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This Government must cease further efforts to downgrade DFID and slash overseas aid

3 min read

Labour MP Tan Dhesi writes ahead of his Westminster Hall debate on the future of the Department for International Development and states: "If we are going to proclaim to the world that we are a charitable nation, upholding high moral and ethical standards, we cannot then tie charity to trade".

The future of the UK’s international aid budget is in jeopardy. Recent calls from some Tory MPs include drastically cutting our overseas aid spending, merging the Department of International Development (DFID) into the Foreign Office and the secretary of state herself claiming our 0.7% GDP aid commitment is unsustainable.

With continued disregard for the department’s fundamental purpose of tackling poverty overseas, questions must be raised about its future under a Conservative Government, and on Wednesday these concerns will be posed to them directly in a debate. Simply put, we need cast-iron guarantees from the Government that these fears are misplaced and that the UK will continue to make its full contribution to help the world’s poorest communities.

When DFID was finally brought in again as a stand-alone government department in 1997, it signalled Labour’s desire to ensure overseas aid was a priority, separate from trade and political interest. This ensured that it worked towards reducing poverty, inequality and promoted human rights, without attaching strings to tie poorer nations into accepting trade contracts.

Explicit financial commitments were then enshrined into law under the coalition government in 2015, consolidating the UK as a global leader in international development. Since then, there has been a small, but vocal, group of members who angrily oppose this commitment to the world’s poorest people. 

While a minority view, the current secretary of state Penny Mordaunt has nonetheless made a number of concessions to them. Her recent suggestions have gone as far to suggest re-defining how aid is counted, by using profits from private investments towards the aid budget, a move that has alarmed the development sector and risks undermining our overseas aid projects entirely.

Similarly, there are on-going concerns that our aid budget has not been solely focussed on poverty reduction. Charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Action Aid are also deeply concerned that some of the funds are used by “classing politically convenient projects as aid”, rather than exclusively helping the most vulnerable.

 This month, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even endorsed a report from the Henry Jackson Society which calls for a dilution of DFID’s role in alleviating poverty and a diversion towards broader international policies such as peace-keeping.  He told the BBC’s Today programme that “We could make sure that 0.7% is spent more in line with Britain’s political commercial and diplomatic interests.” But what could he possibly mean by this – abandoning our proud tradition as a distributer of aid to the most impoverished places on the planet? We must stop moves which put this isolationist British ideology ahead of genuine aid projects.

This is merely part of further efforts to downgrade DFID and slash overseas aid.  I am rightly concerned that both UK aid, and the department with primary responsibility for spending it, are under threat, or will be diverted away from the alleviation of poverty, or tied to the UK’s commercial interests with little regard for their impact on poverty reduction.

We must take an outward, global view to international development. Not only does inequality pose a direct threat to the global economy and stability, but as one of the world’s wealthiest powers it should be our duty. If we are going to proclaim to the world that we are a charitable nation, upholding high moral and ethical standards, we cannot then tie charity to trade.

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