Johnson’s Plan to Scrap U.K. Aid Ministry Attacked by Predecessors

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticized by his predecessor David Cameron after he said the department for U.K. overseas aid will be scrapped and folded into the Foreign Office as part of plans for a post-Brexit “global Britain.”

The closure of the Department for International Development means aid will be linked more explicitly to Britain’s political goals, Johnson said. The move was criticized by political opponents but also, significantly, by former Prime Minister Cameron, like Johnson a Conservative, who said it was “a mistake.”

“This is exactly the moment when we must mobilize every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Tuesday. “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.”

Figures released in April show that the U.K. spent more than 15 billion pounds ($19 billion) on development assistance last year, with 73% of that going through DFID. Africa received the largest share (56%) of the department’s region-specific spending in 2019.

Johnson said aid should be refocused and overseen by diplomats to ensure it is consistent with Britain’s strategic interests. He compared assistance to Africa and European states to make his point.

“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,” Johnson told lawmakers. Overseas aid and foreign policy should be “one and the same endeavor,” he said.

Cameron, who used his support for foreign aid as a way to rebrand the Conservatives between 2005 and 2010, attacked the move on Twitter. “More could and should be done to co-ordinate aid and foreign policy, including through the National Security Council,” he said. The abolition of DFID “will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the U.K. overseas.”

International development has long been a political football, with the Labour Party repeatedly making it a stand-alone department and the Tories merging it with the Foreign Office. Labour Leader Keir Starmer criticized Johnson’s reforms. “Abolishing DFID diminishes Britain’s place in the world,” he told the House of Commons.

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who set up the department in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed” by Johnson’s move to abolish the aid department, which he described as a “wrong and regressive” decision.

Aid Target

DFID “is a leader in both programs and thought in development, helping millions of the world’s most vulnerable to be relieved of poverty and killer diseases,” Blair said in a statement released by his office. “The strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain could be accomplished without its abolition.”

Donor countries are asked to contribute 0.7% of their Gross National Income to Overseas Development Assistance, after a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1970. The U.K. met the target in 2013 and since 2015 the figure has been legally binding.

Johnson, who said his government will stick to that target, is responding to political pressure to reform the structures after a series of newspaper reports claimed DFID was wasteful and spent money on overseas projects out of tune with the concerns of British taxpayers.

The premier touched on those criticisms as he answered questions after his statement.

“For too long British overseas aid as been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky,” he said. “It’s no use a British diplomat going into see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent, and to do something for democracy in his country if the next day another emanation of this government is going to arrive with a check for 250 million pounds.”

The aid department started in 1964 as the Ministry of Overseas Development under a Labour government. A Tory administration in 1970 merged it with the Foreign Office, before Labour re-instated it as a separate department in 1974. In 1979, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher re-merged it with the Foreign Office, before Labour’s Tony Blair created the Department for International Development in 1997.

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