Boris Johnson, the UK’s former foreign secretary, has backed a call to change up the UK’s international development budget — in a strategy that would effectively result in a multi-million pound cut to funding.
The UK’s aid spending is currently dedicated to saving lives and to helping support the world’s poorest people in lifting themselves out of extreme poverty.
But a controversial report claiming to represent a new “global Britain” has sparked serious concern in the humanitarian and development sector.
The report —Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st Century— calls to scrap the current definitions of how aid funding can be spent, shifting the focus away from poverty reduction and towards what the report calls Britain’s “political, commercial, and diplomatic interests.”
It would mean seeing the money that Britain is supposed to be spending on ending extreme poverty, instead diverted to the Ministry of Defence, and even the BBC World Service — which it says should be funded “entirely from the overseas aid budget.”
Currently, the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on international development is protected in British law. It’s spent on things like helping achieve gender equality, eradicating polio, making sure every child can get a quality education, and many other initiatives all working together to end extreme poverty.
The UK’s Department for International Development has said in response to the report that the 0.7% commitment, enshrined in law, “contributes to Britain’s reputation as a development superpower.”
But significantly, the report claims we should only maintain that pledge if the UK “gains the freedom to define aid as it sees fit.”
This would mean turning our backs on the internationally agreed definitions of what can be officially counted as overseas development assistance (ODA).
These definitions are important because it makes sure that all countries aid spending is focussed solely on poverty reduction, and stops countries using aid funding to support their own political or commercial interests.
Just last month, new statistics revealed that global inequality is rising — with 26 people now holding as much money as the poorest 50% of the globe. In this context, we feel that it’s shocking to suggest the UK’s life-saving aid budget should be slashed or diverted away from its focus on ending poverty.
The plans have been drawn up by Bob Seely, a Conservative member of the foreign affairs select committee, and James Rogers, a strategist at the Henry Jackson Society think tank.
And while Johnson backed the proposals, writing in his foreword to the report that they are “hard to disagree with,” others say that the changes would “undermine” the UK’s excellent global track record on development and humanitarian aid.
“This approach risks severely undermining UK development efforts, particularly in the world’s poorest countries, and would in fact serve to weaken the UK’s global influence,” said Bond, a UK network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in a statement.
“The UK would become known across partner countries and international institutions for ineffective, nontransparent, and self-interested aid,” it added.
In its response to the report, Save the Children said that currently Britain is an “international development superpower.”
According to Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, this status as a world-leader in development “secures the UK’s seat at the world’s top tables” as well as “saving and transforming children’s lives in some of the poorest places on earth.”
Laura Taylor, Christian Aid’s head of global advocacy, added: “The concept of giving aid in the national interest is both flawed and immoral.”
"Slashing the #UKAid budget would be a damning legacy for a government that speaks of a 'global Britain'" - @gavincrowden responds to a new report by Bob Seely and the Henry Jackson Society.https://t.co/4K1YBRyCTe— World Vision UK (@WorldVisionUK) February 11, 2019
“Evidence shows that aid is far less likely to be effective if donors put their own priorities, or the interests of big business and private finance, ahead of the needs of the countries and people who should benefit from that aid,” she said.
Another key proposal calls for the closure of the Department for International Development (DfID), to be merged instead with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the trade department.
FCO would become, according to the report, the “undisputed intellectual driver of global engagement.”
Right now, DfID has one of the best records in the world for accountability and transparency of aid spending. In a global ranking published last year, in fact, DfID was found to be the third best of the world's major development agencies for aid transparency, while the FCO was ranked "poor."
Many more controversial aid projects, of the kind sometimes highlighted in the media, are instead supported by other government departments with UK aid money — departments with poorer records on accountability and transparency.
ONE's Real Aid Index shows that putting the FCO in charge of DFID would be like making the reserve player the captain of the football team. pic.twitter.com/APZgV8cERl— Romilly Greenhill (@romilly_one) February 11, 2019
Dan Carden, the shadow international development secretary, warned that the report “turns its back on the commitment to eradicate global poverty, calls for the Department for International Development to be broken up, the aid budget to be slashed, and for the UK to pull out of the OECD’s forum of major international donors that oversees global aid spending.”
DfID has issued a response to the report, pledging that the government remains committed to the 0.7% pledge, to continue to support the global effort to end extreme poverty.
“In meeting this commitment, DfID seeks to not just spend money well, but to show it could not be spent better in the national interest,” adds DfID’s statement. “We must maximise the good we do with what money we have.”
“Poverty reduction is at the heart of what we do but UK aid is also tackling global challenges like disease, terrorism, and conflict, and creating a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world for us all,” it adds. “This is a win for the UK and a win for the developing world.”
But this isn’t the first time this month that charities have had cause for concern, with reports that Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, had called the 0.7% target “unsustainable” and suggested that DfID should become a department for fundraising rather than spending.
The urgency in the effort to protect the UK’s life-saving aid funding is growing, with some high profile politicians and some areas of the media fuelling anti-aid sentiment.
That’s why we need Global Citizens to raise their voices in support of UK aid being spent with the sole focus of ending poverty, and to tell Boris Johnson that these proposals do not represent the global Britain you want to see.
Other policy recommendations outlined in the report include:
- National Strategy Council — Britain should establish a National Strategy Council to develop a “global grand strategy” and “drive cross-government integration.”
- National Global Strategy — the National Strategy Council should lead a National Global Strategy Review every decade.
- Overall Spending Audit — the government should conduct an overseas spending audit to “ascertain its total spending on global engagement.”
- A Diaspora Global Advisory Council — the FCO should establish a council to empower diaspora communities in the UK to support and deepen Britain’s relationships with nations throughout the world.