On June 16, Boris Johnson announced that the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) would be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in a decision that shocked British charities and drew cross-party condemnation and concern.
It left anti-poverty organisations all over the country aghast at the prospect of the UK aid budget — the sole pot of government money devoted to ending extreme poverty — being diverted away from the world’s poorest communities reportedly in favour of commercial and political interests.
And on Monday, 188 UK aid and development leaders from charities and think tanks across the country came together to publish an urgent open letter to Johnson, asking the prime minister to swiftly reconsider.
The letter, coordinated by Bond — a network of UK non-profit organisations — argues that abolishing one of the world’s most effective and respected government departments at a time when global leadership is required more than ever only serves to undermine our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and other pressing global issues.
It states that the decision to merge DfID with the FCO equates to Britain turning its back on the world’s poorest people.
“Many of the NGOs who have signed this letter do not receive a single penny of government funding – yet anyone working to tackle diseases, or get girls into education, or provide water and sanitation to people living in conflict understands that having a government department with the expertise to help build a healthier, safer, and more sustainable world is of critical importance to us all,” said Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond. “The government must immediately reverse this decision.”
Many of the signatories of the letter, including Global Citizen, Save the Children, WWF, ActionAid, and more, have been campaigning against the DfID/FCO merger for months to protect the value and effectiveness of the aid budget for the taxpayer.
Although Johnson mentioned in his speech to the House of Commons where he announced the merger that one of the drivers for the decision was to “achieve the maximum with every pound we spend”, the evidence suggests that these changes to DfID will actually do the exact opposite.
While the Aid Transparency Index — which independently assesses the work of aid agencies around the world — ranked DfID third best in the world for transparency and accountability, the FCO came 40th, fourth from bottom. Moreover, the National Audit Office agreed that aid spent outside of DfID was less transparent and accountable. But once the merger is completed in September, the FCO will have full command of the UK aid budget.
Abolishing @DFID_UK seriously undermines the UK's efforts to end extreme poverty. Take action with us now to #SaveAid:— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) June 16, 2020
◾ Demand #UKAid tackles extreme poverty first.
◾ Insist 50% is spent in low income countries.
◾ Urge @AnnieTrev to remain in cabinet.https://t.co/l7uVwKfGqe
"We understand your commitment to building up Britain’s role in the world, but this decision is an unnecessary and expensive distraction from doing just that,” the letter reads.
“FCO and DfID are already highly aligned contributing their different expertise to a global approach,” it continues. “This decision, taken during a global pandemic with no consultation, ahead of the review of development, diplomacy, and defence, and against the recent advice of the cross-party International Development Select Committee, does not enhance our reputation in the world, but diminishes it.”
The review referenced by the letter was widely seen as the vehicle by which Johnson could sanction the merger, while the select committee, chaired by Labour MP Sarah Champion, published an interim report on June 9 that argued that an independent DfID must be retained.
The plea to save DfID has been covered widely in the media, including in the Mirror, the Independent, and iNews, while Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, wrote in the Guardian that the merger will “likely to lead to many more people dying unnecessarily from hunger and disease.”
Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown, meanwhile, all united to condemn the decision after it was announced last week.
And the former DfID secretary of state and recent independent mayoral candidate for London Rory Stewart wrote in the Financial Times that it was a “recipe to maximise bureaucratic confusion and minimise actual change”, while Andrew Mitchell — another former Conservative and ex-DfID secretary of state — called it an “utterly self-inflicted act of vandalism.”
Very good piece by @RoryStewartUK explaining the importance of understanding sustainable aid, and the complex delivery of it- and why expertise rather then politics should be the driving motivation for the U.K. going forward. https://t.co/88oTMJbRNI— Rt Hon Alistair Burt (@AlistairBurtUK) June 20, 2020
The letter also urges the prime minister to follow a key set of principles to maintain Britain’s respected position as a world leader in international development, including:
- Ensuring all UK aid spending within our legal obligation to spend 0.7% of Britain’s gross national income (GNI) meets internationally-agreed rules, focused on alleviating poverty and sustainable development.
- Spending half of that aid in fragile and conflict affected states, with the whole budget aligning with Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) to end extreme poverty by 2030 and the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C.
- Keeping a development minister in cabinet and on the National Security Council.
- Maintaining full accountability and transparency to the British taxpayer through parliamentary and independent scrutiny, with its own select committee and a bolstered Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
Meanwhile, a government spokesperson responded by saying: “As the PM has said, the merger of DfID and FCO will ensure that all of our national assets — including our aid budget and expertise — are used to safeguard British interests and values overseas.”
You can take action now to urge Boris Johnson to ensure the UK aid budget continues to help the world’s poorest people by sending an email and a tweet to the prime minister here.