Aid charities are warning that this week’s demise of the Department for International Development (DFID) could cost lives in the world’s poorest countries and damage the UK’s reputation internationally.
They say the damage will be done unless foreign secretary Dominic Raab ensures the ongoing effectiveness and transparency of humanitarian aid in his new merged ministry.
With DFID’s 23-year life as a free-standing department ending in merger with the Foreign Office on Wednesday, they are asking Mr Raab to make a firm public commitment not to switch spending from humanitarian schemes to trade, diplomatic or defence priorities.
They also challenged him to guarantee continued scrutiny of projects by independent watchdogs, while calling on Boris Johnson to keep a voice for development at the top of government by appointing a dedicated aid minister to cabinet.
Oxfam GB’s head of government relations, Sam Nadel, said it was unclear why the government was pursuing the merger in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, which the charity believes could force half a billion more people into poverty around the world.
“This is sending entirely the wrong signal out, suggesting we are stepping back rather than supporting the poorest in the world,” Mr Nadel told The Independent. “There’s a real risk the creation of this new department will reduce the UK’s focus on poverty reduction and principled humanitarian aid.
“The Aid Transparency Index rates DFID very highly and the FCO is near the bottom. The question is, are these standards going to be kept? DFID has a commitment to 50 per cent of its budget going towards the most fragile states. Dominic Raab has said in parliament that will stay. That is key and we want to see him stick by that.”
Suspicions over Mr Johnson’s intentions were roused when the PM announced the merger in June, saying he wanted to “unite our aid with our diplomacy” and questioning why developing countries like Zambia and Tanzania received more funding than the far wealthier Ukraine and western Balkans, which are strategically important to the UK.
“When the PM talks about taking aid away from Zambia and spending it in Ukraine, it’s clear he’s talking about a reconfiguration of what aid will be about,” said Mr Nadel. “Aid should be about helping those most in need – the clue is in the name.
“This could be the difference between life and death for many people. It really is that stark. UK aid is genuinely saving people’s lives and supporting people in the most dangerous places in the world, like Yemen or Syria. If it is repurposed for political purposes in the ‘national interest’, people won’t get healthcare, they won’t get shelter, they won’t get education, so their life chances are damaged.”
The head of UK influencing at Save the Children, Rachael Sweet, said the merger offered an opportunity for the government to “make the most of their development and diplomatic expertise”, but said taxpayers would expect it to focus on improving the lives of the world’s poorest.
“We asked our supporters to have their say on what are the most important priorities for FCDO and they have really challenged Mr Raab to focus aid on the poorest countries and to make sure that health, nutrition and education are prioritised as the areas which affect children’s futures the most,” she said.
Backing calls for a cabinet-level development minister and strong independent scrutiny, she said: “This is taxpayer money and the UK public deserves to know that it is being spent effectively. It’s only through applying clear and transparent processes and by people being accountable for this spending to the UK public that we will be satisfied.”
The House of Commons committee tasked with scrutinising the government’s official development assistance (ODA) work is engaged in a tussle with Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg for its continued existence.
International Development Committee chair Sarah Champion told The Independent that the government told the cross-party group in June that it would be dissolved on 1 September, only for the MPs to fight back.
“We told them we were appointed by parliament and it wasn’t in their gift to shut us down,” she said. “We have a meeting scheduled for the 1st, and that will be going ahead.”
The IDC has won the backing of the Tory chair of the Commons Liaison Committee, Bernard Jenkin, for a proposal that it should continue as the ODA Scrutiny Committee, keeping an eye on aid spending not only by Mr Raab’s new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) but also ministries including defence, business and health.
While the Tories’ Commons majority means Mr Johnson can enforce his will, Ms Champion believes that an accident of timing may help preserve it.
The Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU, chaired by Hilary Benn, is due to be wound up as the Brexit transition period ends at the end of 2020, which would leave Labour – if the IDC too is abolished – two short of its usual tally of committee chairs, and give it a strong case to head the new committee scrutinising the FCDO, said Ms Champion.
“I don’t think the government would want that and I don’t think they would want to expose their weakness on the floor of the Commons in a vote to abolish us, which I think we would come close to winning with the support of a lot of Conservatives who have rallied round us,” she said. “They’ve backed away from their original position, and now say that they ‘don’t foresee any changes in the immediate future’, but it’s not over. We are in an ongoing battle with Jacob Rees-Mogg over it.
“There’s been a select committee or sub-committee specifically scrutinising foreign aid since 1969. I hope that Jacob, with his love of precedent will recognise that.”
Ms Champion said the absorption of the UK’s £15bn ODA programme by the Foreign Office made continued scrutiny all the more vital: “DFID was originally set up in the wake of the Pergau Dam scandal, when we were bargaining with aid to get trade with developing countries. If there was a whiff that we were using aid for trade deals, we would seriously damage our international standing. Scrutiny may be annoying for ministers but it is essential for our reputation.”
Mr Raab announced on Saturday that the Independent Commission on Aid Impact will continue to review UK aid spending following the merger, but triggered some alarm by announcing a review to ensure that the body’s work is conducted “in line with the aims of the FCDO”. In future, ICAI should “prioritise producing tangible, evidence-based recommendations to ministers to drive effective overseas development spending”, he said.
Mr Nadel said it was important that the review of ICAI "maintains or strengthens its ability to hold the new department to account and continues its vital role scrutinizing aid spending".
And Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told The Independent it was vital that the merger was not seen as a “conquest” by the Foreign Office.
“That means recognising that within DFID there is extraordinary world-leading expertise that should be nurtured and respected,” he said.
“The influence which DFID exerted through literally every multilateral organisation and international development opinion former is extraordinarily extensive and an important aspect of British soft power, which contributes huge heft to global Britain. It’s obviously important that all of this is clearly understood by the most senior decision makers in the Foreign Office.
“Civil servants and indeed ministers don’t like ICAI, but it is an absolutely indispensible part of the Whitehall architecture if the taxpayer’s interests in the way this enormous amount of money is spent is to be protected.
Mr Raab said: “We are integrating our aid budget with our diplomatic clout in the new FCDO to maximise the impact of our foreign policy.
“That’s why I want to reinforce the role of ICAI, to strengthen further transparency and accountability in the use of taxpayers’ money and relentlessly focus our ‘global Britain’ strategy on policies and in areas that deliver the most value.”
ICAI chief commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said: “Robust, independent scrutiny helps to ensure that aid reaches those who need it most, and that UK taxpayers – who contribute a substantial amount towards the aid budget each year – get maximum value for their money.
“We are committed to the rigorous use of evidence in our reviews, and our recommendations have directly led to improvements in the way government spends aid. This strong track record means we are well-placed to drive forward further improvements in the aid programme, and to enable continued accountability as the landscape changes.”
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