In the current political atmosphere, it has become all about appealing to the base. In this department UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is up there with the leading nationalist-populist opportunists, as he has demonstrated by merging the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
The merger is an extension of Johnson’s rhetoric during the Leave campaign and the years leading up to Brexit after the 2016 referendum. Overseas aid directed at the poorest people in the world, which DfID has been in the forefront of promoting, can be equally justified from a national-interest, realpolitik perspective as from a moral-ethical one, but sadly not from the nationalist-populist point of view, of which the prime minister is a leading proponent.
It is not only the act itself, which was described by one leading British NGO as vandalism, but the characteristic demagogy that accompanied Johnson’s announcement of this merger. “For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated like a giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests,” he said. To demonstrate what he meant by this, he added: “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”
In other words, he perceives the DfID and the FCO as one and the same in promoting and protecting British national interest, solely through the narrow prism of fending off a direct security threat to an ally and preventing expansionism by another country. This is precisely what the DfID was not formed to deal with, and now its role of serving Britain’s national interest through making the world a safer and more equitable place by providing people with opportunities and social mobility appears to be seriously threatened.
Johnson has trivialised and reduced international relations to what it was in the heyday of the European Balance of Power system —the exclusive realm of diplomats and generals. His move also reveals a lack of moral fiber. For instance, supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian expansionism no doubt has its merits, and to this effect the EU has imposed sanctions on Moscow following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in east Ukraine. But in contrast to the FCO, one of whose tasks is to devise policies to contain aggression in the international arena, the DfID’s mandate was to assist in alleviating poverty in a sustainable manner — and while more than half of Zambians live on less than $1.90 a day, such extreme poverty can hardly be found in Ukraine.
When the DfID was formed in 1997 under a Labour government, it was with the intention that the UK would become a leading force in an approach whose slogan was “Make poverty history.” In the years since, it has built a worldwide reputation in the humanitarian aid field due to the expertise built up among its staff in dealing with some of the most challenging aspects of providing help in some extremely complex and dangerous locations, and/or where civil wars, warlords, corruption and authoritarian regimes have made its job almost impossible.
It has not only been a morally correct course of action, but abroad it has also increased the UK’s prestige (a commodity that is unquestionably beneficial), served British interests in promoting its core values, reduced the attraction of radical groups and prevented the displacement of populations. In its early days the DfID was a pioneering force in introducing the Millennium Development Goals, which eventually enjoyed global endorsement and led to global poverty being halved within 15 years. It enhanced gender equality and improved the health conditions and life expectancy of hundreds of millions of people in some of the poorest places in the world. And it eventually encouraged the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Britain’s fingerprints are all over this paradigm shift in addressing poverty in its widest sense, and the DfID has been at the heart of it. Its independence, and the people it attracted to work for it, made it a world leader in changing the lives of those most in need. No disrespect to the FCO; it has a different mission, which complements DfID’s, and when both operate in tandem the UK’s national interest is served best. However, forcing the two together into one big department of state, especially under a minister from a party which is so inward looking, is to disregard nearly a quarter of a century of success in taking a less simplistic view of the UK’s national interest and significantly improving the human condition, and has put a big question mark over the future of such good work.
As was the case during the Leave campaign, Johnson is playing on nationalistic sentiments devoid of facts. UK aid at a level of 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) is anchored in law and is not going to change; however, nearly a quarter of this sum is already being spent by departments other than DfID, and not necessarily in line with its remit to combat inequality and poverty. This trend is bound to increase with the merger this autumn.
No surprise, then, that three former British prime ministers — Tony Blair, under whose premiership DfID became an independent department; his successor Gordon Brown; and David Cameron, during whose time in office the UK committed to spend 0.7 percent of its GNI on overseas development — expressed their dismay at the move, calling it a mistake that will lose the UK respect and therefore influence in the international arena.
Johnson’s act of sabotaging the UK’s role on the world stage should surprise no one who has witnessed his behavior during the Brexit debacle, his attitude to minorities and his disregard for society’s less fortunate. On this occasion his actions are to the detriment of both his country and those many millions around the world who are in a desperate need of an empowered DfID that will make a difference to their lives.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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