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Three ex-prime ministers criticise UK government for abolishing international aid department

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The name plate outside the British Foreign and Commonwealth office in London
The name plate outside the British Foreign and Commonwealth office in London   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that the government department tasked with dishing out international aid (DFID) would be merged with the Foreign Office (FCO) in a move designed to deliver "more bang for our buck".

The announcement has been denounced as a mistake by several charities as well as three former prime ministers.

Johnson told MPs that the move "will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort".

He argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted that "the distinctions between diplomacy and development are artificial and outdated".

In practice, it means that from September — when the merger is expected to be complete — the country's Foreign Secretary will decide how aid money should be spent.

The government has indicated that it will remain steadfast in its commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product on overseas development.

'Less respect for the UK overseas'

But prominent voices have condemned the announcement including former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Blair, whose government created the Department for International Development in 1997, described himself as "utterly dismayed by the decision".

He said that "the strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain" could be accomplished without DFID's abolition and that it was a "wrong and regressive move".

His successor to Downing Street, Brown, said that "it's sad the government is abolishing one of the UK's great international asset".

But Conservative figures have also expressed concern, including former prime minister David Cameron, who argued that the end of DFID "will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas".

Multiple charities, including Oxfam, the British Red Cross, and the ONE Campaign have also reacted t the announcement.

Oxfam decried the decision as putting "politics above the needs of the poorest people", adding that "The Foreign office may be excellent at diplomacy, but it has a patchy record of aid delivery and is not as transparent as DFID".

Gayle Smith, President and CEO of the ONE campaign said that "scrapping this world-class institution now — during a global pandemic that demands a global response — is perplexing at best and at worst a dangerous step backwards".

Her counterpart at the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, said that DFID had allowed charities like his "to deliver effective and accountable assistance to where it is most needed" and stressed that "protecting the focus and quality of aid must be paramount.

In December, when plans to merge DFID with FCOs were first floated, 100 charities had issued a joint statement warning that "UK aid risks becoming a vehicle for UK foreign policy, commercial and political objectives, when it first and foremost should be invested to alleviate poverty".

'Far more coherent'

Asked about the criticism on Tuesday evening during the government's daily COVID-19 briefing from Downing Street, Johnson declared it "extraordinary" that the merger hadn't been done earlier as it is "far more coherent".

He added that the merger "is to make sure we get better bang for our buck".

"I'm a massive admirer of the dedication, idealism of ou aid professionals but what I want to see if greater integration (...) with our overall foreign objectives," he added.