As the government rolls out its merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Office (FCO), with the awkward title of FCDO, we would do well to remember what happened the last time a Tory government tried to put diplomacy and aid in the same box.
That was in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. A few years later it led to one of the greatest scandals of modern times, when aid for an expensive and uneconomic dam in Pergau, Malaysia, was granted in exchange for a major arms deal.
In 1994, the High Court ruled that this was unlawful, heralding tighter scrutiny of British aid programs and the eventual creation of an independent DFID by the Blair government, with a full cabinet minister, a clear mission – to eradicate poverty around the world – and a laudable commitment to the UN’s target that 0.7 per cent of GDP should be allocated to aid. A commitment the Liberal Democrats protected in law when in government a few years later.
DFID is now regarded as a model for aid donors everywhere. While perceptions of our country in the wider world have taken something of a nosedive since the Brexit-fuelled chaos of the past few years, DFID has remained a jewel in the crown of Britain’s global presence. It has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s most transparent aid donors, praised for the effectiveness of its spending: an accolade which other government departments, including the FCO, have so far failed to achieve.
Among other things, the UK’s departure from the European Union’s stage is mourned deeply by the EU institutions, whose own aid policies and practice benefitted greatly from engagement with DFID. By working together with the EU on aid, DFID helped to reach even more of the world’s most vulnerable, saving lives and lifting people out of poverty.
The new mission statement of FCDO stresses “pursuing national interests and projecting the UK as a force for good in the world”. It goes on to talk about promoting the interests of British citizens, safeguarding the UK’s security, defending our values, and then, almost as an afterthought, “reducing poverty and tackling global challenges with our international partners”.
The implication is that the old DFID mission, that of fighting poverty, will now be an afterthought. That’s not to say that the other points aren’t vitally important, but that those points exemplify why FCO and DFID are best kept as two distinct departments. Tackling poverty and promoting British interests are two distinct targets, which cannot always effectively cross paths.
Taken as a whole, the statement is an invitation to another Pergau scandal. To take one aspect, there is a major role for aid in security matters, and DFID has been a leader in the field for some time. But if wider aid considerations are entirely subservient to the priorities of diplomats and generals then the potential for abuse is rife. Moreover the FCO, now the political master again, has a poor track record in financial integrity, and its culture is ill-adapted to the accountability requirements of today’s world.
To make matters worse, there are heavy hints that despite Dominic Raab’s assurances to the contrary, the 0.7 per cent commitment is under threat as the Chancellor looks for ways to cut public spending in the wake of the pandemic. This, at a time when aid to poorer countries, whose health systems are often in a dire condition, is needed more than ever. And let’s not forget this is a global pandemic. What infects them invariably infects us, meaning that no one is safe from this virus until we are all safe.
FCDO may well prove to be a car crash waiting to happen. At the very least, we in parliament must ensure that the high level of scrutiny on aid must not be diluted by the pursuit of “national interest” of the sort that gave us Pergau.
I am proud of the Liberal Democrats’ record on UK aid spending, of the things we have helped achieve to lift people out of poverty. As the party’s new lead on Foreign Affairs, I will not sit back and let the Conservatives undermine that progress. If the pandemic has made us realise anything it should be that our world is more interlinked than ever before. Now is the time to help each other, not turn our backs on those most in need.
Layla Moran is the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development