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Leader comment: How the UK lost the ability to be disinterested

20 May 2022

THE decision by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to move towards bilateral aid arrangements, announced in a strategy paper, would make more sense if the UK were good at them. The débâcle over the Northern Ireland Protocol ought to act as a broad hint to ministers that, when it comes to relations with, say, a country with a history of violent conflict, a failing healthcare system, rising food prices, and no functioning government, their negotiating skills leave a lot to be desired.

It does seem extraordinary that, at a time when the case for joint international action could not have been more clearly demonstrated, the FCDO should produce a document that proposes spending three-quarters of its budget through bilateral programmes, on the grounds that “this will allow FCDO to focus funding on UK priorities.” As for the global organisations designed to respond to common threats such as climate change, the paper says: “Multilateral organisations . . . will remain essential partners in achieving our goals.” Do strategists in the FCDO really believe that such bodies as the United Nations and the World Bank will set aside their own objectives, as well as the needs of recipient countries, to help the UK to achieve “our goals”?

The strategy paper uses the word “malign” to describe countries that use aid for their own political ends. It was a message repeated by the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, on Monday: “We must use development as a key part of our foreign policy. Malign actors treat economics and development as a means of control.” She said that the UK would not “mirror their malign tactics”; but openly redirecting what is left of the UK’s aid budget to programmes that support trade and benefit the UK taxpayer looks like something straight out of the playbook of countries such as China.

The UK used to be known for its diplomatic representatives’ expertise. Their work at present, however, is being hampered by what appears in the Cabinet to be a genuine dislike of co-operation. The give-and-take of EU membership was incomprehensible to people who saw no value in any giving. Just to remind them, and especially those attempting to sort out the mess in Northern Ireland, part of the value of giving is that it encourages the other party to give also. Now, with aid, the Government seems willing to ignore the obvious truth that working within a multinational body greatly multiplies the resources available to the people who need help. But when a country’s approach to any international crisis is “What’s in it for me?”, it is not surprising that other nations begin to hold it at arm’s length. In essence, the Government has lost the ability to be disinterested, and its example is being followed thoughtlessly by large sections of the electorate. As Archbishop Cottrell said of another government initiative last month: “We can do better than this.”

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