from his scripted speech to answering questions. Whilst the former had focused on joining up policy and ending unnecessary bureaucratic complexity, when criticisms were levelled at him, Johnson changed tack, complaining that the U.K.’s aid budget had ‘‘been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to [U.K.] interests.’’ This reflected the PM’s “more instinctive arguments,” according to Landale.

Johnson’s actions have been rightly lambasted for the ways they will weaken the U.K.’s efforts to ending extreme poverty across the globe. They mark a clear shift in priority. A poorly considered comparison in his announcement reflected this. The PM bemoaned that Britain “give[s] as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security.” As Danny Sriskandarajah pointed out, more than half of Zambia’s population earn less that $1.90 daily, whereas Ukraine has almost no-one living under the international poverty line.

The merger, then, is a clear attempt at shoring up British political influence against foreign threats. To enable this, there will also be a reevaluation of how foreign aid is defined, which will allow money intended for development to be used for diplomatic purposes. The fight against poverty has been shunted down the agenda.

DFID has been running for over 20 years, ever since it was separated from the Foreign Office by Tony Blair in 1997. Johnson said that the decisions made then “were right for their time” but that Britain now needed to “strengthen [its] position in an intensely competitive world.” In some ways, the move is a response to increasing fears over Chinese and Russian influence worldwide. The Prime Minister mentioned both countries in his speech, saying DFID’s creation had been appropriate “when China’s economy was still smaller than Italy’s;” he similarly mentioned the lack of aid given to the Western Balkans, who are “acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”

It is true that the global political scene is intimidating. It is understandable to wish to resist the very real threats posed by Russia and China. However, the symbolic nature of the move, which subordinates development to diplomacy, is undeniably selfish and inward. Development and diplomacy are different and should remain so. Development should not be a way to increase British influence; it exists to help people in unimaginable destitution, reallocating resources that have been unequally distributed. It is fair and just. To see it otherwise, as Johnson clearly does, is worrying. We can but hope that the already fierce criticism generated by the move will force change.

Joel Fraser