Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, announced the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID). This merge will call into existence a ‘super-department’ to be formally established in early September: The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
At its best, the move comes at an inopportune time, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and then as we begin to rebuild the economy in a vulnerable post-lockdown state – it comes with little surprise that the merger was not granted the attention it so desperately deserved. At its worst, this decision is indicative of a severe dereliction of moral and ethical reasoning: prioritising foreign policy interests above the needs of those most vulnerable in the world.
During the announcement of the merge, the prime minister explained that UK overseas aid has been “treated like a giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests.” To justify this claim, he added: “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”
Aid funds allocated to Zambia and Ukraine are matched, this much is correct. However, the level of acute poverty between the countries is not. 57.5% of Zambia’s population are considered below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, in comparison to less than 1% in Ukraine. Similar disparities between the two countries emerge when exploring the demographics of various quality of life indicators, such as ‘access to electricity’, ‘people using basic sanitation services’, and ‘secondary school enrolment’.
As enshrined in law, the PM has vowed to commit 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income (GNI) to aid. It is the distribution of this GNI percentage, however, that we should be concerned about. This new ‘super department’ will almost certainly grant the Foreign Office more jurisdiction over the allocation of aid funding, likely resulting in a higher fund allocation channelled towards countries which align well with the UK’s geopolitical aims. Think Ukraine, Belarus, and even Venezuela. Increasing funds to some regions prompts a decline in funds to others – the victims of which will inevitably be those who need it most. Think Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho – countries that face the most rampant rates of global poverty.
Aligning foreign policy interests with aid assistance is neither a new nor an uncommon phenomenon, but this does not make it the right one. Aid must be apportioned on the basis of necessity first and foremost, not dictated by foreign policy interest. Anything less is a shameful acceptance of an increasingly egocentric British sentimentality that seems to have contaminated our politics since the Brexit agenda infiltrated political conversation. We must move beyond this jingoistic concept that aid assistance need demonstrate a binding ‘quid pro quo’.
Even more urgently, as we lay in the wake of a pandemic-stricken world, aid assistance in the most vulnerable of regions will be needed now and in the near-future more than ever before. Stephanie Draper, chief executive of international development network Bond, explained: “Scrapping DfID now puts the international response to Covid-19 in jeopardy and, at a time when we need global co-operation, risks a resurgence of the disease both abroad and here in the UK”.
Having been announced by a man who can be said to have a long record of making clear his nationalist impulse, there is little shock factor to the merger. It seems that for Mr Johnson, as is the case for much of his cabinet, alleviating rampant global inequality and poverty alone is simply an insufficient cause. If it does not impact the UK in some favourable way, it is not worth doing.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will stand to epitomise the rise of potent insularity in British politics. It marks more than just the merger of two institutional bodies, but also the merging of UK policy interests to a rapidly waning sense of morality.