On Tuesday, Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, addressed the defence thinktank RUSI and his comments raised several concerns. In calling for greater ‘strategic oversight’ of DfID by the FCO, he has raised fears of a potential merger between the two departments, which Labour has been clear would weaken the UK’s ability to deliver on its international development goals.
Labour, as the party which established DfID, recognises the vital role that UK aid plays across the globe, where poverty remains widespread and inequality continues to grow. We also recognise that as we live in a more interconnected system, the burning inequality and poverty faced by so many drives instability that affects not just those in the immediate vicinity, but also us here in the UK.
In its 2010 manifesto, the Conservatives backed the cross-party move to enshrine the 0.7% commitment in law, and David Cameron spoke compellingly of a ‘golden thread’ that would drive systemic change in good governance and build effective institutions.
However, since then we have seen the Tory’s real agenda on DfID become clear. With some 26% of the UK’s current aid budget currently being spent by other departments which lack both the transparency and effectiveness standards DfID is renowned for, the Government has shifted the focus of the Department from its guiding principle, poverty reduction, to the far more opaque ‘national interest’. And, of course, let us not forget the further damage done to the Department’s reputation by Priti Patel’s unauthorised and secretive shadow diplomacy in Israel in August last year, which rightly resulted in her dismissal.
It is already concerning that an increasing amount of the money which counts towards the UK’s 0.7% aid target is being channelled to other departments and funding streams like the global Prosperity Fund and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. These carry out functions unrelated to DfID’s strategic goals, including funding security projects in Egypt.
Evidence shows that merging the departments simply does not work. Since Australia merged its aid and foreign affairs departments in 2013, aid spending decreased, and what spending remains has become both increasingly controversial, being used for things such as in-country refugee costs, and increasingly privatised. Only an independent DfID can safeguard the capacity and expertise needed to deliver Britain’s international development agenda.
We need a strong, independent DfID to protect the UK’s hard-won global leadership on development; a reputation that has also seen the UK rank second on the global ‘Soft Power Index’. But we also need a strong, independent DfID to protect against the sort of ‘aid for trade and arms’ issues, infamously highlighted by the Pergau Dam affair in 1994, that did so much to harm our nation’s international standing in the past.
I do, however, agree with Tom Tugendhat that the FCO is ‘hobbled’. This is not because it does not have sufficient control over other departments; it is ‘hobbled’ by a Secretary of State more focused on leadership manoeuvres than doing his job. It is not the breadth of his portfolio that is holding back our illustrious Foreign Secretary, but his inability to focus on anything other than using his position to undermine the Prime Minister by calling for an extreme version of Brexit.
From acting so irresponsibly as to jeopardise Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fight for freedom in Iran, to his fawning and unsuccessful attempts to persuade Donald Trump to remain a signatory to the Iran nuclear deal, Boris Johnson has proven himself to be not only ineffective, but also a liability to his country. Far from giving him yet more powers, the Prime Minister should have already dismissed him for the damage he has done. The she does not do so demonstrates only her weakness.
While of course Labour recognises the importance of cross-departmental working to ensure the effective delivery of Government, international development assistance is far too important an issue to become merely a footnote in the brief of our bungling and incompetent Foreign Secretary.
Preet Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston