The DfID merger is part of a long, ideological battle over development.
Established in 1997 by Labour, The Department for International Development was abolished at the beginning of September 2020 – subsumed into the FCO – killing off an internationally renowned institution, and plunging the UK aid program into uncertainty and disarray.
History repeats itself, especially when ideological battles are concerned. This is the third time a British Labour government has established an independent development agency, only for it to be torn down by the Tories. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s government established the Ministry for Overseas Development (MfOD), the first development ministry in the UK and one of the first in the world. The MfOD lasted only until Edward Health took power 6 years later, at which point it was collapsed into the Foreign Office.
Labour tried again, re-establishing the MfOD in 1974, now with a clear mission of explicit poverty-reduction, quite ground-breaking at the time. The MfOD succeeded in raising aid to 0.5 percent of national income – a level it would not reach again for over 30 years.
Nevertheless, when Thatcher came to power in 1979, the MfOD was abolished once more. By the end of the Tories’ long reign into the 1990s, it had become an inescapable fact that the aid program was in the service of British industry and the military-industrial complex, capped off by the Pergau Dam scandal, in which Malaysia was promised a 20 percent kickback in aid on a UK arms deal Thatcher was personally involved in securing.
So why did it take the Tories a full 10 years this time to do what they have done twice before in less than 10 weeks? Labour’s work to develop a best-practice development program has been an indisputable success, which has taken three successive Tory governments to slowly undermine to a point where it could finally be abolished.
The key elements of DfID’s successful formula were an ambitious plan for sustained and major reductions in global poverty, an expansion from provision of aid to a broader focus on development assistance, and a rejection of tied aid as short-sighted and inconsistent with effective development.
At the same time as the impact of the UK’s overseas pound grew, expenditure was ramped up too. From a paltry 0.26 percent of national income in 1997, ODA doubled as a share of income by 2006. This was the largest, most sustained rise in the UK’s post-colonial history.
DfID’s success created an enviable reputation in international circles. After 10 years in existence, there was a general recognition that DfID was amongst the best, if not the best, development agency in the world; a model for all others. This had far-reaching, beneficial effects on the UK’s reputation abroad, and supported British policy-makers and business people in their overseas endeavours.
All this is, basically, undeniable. But the idea of giving away money – even worse – to foreigners, is anathema to the Conservative Party. The squeeze on DfID started with an insistence on impossible amounts of evidence to ‘show impact’ and micromanagement of every project.
Then came the underhand tying of aid – UK aid projects hiring British firms and sources UK products, even when it made little sense. Under May and Johnson, the concept of aid itself was redefined, to include everything from paying for foreign dignitaries like the Pope to visit the UK, funding parts of the BBC and – back to Pergau – the use of aid to fund military purchases.
With no voice in Cabinet, the organisation in disarray, experienced policymakers muscled out by FCO staff and Boris at the helm, the brand of UKAid will quickly become mud. Indeed, when the Australian Liberal Party did the same thing in 2013, the previously reputable Ausaid immediately became an international laughing stock, and for instance began financing the illegal detention of asylum seekers on remote islands using their aid budget.
The DfID merge is also just a plain bad idea, irrespective of one’s position on aid. None of this will do anything to actually help the UK’s other foreign goals, as is hoped. Professionalism matters much more than cack-handed attempts at blackmailing countries in need. The wrongs of this new “mutual prosperity” approach will quickly spread globally, and the hostility and ill-intent that this approach breeds will create a wall between the UK and others, undermining the UK’s attempts to grow its exports or whatever other goal the Tories have in mind.
On every level, the government’s policy on aid and DfID should be opposed and by everyone, but especially by the Labour Party, who probably hold the mantle of being the world’s most stalwart supporters of development for the last 60 years.
In August, Labour International passed a motion condemning the DfID merger, but this should be just the beginning of a fight back against the policy. Many of us in Labour International are in a position to observe the effects of UK policy on the rest of the world in a way few others in the Labour Party are. It is our unique strength to be able to speak up on this issue, to ensure that our leaders are equipped with the most unassailable arguments and evidence to prove what a mess the Tories are making out in the world. By undermining the UK’s development program, the Tories have exposed themselves to damaging evidence on how their decisions impact the world’s most vulnerable people.
We have formed a new grassroots network in Labour International to continue to discuss this issue, and we encourage everyone who is passionate about international socialism to join in the discussion.
You can join the Labour International Development Network (LIDN) by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
N.B Articles, posts & comments by LIDN don’t necessarily reflect the views of the LI CLP.