AID agencies have reacted angrily to the decision to merge the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign Office, saying that it will seriously hinder the UK’s ability to tackle global poverty.
The Prime Minister announced on Tuesday that a new government department, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, would be established in early September, to be led by the Foreign Secretary.
“The merger is an opportunity for the UK to have even greater impact and influence on the world stage as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic and prepare to hold the G7 presidency and host COP26 next year,” a press release from 10 Downing Street said. “UK aid will be given new prominence within our ambitious international policy. The Foreign Secretary will be empowered to make decisions on aid spending in line with the UK’s priorities overseas, harnessing the skills, expertise, and evidence that have earned our reputation as a leader in the international development community.”
The Government remained committed to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid.
Mr Johnson said: “This is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas. And the best possible instrument for doing that will be a new department charged with using all the tools of British influence to seize the opportunities ahead.”
Aid agencies were fiercely critical of the announcement.
The Bond Network, which represents organisations that work in international development, said: “This announcement is highly concerning for the world’s poorest, as a merger risks putting the UK aid budget in the hands of those with little expertise in global health systems, humanitarian response, reducing poverty, and disease prevention. An independent DfID with Cabinet-level representation is the best way to ensure UK aid goes to helping those most in need, while not being tied to the UK’s political interests.”
Christian Aid’s director of policy, public affairs, and campaigns, Patrick Watt, described the merger as “an act of political vandalism”, which “threatens a double whammy to people in poverty, and to our standing in the world”.
He continued: “The timing couldn’t be worse for people living in poverty, when, for the first time in a generation, Covid-19 is driving a dramatic increase in extreme poverty. . . Without an independent DfID, the UK’s ability to help tackle poverty, and the impacts of the climate crisis and conflict, will be reduced. The Government’s own independent aid watchdog shows that aid spent by DfID is more effective and transparent than aid being spent by other government departments. The UK has a moral responsibility towards the world’s poorest.”
Mr Watt drew attention to remarks made by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams during last year’s General Election campaign: “We need an intelligent and independent Department of International Development embedded in a government that thinks about long-term global stability. There is not much point in a development programme that co-exists — for example — with selling arms to states pursuing aggressive and brutalising wars with their neighbours.”
The chief executive of World Vision UK, Mark Sheard, said: “The abolition of DfID is shocking evidence of the UK putting its own economic interests above saving lives. The terrible irony is that global Britain has today shrunk following years of an anti-aid agenda taking root at the heart of Government.
“While cross-governmental co-ordination is absolutely necessary, this should not be done at the expense of aid quality, for which the world’s poorest will pay the price. It has already been warned that Covid-19 could set back global poverty levels by 30 years. The end of an independent DfID will drive us even further backwards.”
He continued: “By giving the Foreign Secretary oversight of aid, we will lose transparency, effectiveness, and accountability, and risk money being diverted to address UK foreign-policy interests rather than alleviating poverty. Diverting funds from the world’s poorest communities, under the guise of taking back control in the UK, would be a dereliction of our responsibility as a nation.”
Mr Sheard welcomed the Government’s commitment to the 0.7-per-cent target, but expressed concern “about what will constitute aid under this new department. The definition of aid must not be diluted, and it must not become a weapon of foreign policy.”
A statement from Tearfund said that the merger “dismantles the UK’s leadership on international development. It suggests we are turning our backs on the world’s poorest people, as well as some of the greatest global challenges of our time: coronavirus, extreme poverty, climate change, and conflict. UK aid risks becoming a vehicle for UK foreign policy, commercial and political objectives, when it first and foremost should be invested to alleviate poverty.
“By far the best way to ensure that aid continues to deliver for those who need it the most is by retaining DfID as a separate Whitehall department, with a Secretary of State for International Development, and by pledging to keep both independent aid scrutiny bodies: the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Select Committee.”
On Thursday, a joint statement was issued by the chief executives and directors of Tearfund, Christian Aid, CAFOD, World Vision UK, The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, and Islamic Relief UK.
The statement said: “The abolition of DFID is a political move, and the world’s most vulnerable people will pay the highest price. A global pandemic the likes of which we’ve not seen in our lifetime is tearing through the world’s poorest communities, threatening to reverse decades of development gains. UK Aid is more critical than ever, and it’s essential to ensure the focus remains on fighting poverty and reaching those in greatest need.
“The Prime Minister has made clear his intention to use aid to further Britain’s national interests — a clear violation of the primary purpose of aid which is to alleviate poverty. This will blunt the impact of aid on those most in need, and risks more people suffering and dying as a result. As people of faith and leaders of organisations which seek to lift up the hungry, the poor and the oppressed, we stand against this act of injustice. We have a moral and ethical duty to neighbours near and far. History will not look kindly on the UK’s retreat into narrow self-interest.”
Speaking at an event organised by Christian Aid, in February, the former International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, warned against such a merger (News, 28 February). “If I was looking for one institution to take over another, I would probably want DfID to take over the Foreign Office rather than the Foreign Office to take over DfID. . .
“And if it is about managing a £14-billion budget specifically, DfID has the skills; the Foreign Office doesn’t. So, putting an ambassador in charge of an enormous budget is a mistake. Ambassadors are good at political work. . . But we should not kid ourselves that they can manage a health programme in rural Nigeria, and, if we try to make them do that, we’re going to end up with very bad results.”