OPINION

Boris Johnson is threatening to undo UK’s international standing

His decision to scrap the Department for International Development during a global pandemic is a major mistake.

Britain''s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London on June 17, 2020 [Reuters/Jessica Taylor]
Britain''s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London on June 17, 2020 [Reuters/Jessica Taylor]

The United Kingdom has long been proud of the role and status of the Department for International Development (DfID) as a world leader in providing support for life-changing and life-saving services for millions of people around the world – from vaccines to clean water to education. It has also consistently been rated as the most effective, transparent department at delivering real value for money for British taxpayers.

On June 16, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the takeover of the DfID by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He took questions about the rationale behind the decision as well as about the makeup of the new department, which he did not answer. Later in the week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was dragged before the House of Commons with an Urgent Question. He did not have any answers either.

That is because the merger was not a decision based on evidence or any meaningful consultation, but rather it was an attempt to deflect from the government’s failings in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. That the prime minister decided to throw the world’s poorest and most vulnerable under the bus as collateral tells you everything you need to know about the direction his moral compass points.

We have had one of the highest death tolls from COVID-19 in the world and face the worst unemployment crisis in a generation which will hit young people and the lowest paid the hardest. The government should be focussed on getting on with its job of governing and steering our country through the huge challenges we are facing. Instead, they have decided to try and score some cheap headlines with a large-scale restructure that will cost millions of pounds of public money.

Let me make it very clear, getting rid of an independent DfID in the middle of a global pandemic is irresponsible, counterproductive and wrong.

For all the talk of efficiency as a result of this restructure, numerous independent reviews found that DfID is far stronger on effectiveness and value for money than the FCO. It is also a world leader on transparency.

The DfID was held up as an example of a “global champion” when it came to value for money according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Meanwhile, we have seen reports from the cross-party International Development Committee that spending aid outside of DfID has resulted in an erosion of accountability.

The department is world-renowned for the work it does and the expertise it has built up. Now, many of the officials from the department have already started to look for ways out; a common occurrence in similar mergers has been a large brain drain. 

Support for the department cuts across the political spectrum. A week before the prime minister’s announcement, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the secretary of state for international development, stood in front of me and said, “The effectiveness with which DfID is able to deliver aid is because the department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’ money.”

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who usually keeps out of politics, said the decision was a mistake and the end of DfID will “mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.

The prime minister’s decision taken without any plans in place as to what the department will look like and with little consultation signifies to the rest of the world a retreat from the global stage, and a move which damages our soft power and erases our moral standing and credibility. It stands in total conflict with everything that the UK could and should be.

The Labour Party is committed to a progressive, outward-looking, collaborative form of development and we will seek to strengthen, not diminish, the UK’s ability to set the agenda to tackle extreme poverty, global inequality and the climate crisis. Only by doing this will we have the potential to make the world safer, fairer and better for us all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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