Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that the Department for International Development (DfID) — the sole wing of the UK government devoted to ending extreme poverty — will be scrapped and merged into the Foreign Office (FCO).
But this decision is not merely administrative. In fact, while marginalised communities are more fragile than ever in the midst of the global pandemic, it’s a devastating move that could undermine lifesaving UK support for the world’s poorest people.
While the world comes together to fight COVID-19, scrapping DfID flies in the face of true, global solidarity. Let’s call it what it is: Britain shunning its responsibilities as a global power and turning its back on the most vulnerable.
DfID is responsible for spending the bulk of the UK’s international aid budget — the only part of our national budget dedicated to tackling the shocking extreme poverty that leaves 736 million people living on less than $1.90 per day. As a nation, it’s something that we can all be extremely proud of.
When England last won the World Cup, half the planet lived in extreme poverty. Today, just 9% of the global population do.
But COVID-19 threatens to derail decades of historic progress — experts have made horrifying projections that an additional 50 million people could be pushed into poverty this year, while the UN warns the world is facing the worst food crisis in 50 years.
Ripping DfID apart couldn’t have come at a worse time. According to Bond — a network of UK non-profit organisations — DfID commands immense respect on the international stage and is the department with the most relevant expertise to tackle the pandemic.
It’s also unclear whether there will still be a dedicated secretary of state for international development (a post held by Anne-Marie Trevelyan). If that is removed too, then there will be nobody in the UK cabinet to solely champion the needs of the world’s poorest people in the global response to the virus. Instead, it would be included in the brief of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary. That means many people will be left in the dark.
But it’s not just about aid. It’s about justice: remembering the pride we have for our National Health Service as we insist on the reality that no child in Kenya deserves to die from diseases we know how to prevent; ensuring girls get to go to school when institutionalised sexism stops them from getting a quality education; or protecting a farmer in Malawi whose livelihood is threatened by the climate crisis — even though he will personally emit as much carbon in a year as the average Briton will in 12 days.
“Abolishing DfID diminishes Britain’s place in the world,” said Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party. “There is no rationale for making this statement today. The prime minister should stop these distractions, and get on with the job of tackling the health and economic crisis we currently face.”
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
You might hear the argument that the UK’s commitment to international aid spending hasn’t gone away. In his speech on Tuesday announcing the merger, Johnson said that Britain still has a commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income (GNI) on international development, and the only change is who is in charge of spending it — although now with the intention to “safeguard British interests” and “seize the opportunities ahead”.
This is a half-truth. It’s another smokescreen to distract from the independently verified and well-evidenced reality: when departments other than DfID spend UK aid money, less goes to the poorest — the investment becomes less effective, less transparent, and less accountable.
In his speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Johnson remarked that “the British taxpayer has the right to expect that we achieve the maximum with every pound we spend.” In that one instance, he was absolutely correct.
But DfID is ranked third in the world for aid transparency and accountability by the Aid Transparency Index — marked as “very good”, and widely respected by social justice organisations around the world. The FCO however, which will now control how Britain’s aid budget is spent, came 40th — fourth from bottom of all donors that have spent over $1 billion in aid, and was officially noted as “poor.”
Already, around 30% of the aid budget is being spent outside of DfID, including by the FCO — last year, the FCO spent £680 million of it. Even the National Audit Office found that the lack of transparency and accountability in other government departments (that aren’t DfID) illustrates how aid can be spent in ways that are ineffective.
It’s the insidious conclusion of a generation’s worth of inflammatory front page headlines hell bent on seeing DfID’s independence chipped away. And yet, a poll of the British public last year revealed that 90% of respondents thought it was important to help people in developing countries. Indeed, more than two-thirds of Brits (68%) think tackling poverty in developing countries should be one of the priorities of the EU or their national government (61%).
It’s a feeling seemingly shared by numerous prominent critics.
Quite the achievement to get three former PM's out - Blair, Brown and Johnson's old rival, David Cameron, all criticising his decision to fold DFID into FCO— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) June 16, 2020
Andrew Mitchell, former Tory international development secretary, describes FCO/ DFID merger as an “extraordinary mistake.”— Laura Hughes (@Laura_K_Hughes) June 16, 2020
In case you're hunting for expert opinion in favour of the FCO taking over DFID, let me save you some time. The evidence is below. This isn't a policy decision but a political one, made during the biggest humanitarian crisis for 100 years. Ask yourself why. https://t.co/3uhvjq1LrU— Kirsty McNeill (@kirstyjmcneill) June 16, 2020
“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security,” Johnson said in his speech. “We give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”
Let there be no illusion: taking away DfID’s independence has nothing to do alleviating poverty, which Johnson told the House of Commons “will remain central to our mission”. Instead, the Guardian reports that UK aid will “inevitably” be linked more to commercial and security interests instead.
And on the very day that we mourn the murder of Jo Cox on the fourth anniversary of her death — the inspirational public servant who lived by her motto that we have “far more in common with each other than things that divide us” — the loss of DfID is a heartbreaking tragedy for solidarity, social justice, and the vulnerable communities that Cox fought all her life to defend.
We should all be apoplectic about the erosion of DfID’s work. It warrants immediate action.
That means protecting the quality of aid spent by the FCO so it focuses on the poorest, adhering to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC)’s internationally agreed standards for aid. And we must demand that at least 50% of all UK aid spending is allocated to low-income countries. Otherwise, who is aid for?
It’s vital too that we retain a cabinet-level position for the international development minister. If lost, conversation about humanitarian issues may very well go missing at the highest level. Take action with us here.
Without DfID, Britain’s leadership in the world is seriously undermined. We now need a clear plan that demonstrates how the merger can be made to work without devastating the lives of the extremely poor.