Tuesday was a truly awful day – the fourth anniversary of the murder of our dear friend, Jo Cox MP, a great humanitarian who worked tirelessly to protect civilians and fight poverty. It was also the day that the Tories chose to announce that they are abolishing the Department for International Development (DfID).
The creation of DfID as an independent department was one of the greatest achievements of the last Labour government. We set the UK on the path to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and by the time we had left office UK aid was helping lift three million people out of poverty each year.
The scrapping of DfID is a shameful decision by this Tory government. By law, UK aid is meant to be focused on poverty reduction – not given for any other reason. The best way to ensure that, is through an independent department with a Secretary of State around the cabinet table. Aid spent by other departments is consistently rated poorly by independent auditors for its transparency, value for money, and – most importantly – its effectiveness.
When development agencies sit under the Foreign Office, that focus gets subverted. Before DfID was created by Labour, the Pergau dam affair saw the Tories spend hundreds of millions of pounds in UK aid linked to a major arms deal. In Australia, the scrapping of AusAid has seen them lose much of their expertise, and seen aid diverted to pay for looking after refugees within Australia rather than on development projects abroad – an important need, but not one that should be paid for out of the aid budget.
The Tories’ own statement decries the fact that we give as much aid to Zambia as we do to the Ukraine, more to Tanzania than to the Balkans. Of course the people of the Ukraine and the Balkans deserve our support – but Zambia and Tanzania have greater levels of poverty, so they must continue to receive our aid.
We are not here to argue that absent-minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan should keep her job, but having a Secretary of State around the cabinet table is essential. It should mean that development issues are discussed at the highest level of government, and that when cabinet discusses the UK’s approach to a global crisis or the G20 or G7 summit, the Secretary of State is there to push for development issues to be part of that agenda.
Quite obviously, there is a global crisis happening right now that Britain and DfID should be playing a leading role in tackling – one that is hitting the world’s poorest hard. Just at a time when DfID, with its two decades’ worth of expertise, should be helping lead the global response, they have been sidelined. Just when the world needs global leadership, this Tory government is not only nowhere to be seen, but making the problem worse. Shame on them.
What now? The truth is that, enabled as they have been with such a large majority, there is little we can do to stop it. But for Jo, and for the millions of people who are helped by the UK’s life-saving aid, we owe it to them to keep fighting. The 0.7% aid spending target remains and, unlike this change, is enshrined in law – so if the government wants to drop it, there will need to be a vote.
And where there is a vote, there is a chance – so let’s organise as best we can. Ensuring transparency and accountability on how aid is now spent is essential, so we also have to push for the international development select committee to continue, even if it morphs into something similar to the environmental audit committee.
We will also continue our campaign for the ‘Responsibility to Protect civilians’ – another important cause of Jo’s – and we’ll be launching a speakers’ network later in the summer to raise awareness of humanitarian causes with activists from Syria, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Kosovo. Ultimately though, the only way to ensure that the UK has an independent DfID and an ethical foreign policy is with a Labour government. So let’s do all we can to get behind Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Preet Kaur Gill.
Finally, this news should not stop us from celebrating Jo’s life and causes, and showing that we have #MoreInCommon than divides us – there is still time to get involved in the The Great Get Together that the Jo Cox Foundation is organising for this weekend. Please go to greatgettogether.org to see how you can join in.