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Government must defend DFID’s autonomy and its commensurate expertise

4 min read

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for International Development writes to defend the 0.7% of GNI target enshrined into law during the Coalition government, and says she “will speak out against Conservative on-the-sly efforts to dismantle DFID or change the nature of our aid”.

One of my party’s proudest achievements is the leading role we played in securing the International Development Act 2015, which enshrined in law the UK’s commitment to meet the UN’s target of spending 0.7% of GNI on international aid every year.

Being in Coalition Government as the smaller partner is not easy. It’s particularly not easy when you’re in Coalition with a party whose world view is often completely at odds with your own, so I am proud that we fought for this policy tooth and nail and defeated the naysayers in the Tory party.

Enshrining in law the UK’s aid commitment was a hugely progressive step. But it has been haunted by years of attack from Conservative MPs such as former and current DFID Secretaries Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt. The latest person to take aim at this life-saving budget is Boris Johnson.

Boris’ backing of the paper Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st Century is shameful. The paper calls for a severe, multi-billion-pound cut to UK’s Overseas Aid budget and closure of DFID. It shrugs off the fact that this budget has played a major role in the fight to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development across the world. It dismisses the fact that it has helped to transform people’s lives and lift many out of inhumane conditions.

Far from positioning post-Brexit Britain as a global player regaining its place on the world stage, slashing the UK aid budget and threatening our place in the OECD’s forum of major international donors instead paints the UK as an inward-looking island no longer in step with the realities of the contemporary world. As Save the Children have said, the UK is an International Development superpower but these suggestions risk that. Brexit is already threatening our seat at the top table, we must not allow Conservative whims to threaten it further.

Just over a week ago, another prominent Brexiter Tory, the Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt suggested that the Government’s development spending should become more reliant on private sector investment and philanthropy. But the role of aid shouldn’t be to keep business happy or be about profit margins and returns. Aid is about unconditional assistance aimed at ending poverty and conflict, tackling climate change, and promoting human rights and sustainable development. Heaven forbid that we return to the bad old days when scandalous incidents such as the Pergau Dam arms deal for aid could happen.

However, using the expertise that DFID possesses to leverage in greater investment from the city and develop mechanisms to harness the goodwill that the British public shows to those less fortunate than us is a different matter, and will help us realise the trillions of dollars that will be needed to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

That is a different concept and one that I would support, and I might add, gives even more weight to the argument that protecting the DFID’s autonomy together with its commensurate expertise is paramount.

May must not allow her colleagues to continue to lurch her party further to the right. The aid budget should not be up for debate: it is the right thing to do. Allowing this rhetoric to take hold and gain traction is to risk the country’s standing just to appease the Tory party. For too long the happiness of Brexiter MPs has come ahead of what is best for the UK. But the aid budget must not be used as a bone tossed aside to placate the salivating Tory bulldog.

I am so proud that we enshrined the aid budget in law during the Coalition, but the fight to protect it has never been truly over. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will continue to make the case for the 0.7% of GNI and will speak out against Conservative on-the-sly efforts to dismantle DFID or change the nature of our aid. This is about the kind of country we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in, and the answer should not be that of Boris’ nostalgic fantasies.


Baroness Sheehan is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for International Development


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