By Emma Batha
LONDON, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Charities and former British prime ministers condemned the government's decision on Tuesday to merge its diplomatic and aid departments, warning it could not come at a worse time and that "the world's poorest will pay the price".
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament the new joint ministry — the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office — would "unite our aid with our diplomacy", pledging to keep a commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid.
Britain is the world's second-largest donor to international development after the United States, spending £15.2 billion ($19 billion) on Official Development Assistance in 2019, of which almost three-quarters came from the budget of the Department for International Development (DfID).
Oxfam said the change would lead to more deaths from hunger and disease and set back efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which has deepened global poverty.
Charities said scrapping DfID risked money being diverted to address foreign policy interests rather than alleviating poverty which itself fuels migration and insecurity.
Transparency, effectiveness, and accountability in aid spending would also be lost.
"The abolition of DfID is shocking evidence of the UK putting its own economic interests above saving lives," said Mark Sheard, CEO of World Vision UK. "Aid ... must not become a weapon of foreign policy."
Christian Aid described DfID's abolition as "an act of political vandalism" that would hurt Britain's ability to tackle poverty and the impacts of the climate crisis and conflict.
More could and should be done to co-ordinate aid and foreign policy, including through the National Security Council, but the end of @DFID_UK will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas. 2/2— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) June 16, 2020
Mercy Corps said the merger would endanger Britain's commitment to "leave no one behind" — a reference to the UK's promise under the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's) agreed by world leaders in 2015.
Other aid agencies said the government had made the move without consultation.
"Make no mistake, this decision will do nothing but hurt the world's poorest and most vulnerable people," said Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, a UK umbrella network for international development organisations.
Charities said the announcement could not have come at a worse time as the world tackles the biggest humanitarian crisis in a century.
Draper said the merger put the international response to COVID-19 in jeopardy and risked a resurgence of the disease.
Save the Children said it was a "baffling and deeply damaging move" at a time when COVID-19 was reversing hard-won gains in child and maternal health, education, and poverty.
"It is a leader in both programmes and thought in development, helping millions of the world’s most vulnerable to be relieved of poverty and killer diseases. (2/3)— Tony Blair Institute (@InstituteGC) June 16, 2020
The strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain could be accomplished without its abolition. Wrong and regressive move.” (3/3)— Tony Blair Institute (@InstituteGC) June 16, 2020
But Britain's foreign minister, Dominic Raab, said the pandemic had shown how security, prosperity, development, and foreign policy were inextricably interlinked. "These changes mean the UK will be best placed to lead the international effort on COVID recovery and renewal," he tweeted.
Lawmakers as well as former Prime Ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair also condemned the announcement by Johnson, who said the new ministry would launch in September.
Cameron said it would mean "less expertise, less voice for development at the top table, and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas".
Sarah Champion, chairwoman of parliament's International Development Committee, said similar mergers in Australia and Canada had not improved aid quality and may have eroded their soft power.
While merging departments may bring efficiency gains "in the long run, we will have shot ourselves in the foot on the world stage", she said.
.@DFID_UK has lifted millions of people out of poverty, saved millions of lives, and helped millions more children go to school. It's sad the government is abolishing one of the UK's great international assets ~ GB https://t.co/rVXnhuKjc1— Gordon & Sarah Brown (@OfficeGSBrown) June 16, 2020
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)