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[LONDON] The world’s second-biggest global donor among developed countries has announced it will strip its aid ministry of independence by merging it with the country’s foreign office, leaving a question mark over billions of pounds in British funding for aid and research programmes.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary will now make decisions on aid spending, in line with British priorities overseas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament yesterday (16 June).

Much research and innovation in low- and middle-income countries relies on support from DFID, which last year provided £11.1 billion in assistance. Zoonotic disease experts this week highlighted how DFID-funded research is informing the global COVID-19 response.

“Aligning foreign policy and development goals must not mean losing sight of the UK’s role in improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy and advocacy, Wellcome

The move comes as conservative administrations around the world tighten the criteria for aid spending and follows similar agency restructures in Australia, Canada and Norway.

United States President Donald Trump cited national interest when he announced in April that the US – the world’s largest donor – would stop funding the World Health Organization over China influence fears. This was followed with a threat to withdraw from the WHO.

Australia disposed of its AusAID agency in 2013. The US and Australia spend 0.17 per cent and 0.23 per cent, respectively, of their gross national incomes on development assistance, well short of the 0.7 target agreed by developed countries in 1970.

The UK’s new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is expected to be established in early September. It will be led by the Foreign Secretary, who will “be empowered to decide which countries receive or cease to receive British aid while delivering a single UK strategy for each country overseen by the National Security Council, which I chair,” Johnson said.

“For too long,” Johnson said, “UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests or to the values that the UK wishes to express or the priorities – diplomatic, political or commercial – of the government of the UK.”

Johnson said the UK gave “as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”

The announcement left UK development organisations mired in confusion as only days earlier the cross-party International Development Committee released its interim findings on the effectiveness of UK aid, which concluded: “This Committee advocates strongly for the retention of the current standalone Ministry of State model for international development, with a Cabinet level Minister.”

The final objectives of the new department will be shaped by the outcome of the review, expected in the autumn, Johnson’s office said.

In December, more than 100 charities called on the UK government to retain DFID as an independent ministry, fearing a merger with the foreign office would mean UK aid would “become a façade for UK foreign policy, commercial interests and political objectives”.

Many UK-based aid organisations fear the change will have a negative impact on the world’s most vulnerable people. Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy and advocacy at London-based Wellcome, the world’s second-largest non-government medical research funder, said in a statement: “Aligning foreign policy and development goals must not mean losing sight of the UK’s role in improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people – or any commitment to the values vital to achieving this.

“The aid budget must not be used as a diplomatic lever.”

Melissa Leach, director at the UK’s Institute for Development Studies, said: “It is disappointing that today’s announcement by the Prime Minister has been taken without due consultation as promised.

“Questions also remain about the evidence on which this decision was made, and whether it will result in greater value for money and strengthened international engagement.”

Several organisations contacted by SciDev.Net declined to comment, citing the fact they currently receive funding from DFID.

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