The UK government has announced that the Department for International Development will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the expectation that a new department will take their places in September this year. The new department, to be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will absorb both departments’ current budgets and Dominic Raab, the current Foreign Secretary, is expected to run the FCDO.
According to the official press release from the government, “the Foreign Secretary will be empowered to make decisions on aid spending in line with the UK’s priorities overseas”, indicating that there is embedded politicised thinking to be attached to future aid spending. However, criticism has come from Johnson’s predecessors across the political spectrum. David Cameron called the decision a “mistake” that would result in “less respect for the UK overseas” whilst Tony Blair stated he was “dismayed” and Gordon Brown wrote that the move will “undermine the UK’s global position, while yielding no gains in efficiency”.
The head of Oxfam GB, Danny Sriskandarajah, explained the political motivation behind the decision, stating that “effectively, what he’s saying is, we’re going to use our aid budget to pursue security and diplomatic aims”. Indeed, Johnson himself isn’t particularly hiding that reality and seems to embracing this point. In the House of Commons, he gave the insidious remark that “the blending of the two departments will inevitably require greater linkage between the UK’s aid, security and commercial interests”. Sriskandarajah’s worries are echoed across the third sector , with the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK warning that the move “threatens to reverse hard-won gains in child survival, nutrition and poverty [and] is reckless, irresponsible and a dereliction of UK leadership”. Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer dismissed the merger as “tactics of pure distraction” with UK facing a backdrop of a recession, high unemployment and one of the world’s worst responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Johnson himself is quite clear that this move is political. The merge should rightly be viewed as wielding billions in aid money to potentially coerce nations in need of assistance to bend to the UK’s will. Before the merger, there was at least autonomy for those running the department to make spending decisions that could impact people for the better across the globe. DfID was clearly never created to be totally apolitical (Blair himself tweeted that “we created DfID in 1997 to play a strong, important role in projecting British soft power”). With the UK’s transition period out of the European Union ending on 31st December this year, it is not coincidental that suddenly the Foreign Office, which will need to enter numerous trade talks, suddenly has the ability to also give financial assistance to whoever it deems deserving or in need.
DfID was founded to boost Britain’s global image through funding and aiding development projects throughout the world. It’s stated goal is to “promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty” through pursuing the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals. It’s budget is currently £15.2 billion, over 6 times the Foreign Office’s £2.4 billion. DfID’s precursor, the Ministry for Overseas Development, also had a history of being pushed either into the Foreign Office or given autonomy and generally has taken partisan lines, with Conservatives always the ones to move it into the FCO and Labour making it more independent. Britain has used aid for political gain in the past; in 1991, roughly £230 million was given to Malaysia in order to build a hydroelectric dam but simultaneously the Malaysian Government spent £1 billion in buying arms from the UK. The UK’s high court deemed the ‘Pergau Dam Scandal’ unlawful in 1994.
Whilst it is at least pleasing to see a commitment from Johnson to maintain the 0.7% of GNI committed to aid spending by the UK, a level currently prescribed by a 2015 law (though nothing that the 80 seat majority can’t dismantle), there should be a legitimate concern to the motivation behind this monumental boost to the Foreign Office’s finance. Labour overwhelmingly voted for the Private Member’s Bill which got the law passed more than all other parties combined, further demonstrative of Conservative reluctance to provide this aid. Even if no law-breaking is committed as in 1991, there is good reason to assume that aid is no longer being provided purely for the benefit of those receiving it, but it will now become simply a payment that the UK is making to poorer nations, in order to achieve some foreign policy objective, most likely for a slightly more favourable post-Brexit trade deal. If the UK was worried about being compassionate or even just respected on the international stage, actions like this would be unconscionable.
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