OPINION: Britain steps back from helping the world’s poor

by Andrew Norton | @andynortondev | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Thursday, 18 June 2020 09:01 GMT

A cyclist passes the houses of the Parliament during the hot weather, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

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Subsuming the UK’s hugely respected aid agency into the foreign office will slam the country’s image abroad and hurt millions

Andrew Norton is the Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

The Prime Minister’s announcement on Tuesday that the UK’s highly effective and highly regarded international development ministry will be subsumed within the Foreign Office risks damaging global efforts at poverty reduction and tackling other global challenges. It is particularly concerning coming in the middle of an acute global crisis.  

Parliament’s International Development Committee could not have been clearer in its interim report on the effectiveness of UK Aid last week : “In a time of COVID-19, we need stability and should seek to avoid a potentially disruptive and costly machinery of government reorganisation that will impact on the effectiveness of UK aid.”

Not surprisingly the announcement was met with widespread dismay from a range of institutions and individuals who see the hugely respected DFID as a major asset for the world and for the UK. It is a sentiment I share, having worked for the department when it was created.

The decision signals that diplomatic priorities and actors will take precedence. Giving the Foreign Secretary overall control and ambassadors responsibility for how aid is spent at the country level and implying that UK assistance should target Ukraine not Zambia, the Balkans not Tanzania, is a clear sign that giving help to poorer countries is no longer the priority.

The subtext is that the UK’s national interest is viewed in narrow terms of partisan advantage, rather than the broader vision of leadership of global poverty reduction, which drove DFID’s creation in 1997. It risks weakening the multilateral, co-ordinated action, which is increasingly needed as the world seeks to get to grips with effective action to confront the crises of inequality, climate and biodiversity loss.

Despite the fact that the UK government has long indicated it would merge DFID into the FCO, the timing is still a surprise. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented health, social and economic crisis, which will have vast and damaging impacts on the poorest countries and the poorest people. The World Bank’s latest assessment indicates an unprecedented global economic contraction triggered by the pandemic that will push 70 to 100 million more people into absolute poverty.  This is not the time for one of the world’s most important development actors to be tied up in planning and executing complex administrative changes.

Many of the details are not yet clear, including whether the UK will retain a Cabinet position for international development, and what the Foreign Secretary’s oversight role will mean for portions of the aid budget spent by other ministries. DFID’s staff, it seems, will be retained in full and there is huge capability there to shape the ways in which the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will operate. As these changes are implemented over coming months three priorities stand out:

First, to maintain the existing focus of UKAid on the poorest people and the poorest countries. DFID has been the bedrock of the Sustainable Development Goals’ comment to ‘leave no one behind’. This is not the direction signalled by the Prime Minister.  But there is still time to make the case that the UK’s interests are best served by a vision of leading and supporting multilateral efforts to tackle inequality, fragility, climate and nature loss – rather than pursuing narrow national interests.

Second, to ensure this change does not damage the UK’s leadership of the vital UN climate change summit due in late 2021. If climate finance becomes subordinated to narrow foreign policy objectives, then the UK’s ability to mobilise the necessary progressive coalitions and lead a process of genuinely transformational change to reduce emissions and build resilience will be severely compromised.

Third, to tackle the global assault on the natural world, which remains an under-appreciated threat to human wellbeing and development. At a very broad level the loss of biodiversity and habitats is a factor in the risk of further pandemics. Human activity, including deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species, is increasing risks of the spill over of diseases from wildlife to people. 

The Prime Minister’s announcement suggests a turn away from a common global interest to a focus on the UK’s narrower national self-interest. But it does at least signal a concern to lead a successful process of global climate action at COP26. The coming months will see many more moments where choices will be made, either by governments or voters, with immense consequences for people’s capacity to confront shared threats effectively. 

In the UK and elsewhere the opportunities still exist to take effective global action to confront the key global challenges of our time. It is more important than ever that we seize them.