Patrick Hall discusses the Government's decision to abolish the Department for International Development.
Reader, I am going to start this piece with a confession.
I had a rather unsettling experience the other day. There I was, peaceably sipping a takeaway caramel frappé and scrolling through the Guardian app. I was reading an article about the objections of former Prime Ministers to the merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign Office[i]. About halfway through the piece, I had an alarming realisation that went something like this:
‘I agree, one hundred percent, with David Cameron.’
Truly chilling, I’m sure you’ll agree.
But the fact that former Prime Ministers from both parties are denouncing the merging of DfID with the Foreign Office shows just how much of a Truly Bad Idea it really is. Here, I argue why this decision is a tragedy for the UK and for the world.
DfID was established in 1997 and since then has undertaken important work in developing countries across the world. With a budget of £10-15 billion, the UK has been one of the few nations to commit to the UN’s target of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid[ii]. But now, DfID is to be subsumed into the Foreign Office. There are several reasons as to why this is misguided.
First, although Mr Johnson has pledged to maintain the 0.7% commitment, abolition undoubtedly represents a downgrading of overseas development as a priority. Gobbled up by the Foreign Office, development will play second fiddle to other goals. Without a voice at the top table, it isn’t difficult to foresee the 0.7% commitment being quietly dropped in the near future. Today: the department; tomorrow: the money.
Second, abolition is not in the UK’s interests. With one of the world’s largest overseas aid budgets[iii] and world-beating expertise, DfID enhances our global standing. Abolishing one of our few remaining world-leading institutions will diminish our soft power and reduce our clout.
Third, foreign aid keeps us safe. Poverty and instability provide fertile ground for terrorism. When people are in hardship, they turn to the extremes, and ultimately, we suffer for it. Foreign aid is not just altruistic; it is an investment in our national security, too. When we don’t pay the money, we pay the price.
Fourth, let us look to the great good achieved by DfID. Medical care for Gaza residents[iv]; education for Syrian refugees[v]; training and skills for women in Ghana[vi]; repairing roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo[vii]; improving sanitation in Bangladesh[viii]. DfID’s work has been far-reaching and lifesaving; are we really going to throw all that work away?
To be clear, I am aware that aid money from well-meaning westerners will not solve the world’s problems. Such a belief would be mistaken. However, while we should not overestimate the impact of foreign aid, neither should we underestimate it. It helps people. It helps communities. And it helps people and communities help themselves.
There are some who say we should help our own people before we help those in other countries. To those people, I say: this does not need to be a binary set of choices. We are a rich country with enough money to help both at home and abroad.
In many ways, however, this debate is about more than departmental disputes. It is about who we are as a country, and who we want to be. We can be insular and inward-looking; we can go in that direction as a country, closing our minds to the suffering of our neighbours and closing ourselves off to the world.
Or, we can be a nation of compassion and generosity and empathy.
We are not just an island. We do not live alone. We are responsible for each other. Let us devote ourselves to the cause of easing the pain of humanity and making gentle the life of this world.
Anyway, I’m off for another caramel frappé.
This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020.
Patrick Hall is a third year student at the University of Edinburgh. He studies Politics and is an active member of the Labour Party.
He tweets @patrickrhall.