Humanitarian workers’ lives could be put at risk if David Cameron blurs the lines between aid and defence by using development money to pay for military operations, it was claimed.
Charity bosses reacted with dismay to the disclosure that hundreds of millions of pounds from the international development budget could be diverted to fund peacekeeping activities.
One said the cash should be spent on “hospitals and not helicopter gunships”.
The controversy came after Mr Cameron backed moves to “pool” more money between the Department for International Development (DfiD), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Office.
The step was seen as a way of reassuring Tory MPs angry that aid expenditure is rising rapidly while spending on other areas, including the Armed Forces, is being heavily cut under George Osborne’s austerity drive.
The Government insisted its commitment to keeping its promise to increase spending on aid to 0.7 per cent of national income this year remained in place. However, the effect of the move could be to release cash for military spending by the MoD.
A DfiD spokeswoman said it met international guidelines on what constitutes aid and added that it was committed to spending 30 per cent of its budget in “fragile and conflict-affected countries” by 2014-15.
However, charities said the switch of emphasis would tarnish Britain’s reputation for generous spending on aid.
Oxfam’s head of policy, Max Lawson, said the public expected cash earmarked for international development to be spent on “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” and “schools not soldiers”. He said: “We can’t see any penny diverted into the military.”
Sorcha O’Callaghan, head of humanitarian policy at the British Red Cross, said: “Agencies working in conflict need to be able to distance themselves from military objectives in order to be seen to be neutral.
“Blurring the lines between aid and military objectives will not only reduce the resources available to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, it also risks the access and safety of aid workers.”
John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, said: “Instead of aid being used to meet the needs of local populations it’s being used to support the foreign policy aims of the British state.”
Melanie Ward, spokeswoman for ActionAid, said: “Military objectives and defence needs must have no bearing on how aid is spent.”
Justin Byworth, chief executive of World Vision UK, said: “The British Government leads the way on good aid spending – and diverting more money to peacekeeping operations could put that in jeopardy.”
But the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, a former army officer, argued that military peacekeeping could not be separated from delivery of aid.
“If that means more money has got to be spent on defence in order to increase the efficacy of overseas aid spending, then I’m all for it,” he said.
Labour denounced the move as a “cynical attempt” to appease backbenchers unhappy over the decision to shield aid spending from cuts.