Government denies raid on foreign aid budget to help plug coronavirus black hole

The UK has reiterated a pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid even as suspicion mounts that the government seeks to divert money away from the world’s poorest.

A new government department repeated the spending commitment as it opened on Wednesday with the merger of the long-standing Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the relatively-newer Department for International Development (DFID).

“The UK has committed to spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid, and the formation of the [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] FCDO today will make sure our diplomatic influence and development expertise are combined to the best effect on the global stage,” it said.

But critics doubt this will be the reality, instead seeing the move as a diminution of the UK’s ability to use soft power to help those in crisis.

Adding to these concerns, the chancellor was reported on Monday to be eyeing a chunk of the £15 billion spent annually on foreign development to help plug a black hole in UK coffers caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Downing Street dismissed the reports as “speculation”.

Tobias Ellwood, who served as a minister in the foreign office and in the Ministry of Defence, said anyone contemplating a raid on the UK’s development budget does not understand the power and influence that expenditure buys.

“This is really, really short sighted,” he said.

“Well targeted aid can strengthen relations” with other countries, which could help to generate future trade deals, Mr Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, said. “That then helps the Treasury – you’re making the cake bigger.”

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Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, said he believes the government’s real intention is to change the definition of what constitutes overseas development assistance.

Such a move could see money diverted from the world’s most needy to more security-focused tasks such as purchasing military equipment.

“It won’t be spending on development anymore and that would be a big mistake,” Mr Mitchell said.

The UK’s development budget is already taking a big hit because of the impact of coronavirus on the economy, with funding on programmes shrinking by £2.9 billion this financial year.

The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is seen by many DFID staffers as an FCO take-over rather than a merger of equals.

A Whitehall source said there have been mutterings about how the overall service will still be called the “diplomatic service” rather than the “diplomatic and development service”.

There is also resentment that the title of the Cabinet minister in charge – Dominic Raab – will remain Foreign Secretary and not be stretched to include a mention of development.

“Let’s face it – no one is going to say [‘Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary’]. It would take half an hour,” the source said.

In its first act, the new ministry announced a £119 million aid package to help combat the double threat of coronavirus and famines in Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel, South Sudan and Sudan.

Nick Dyer, the former top civil servant at DFID, was also named as the UK’s first “Special Envoy for Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs”.

Mr Raab said: “Coronavirus and famine threaten millions in some of the world’s poorest countries, and give rise to direct problems that affect the UK, including terrorism and migration flows.

“Global Britain, as a force for good in the world, is leading by example and bringing the international community together to tackle these deadly threats, because it’s the right thing to do and it protects British interests.

“We can only tackle these global challenges by combining our diplomatic strength with our world-leading aid expertise.”

Boris Johnson drew widespread criticism – including from three former prime ministers – when he announced the plan to merge the FCO and DFID back in June.

The prime minister said at the time: “For too long frankly UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cash point in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interest.”

A sweeping, Whitehall review of foreign affairs, defence and security – called the integrated review – is expected to set out the new department’s priorities when it is published in November.

Diplomats have privately expressed surprised that the merger was announced ahead of the conclusion of the review rather than as a result of it.

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