Merging international development into Foreign Office sends signal about what Boris Johnson's 'global Britain' will look like

Controversial move unites three former Prime Ministers, most opposition parties and nearly 200 charities
Boris Johnson wants aid to be used to further "British interests"Boris Johnson wants aid to be used to further "British interests"
Boris Johnson wants aid to be used to further "British interests"

IN the middle of a crisis, it takes quite something to prompt three former prime ministers, most opposition parties and almost 200 charities to speak out against the government.

Yet that is what Boris Johnson achieved when he announced that the Department for International Development is to be absorbed into the Foreign Office and signalled aid would now be allocated with a new focus on “safeguarding” British interests.

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He complained the UK currently gives as much aid to Zambia as Ukraine - but perhaps that has something to do with the fact more than half the people in Zambia live below the poverty line while in Ukraine it is around one per cent.

If financial support previously given to people in the world’s poorest countries is to be redirected to promote “British interests” elsewhere, that is a dramatic redefinition of international development.

The UK will maintain its statutory commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, but now the Foreign Office will decide which countries receive aid and those decisions will be dictated by security and commercial interests.

The move - which is said to have been driven in part by Dominic Cummings - did not feature in the Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election and was apparently not discussed in Cabinet before the prime minister announced it.

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The decision has been roundly condemned by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.Tony Blair, who established DfID as a separate department in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed” and David Cameron warned it would mean “less respect for the UK overseas”.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford accused the government of abandoning efforts to tackle poverty in some of the world’s most deprived areas and ignoring the warnings of aid experts against the change.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it diminished Britain’s place in the world and pledged to re-establish the department if he becomes prime minister.

And charities in the sector have made clear they believe the move is a serious mistake. Christian Aid pointed out the government’s own independent aid watchdog had shown that aid spent by DFID was “world-beating” - to borrow one of Mr Johnson’s favourite phrases - in terms of effectiveness and transparency and far more so than other UK government departments.

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They also said the timing could not be worse given the dramatic increase in extreme poverty thanks to Covid-19.

People are being asked to write to their MPs in a bid to save DfID, arguing for the government to retain an independent department focussed on eradicating poverty and suggesting the government should consult with leaders of the poorest countries and especially the 46 Commonwealth countries which receive DfID funding.

The prime minister has been accused of using his DfID announcement to distract attention from a series of embarrassing U-turns on coronavirus over schools reopening in England, the problems with test and trace app and free school meals south of the border during the summer holidays.

The scrapping of the department flies in the face of attempts to portray Mr Johnson as basically liberal in his attitudes and, as full Brexit looms, it seems to confirm the worst fears about what his talk of “global Britain” will mean in reality - a short-sighted, inward-looking country with a fast-shrinking reputation on the international stage.

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