The United Kingdom has once again returned to the old conservative principle that development aid must be tied to political and foreign policy objectives of the donor government, instead of targets set by various global organisations through consensus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) under the control of the Secretary of State. Unveiling his merger plan in the parliament on June 16, PM Johnson said the objective was "to unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort". This merger move has shocked international development organisations (INGOs) who have been voicing their concerns since the possibility emerged with Johnson's ascension to the leadership.
The shock is even greater and deeper as it comes amidst a global pandemic which, undoubtedly, has created the worst humanitarian crisis in many decades at an unprecedented level. Aid charities have reacted to the scrapping of the separate and independent aid department angrily. The largest UK charity, Oxfam, said "the merger would harm the fight to reduce global poverty." Terming the merger a "terrible" decision, another leading global civil society organisation, Global Justice, said that it would take "the UK back two decades when UK aid was subservient to the interests of British businesses." Others are fearful of the fact that due to trade and security priorities, the UK will now be more likely to support foreign governments "regardless of their human rights record."
Reactions from the opposition parties and some liberal centre-right MPs in the Treasury Bench are also similar to those of the charities sector. Three former Prime Ministers, David Cameron of the Conservative Party, and Gordon Brown and Tony Blair of the Labour Party, have criticised the move. Cameron said it would mean "less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas." DfID was first set up by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1964, and has gone through several mergers and splits with the changes in power between the Conservatives and Labour. Last time, the split was carried out by Tony Blair, and his Conservative successors David Cameron and Theresa May maintained the separation and independence of the aid arm of the government.
Responding to the criticism that this merger may see more aid money focused on UK national interests and less on poverty reduction, PM Johnson told MPs that the merger will create opportunities for pursuing an integrated policy and strategy. During the House of Commons debate, he said that in many capitals, UK diplomats have been saying one thing, only to find that the message from DfID was different. Elaborating the point further, he said "it was no use a British diplomat one day going in to see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent and to do something for democracy in his country, if the next day another emanation of the British Government is going to arrive with a cheque for 250 million pounds. We have to speak with one voice; we must project the UK overseas in a consistent and powerful way, and that is what we are going to do."
Explaining his government's priorities in its development assistance programmes, PM Johnson said, "We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, although the latter is vital for European security, and we give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, which are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling. Regardless of the merits of those decisions, no single department is currently empowered to judge whether they make sense or not, so we tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently." Following the merger, it will be the Foreign Secretary who will decide which countries receive or cease to receive British aid, while delivering a single UK strategy for each country, overseen by the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister. This statement indicates further who will be the winners and losers of the reorganisation.
The UK government is one of the richest countries that fulfilled the commitment of spending 0.7 percent of its national income in aid to poorer countries, which was agreed prior to setting the Millennium development Goals (MDG). Johnson, however, pledged to maintain the level of spending of around GBP 15 billion following the merger. It is four times more than the Foreign Office budget. Critics allege this merger may see more of the aid money focusing on UK national interests instead of fighting global poverty, and investing in global health and education. Prime Minister Johnson, in his parliamentary deliberations, has indicated at least three upcoming changes—greater strategic importance of its European neighbours like Ukraine and Balkan countries over needier nations in Africa and elsewhere, democracy becomes a precondition for getting humanitarian assistance; and UK's national interests may include the interests of British business.
How this merger might affect Bangladesh, one of the recipients of British aid amounting to well over GBP 190 million a year, is to be seen. But, it should worry our non-government and civil society organisations, as such a major shift in priorities of the British government is bound to have some impact in the not so distant future.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.