Revamped British Foreign Office puts the focus on famine after aid merger

Revamped British Foreign Office puts the focus on famine after aid merger
Revamped British Foreign Office puts the focus on famine after aid merger

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Britain’s diplomatic service was merged on Wednesday with its overseas aid department in a shake-up that has been dogged by warnings that the development budget faces drastically reductions.

Dominic Raab, the head of the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, said he was making “a global call to protect the world’s poorest people” on the first day of joint operations by appointing Britain’s first special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs.

Announcing the new department, Mr Raab said Britain would lead a global drive to action to protect the world’s poor. The new envoy Nick Dyer, who had been the top official in the development department, was named as £119m was setaside to combat the rising threat of hunger.

“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,” he said.

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

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is merging with the Department for International Development today, which will have its budget grow from £2 billion (Dh9.8bn) to more than £16bn.

British diplomat Michael Aron, the ambassador to Yemen, took to Twitter to express his pride at being a founder member.

The move was part of Britain’s pledge to use its diplomacy and aid expertise “to fight back against the devastating impacts of coronavirus, looming famine, conflict and climate change”.

But there are growing worries that Britain will lose its position as an international development superpower if it hijacks the £14bn aid budget following reports it wants to divert money into developing cyber weapons and artificial intelligence drones.

In addition to extra military items, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is said to be considering a legal change in Britain’s commitment to the 0.7 per cent commitment in an attempt to avoid steep tax rises.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is under pressure from MPs concerned that the Conservatives will have to raise taxes to pay the enormous cost of the coronavirus pandemic with Britain’s debt now approaching £2 trillion.

Britain is committed by law to the 0.7 per cent Overseas Development Assistance aid payment so any change would require the support of MPs through primary legislation.

While the cut would be supported by right-wing Tory MPs, more moderate politicians are unlikely to back it.

“Cutting overseas aid fuels instability and that impacts on Britain’s position in the world,” said Tobias Ellwood, a former foreign minister. “The overseas aid funding speaks volumes in terms of our soft power. Cutting it would be a short-sighted move that fails to appreciate how well targeted aid can strengthen international relationships.”

It is understood that Mr Sunak could announce the cut in his November budget that will include diverting money to fund the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence projects.

However, Mr Johnson is expected to face opposition from within his own ranks if he tries to force it through.

“I don’t think the House of Commons would easily agree to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world,” said Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary.

Another Conservative moderate, Damian Green, MP, suggested any cut would be an error.

“It has been one of the policies that young people in particular most support. It’s also the right thing to do.”

The charity Oxfam said international organisations called for clarity over Whitehall’s international development plans.

“The Government must stick by its recent commitment to protect aid spending that pays for things like clean water, food and medicine to help the poorest people,” a spokesman said.

The cuts proposal was also widely condemned by opposition politicians saying the most impoverished countries would suffer.

In a tweet, Sarah Champion, the Labour Party chair of the Commons International Development Committee, wrote:

The merger itself is not supported by all. Former Tory MP Alistair Burt, who served in both departments as a 'double-hatted' minister said: “A stand-alone Dfid made a profound statement about the UK’s role abroad. Its international development meant it had a degree of independence from British foreign policy.

“But if the new department makes clear that alleviating poverty and development goals remains heart of the new department there should be no loss of soft power.”

Mr Raab sought to dismiss such concerns in his statement to mark the formation of the new expanded institution.

It added: “The formation of the FCDO today will make sure our diplomatic influence and development expertise are combined to the best effect on the global stage.”

The government has attempted to steer the focus away from reports that it will break its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid by announcing a new famine envoy.

Concerns have grown after media reports that development money will be diverted into defence and intelligence projects. In the inaugural announcement the department said it was “committed to spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid”.

Updated: September 2, 2020 07:33 PM

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