A number of humanitarian relief charities have responded to the UK Government's decisions to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the UK Foreign Office.
Announcing the change, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that this "long overdue reform" would ensure "maximum value" for the UK taxpayer and "unite our aid with our diplomacy." Despite the changes, the United Kingdom will continue to commit 0.7 per cent of its GDP to overseas aid.
The PM added: "This is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas. And the best possible instrument for doing that will be a new department charged with using all the tools of British influence to seize the opportunities ahead."
However, in response, many humanitarian relief organisations have been quick to criticise the government's decision, suggesting that the world's poorest will suffer the fallout caused by such a seismic departmental restructuring.
Christian Aid went as far as to call the move an "act of political vandalism."
Patrick Watt, Christian Aid’s director of policy, public affairs and campaigns said:
“Today’s announcement is an act of political vandalism. Stripping the Department for International Development (DFID) of its independence and folding it into the Foreign and Commonwealth office threatens a double whammy to people in poverty, and to our standing in the world.
"The timing couldn’t be worse for people living in poverty, when for the first time in a generation, COVID-19 is driving a dramatic increase in extreme poverty. Far from being a symbol of ‘global Britain’, this move risks making Britain more parochial, and weakening its credibility in the rest of the world.
"Without an independent DFID the UK’s ability to help tackle poverty, and the impacts of the climate crisis and conflict, will be reduced. The government’s own independent aid watchdog shows that aid spent by DFID is more effective and transparent than aid being spent by other government departments. The UK has a moral responsibility towards the world’s poorest.
"As Christian Aid’s chair Dr Rowan Williams said during the last general election campaign, ‘we need an intelligent and independent Department of International Development embedded in a government that thinks about long-term global stability. There is not much point in a development programme that co-exists – for example – with selling arms to states pursuing aggressive and brutalising wars with their neighbours.”
In a similar vein, Nigel Harris, CEO at Tearfund, added: “We are very concerned that after 23 years as an independent and world-leading development department it has been announced that DFID will merge with the FCO. This comes at a time when it is crucial that the UK does not turn its back on the world’s poorest when we are fighting a global pandemic that will hit those most vulnerable and with the least social protection and healthcare hardest.
“With its dedicated focus on poverty alleviation, DFID has helped to transform the lives of millions living in extreme poverty. It is vital that future aid spending on behalf of the people of the UK continues to deliver with the same level of transparency, accountability and impact for those living in poverty as DFID has consistently done. Now is not the time for the UK to lower its standards on aid.
“Tearfund remains committed to working with the UK Government to help lift people out of economic, environmental and spiritual poverty. It is my heartfelt prayer that we will continue to see the UK Aid budget focused on fighting poverty and providing life-saving assistance to those in desperate need.”
Mark Sheard, CEO of World Vision UK, said:
“The abolition of DFID is shocking evidence of the UK putting its own economic interests above saving lives. The terrible irony is that Global Britain has today shrunk following years of an anti-aid agenda taking root at the heart of Government.
“While cross-governmental coordination is absolutely necessary, this should not be done at the expense of aid quality, for which the world’s poorest will pay the price. It has already been warned that COVID-19 could set back global poverty levels by 30 years. The end of an independent DFID will drive us even further backwards.
“By giving the Foreign Secretary oversight of aid, we will lose transparency, effectiveness and accountability, and risk money being diverted to address UK foreign policy interests rather than alleviating poverty. Diverting funds from the world’s poorest communities under the guise of taking back control in the UK would be a dereliction of our responsibility as a nation.
“Johnson’s commitment to 0.7% is welcome, but we are deeply concerned about what will constitute aid under this new department. The definition of aid must not be diluted, and it must not become a weapon of foreign policy.
“The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that global solidarity is more important than ever, and that only by working together can we create a safer and more prosperous world for everyone. We urge the Government to work with aid agencies to help ensure UK Aid continues to be a beacon of hope for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.”
In addition to the criticism lodged by international aid groups, the Prime Minister's decision has today garnered words of foreboding from three former PM's - David Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Cameron tweeted: "The Prime Minister is right to maintain the commitment to 0.7 - it saves lives, promotes a safer world and builds British influence. But the decision to merge the departments is a mistake.
"More could and should be done to co-ordinate aid and foreign policy, including through the National Security Council, but the end of will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas."
The new government department - the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office - is due to be up and running by September.