(Question asked by the Marshall Society)

In the Tory manifesto for the 2015 election, the party pledged to keep the Department for International Development independent within Whitehall. Yet just five years on, Prime Minister Johnson has announced plans to combine DFID with the Foreign Office.¹ This abrupt change in policy might be mistakenly attributed to the whims of a government with a 80 seat majority. However, the newly announced strategy for the Foreign Office and DFID is not so surprising when the political vogues of the Conservative party regarding international aid are considered.

In particular, the government’s positions that ‘that distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated’, and that international aid should ‘serve our national interest,’² are strikingly in line with the aid strategy outlined by both the Cameron and May governments.³ In this sense, Boris Johnson’s new aid strategy, rather than being a departure from orthodox thinking, is simply a reflection of the broader shift in attitude of what the UK’s international role should be within the Conservative party. What is different about the current government, however, is the ideological composition of the cabinet and the mandate which the Prime Minister was elected upon.

Of specific relevance is the bare appeal made to English Nationalism by the Tories in the 2019 election, which is reflective of the ambition of some within the party to put national interests ahead of the liberal principles of internationalism and mutual prosperity. This has marked ramifications for the purpose of our aid, as the political decisions the current government make about our various international relationships will be defining for the next generation.

With this in mind, then, what are the choices before the UK regarding our international role, and what should the primary aims of our international aid be? From the liberal perspective, what can be said is that the principles of Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’⁴ should largely to be welcomed. The aims of aligning Britain’s national interests with our aid and maintaining our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)⁵ are not necessarily in conflict with each other, and in fact pursuing shared economic policies such as improving free trade in developing regions and investing in frontier economies—for example, through initiatives to improve education, healthcare and women’s rights—can actually lead to more sustainable development, as stated in ICAI’s 2019 review.⁶

This being said, although Johnson’s international aims are liberal in theory, we cannot assume that they will also be so in practice. The recent move to combine DFID and FCO is at odds with criticisms in the same ICAI report for example,⁷ while multiple former Prime Ministers and ministers of DFID have criticised the policy.⁸ Of particular concern is that the move will disempower our aid workers on the ground leading to less impactful programs and fuel for the rightwing opponents of aid. These concerns cannot be allowed to manifest, and our international aid must continue to hold the SDGs, not narrow national self-interest, as the primary aim. Only in this way can we fulfil our national moral imperative to building a more equal and fair world.

¹ 2015 Aid strategy report: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-aid-tacklingglobal-challenges-in-the-national-interest

² PM address to house 16 June 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/primeministers-statement-to-the-house-of-commons-16-june-2020

³ PM speech in Cape Town, August 2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pmsspeech-in-cape-town-28-august-2018

⁴ PM ‘Global Britain’ speech, Feb 2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pmspeech-in-greenwich-3-february-2020

⁵ SDGs: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300

⁶ ICAI review of aid 2015–19: https://icai.independent.gov.uk/report/the-current-state-of-ukaid/

⁷ ICAI report, p.17: Britain’s aid ‘struggled with achieving coherence and coordination between country-based and centrally managed programmes’.

⁸ Rory Stewart on FCO and DFID merger: https://www.ft.com/content/5e16dc98-5cf9-477a-85f0-7ed4b254952c

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