Coronavirus has demonstrated the importance of a ring-fenced overseas aid budget
The clear demonstration of the effectiveness and need for overseas aid throughout the pandemic should give those previously critical of its ring-fencing cause for thought when the Integrated Review begins again, says Laura Hutchinson | Credit: PA Images
Many hope that when the time comes, the lessons learnt from coronavirus will translate into a shift of priorities for the Government. This includes recognition of the importance of having a ring-fenced overseas aid budget and a single, separate, Department responsible for spending it.
When the UK left the EU at 11pm on 31st January 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation and promised that this change would result in the UK becoming “truly global” in its range and ambition. He pledged that the nation would continue to lead in “diplomacy, in our fight against climate change, in our campaigns for human rights or female education or free trade.”
Less than a month later, he had launched the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – the most wide-ranging review since the Cold War, designed to reassess Britain’s priorities and position on the world stage.
The Review has now, understandably, been paused whilst the Government turns its full attention onto tackling the Coronavirus pandemic. Although it is unclear when the Review will restart or when the pandemic will end, many hope that when the time comes the lessons learnt from Coronavirus will translate into a shift of priorities for the Government. In this case specifically, the recognition of the importance of having a ring-fenced overseas aid budget and a single, separate, Department responsible for spending it.
There were many, particularly those in the aid sector, that feared that the Integrated Review was the means by which some in the Conservative Government could achieve a long held ambition: the amalgamation of the Department for International Development – and its overseas aid budget – with the Foreign Office, and spread its associated funds throughout trade, defence and diplomacy.
During the 2019 General Election, the Financial Times reported on plans by Boris Johnson to put the £13.4bn overseas aid budget under the control of the Foreign Office, allowing funding to areas outside of aid or ODA framework. It is an idea that the former Foreign Secretary turned PM has repeatedly flirted with. In 2019 Johnson wrote a forward for a Henry Jackson Society report that argued for the scrapping of the 0.7 percent aid target, and for changes to the definition of “international development” to allow more spending via the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. In his foreword, Johnson said the authors should be “applauded for some radical thinking about reform of Whitehall, so as to make far better use of our overall overseas spending, and to ensure that these vast sums do more to serve the political and commercial interests of the country.”
The rumoured merger of DFID with the FCO didn’t transpire in the Government’s latest reshuffle – although joint ministers and posts have now been established. One cannot pre-empt a review’s recommendations, but it is clear what Boris Johnson’s political preferences were prior to the pandemic.
However, over the course of this pandemic, the UK has shown itself to be a world leader in aid and development. It is now the biggest contributor to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in their work on vaccine development, as well as providing hundreds of millions to help NGOs and aid agencies provide essential, lifesaving, humanitarian and medical assistance across the globe. Aid funding has been spent on stabilising the virus in countries with fragile health systems, as well as providing debt relief grants for low income countries hit by the pandemic.
This spending was only made possible because of the 0.7 percent target and the working practices and systems of the Department for International Development, which allows funding to be given out transparently, quickly and in a targeted way.
Such funding and assistance are not only seen by many as morally right, but pragmatic in the sense that in stabilising other countries via humanitarian assistance the UK is made safer, more secure and prosperous. A global pandemic highlights that other nations are only as safe as the world’s weakest healthcare system.
To maintain the ring fencing of the UK aid budget is not to say that the much-depleted coffers of the Foreign Office should not be replenished – indeed, there is a strong argument that it is counterproductive to increase defence spending without simultaneously doing the same with diplomacy.
The clear demonstration of the effectiveness and need for overseas aid throughout the pandemic should give those previously critical of its ringfencing cause for thought when the Integrated Review begins again. It should be used to demonstrate that there is no disaster that occurs within a bubble, and that what is experienced by those in need of aid – in conflict zones, refugee camps, low income countries - will be felt by other nations if left unaddressed. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the issue of climate change, an issue which will no doubt will be at the heart of the Integrated Review when it resumes.
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