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In June the Prime Minister announced that, after 23 years fighting poverty around the world, the Department for International Development (DfID) would cease to exist - at least as we know it.
Come September, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will launch; a merger of the development and foreign policy departments. This leaves the question – where is UK aid heading?
Abolishing DfID: an unwelcome announcement
The news of the merger was met with widespread condemnation from charities and political heavyweights, including three ex-prime ministers and two former Conservative International Development Secretaries. Concern joined other charities in writing to the Prime Minister, while our supporters protested the move on social media.
The reason for this outcry is clear.
Since its creation over two decades ago, DfID has championed progress in eradicating extreme poverty, tackling malnutrition, improving access to education and extending vaccinations to millions of children. The FCO, on the other hand, has a poor record. Though the FCO is currently responsible for approximately 5% of UK aid spend, independent reports show this aid achieves very little impact in terms of poverty reduction and, even more worryingly, has low levels of transparency and accountability.
By merging the departments the government risks compromising DfID’s high standards and unpicking hard-fought development gains. Indeed, DfID was created in part as a response to the then government's unlawful use of development funds to secure an arms deal.
How to ensure UK aid continues to reach the world’s poorest people
To protect the future of UK aid, it has been critically important to demonstrate strong public opposition to the merger. But, as the establishment of the new FCDO looms closer, we must ask ourselves a question; is it time to move past protest?
Come September, a new department with new priorities will be spending UK aid and we must do everything we can to make sure those priorities are the right ones. Concern has four key demands for the new FCDO department:
1. Prioritise reaching those furthest behind first.
This includes maintaining DfID’s commitment to spend at least 50% of UK aid in fragile and conflict-affected states. Within these countries, aid should focus on the most vulnerable groups such as the extreme poor, women and girls and people with disabilities.
2. Invest aid in areas which are shown to have the biggest impact on lifting people out of extreme poverty.
Among these are health and nutrition; education; social protection; and building long term resilience to conflict and climate change.
3. Humanitarian assistance should continue to be guided by the international humanitarian principles.
This means aid should be given on the basis of need, without discrimination between affected populations or favouring of any side in an armed conflict.
4. Uphold DFID’s high standards.
This means retaining staff expertise and committing to the same levels of transparency and accountability. All aid spending departments should attain a ‘good’ score on the Aid Transparency Index as a minimum qualifying criterion for spending UK aid.
The government must also maintain independent aid scrutiny bodies, such as the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) and the International Development Parliamentary Select Committee, which are critical for ensuring UK aid is effective in reaching those who need it.
By merging the departments the government risks compromising DfID’s high standards and unpicking hard-fought development gains.
Laser focus is needed now more than ever
Never has a focused UK aid strategy been more important. Coronavirus - and the subsequent social and economic impacts – has affected almost every country across the globe, but the developing world and places already experiencing conflict or extreme weather have been especially badly hit.
It’s estimated that the pandemic will push an additional 40-60 million people into extreme poverty and more than double the number of people facing severe food insecurity this year. We are already seeing evidence of this; in Syria, food prices have risen by over 200% compared to this time last year.
The creation of the FCDO comes at a time when the scale of humanitarian need in the world is set to soar. But it also comes at a time when the UK aid budget is shrinking. The amount the UK spends on aid is linked to the economy; 0.7% of Gross National Income to be exact. So, with the downturn in the UK economy, we will see up to £2.9 billion cut from the aid budget.
A smaller UK aid budget must therefore be laser-focused on reaching those who most need it and delivering the greatest impact.
Investment in nutrition is vital
We believe one of the areas where the new department must focus its attention is nutrition.
Increased hunger and malnutrition will be one of the biggest consequences of Covid-19. Due to the pandemic and its disruptions to food chains and livelihoods, an additional 6.7 million children could become chronically wasted (too thin for their age) this year. Combined with reduced access to health centres, this could lead to an additional 10,000 children dying every month.
Quality nutritious food fuels healthy child development and supports strong immune systems. It also improves educational performance and can boost a country’s economic performance by up to 10%.
Despite this, the UK’s support for nutrition has declined in recent years. The most recent figures from 2018 show a drop of 20% in funding compared to 2017 levels. What is more worrying still, the UK’s current commitments to nutrition run out in 2020 and the moment this year when they were due to make a new pledge, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, has been postponed to 2021.
We are working with MPs and other charities to highlight the scale of the problem to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, who is due to head up the FCDO in September. We are calling for the UK to urgently make a pledge this year to maintain its support for nutrition programmes, which are critical for child survival and development.
Such a pledge would signal that, in creating the FCDO, the UK has not turned its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, when they need us most.
The creation of the FCDO comes at a time when the scale of humanitarian need in the world is set to soar.
Our next steps
By uniting across the development sector, we have already made some progress. The government has promised to keep the commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid and assured the sector that reaching ‘the bottom billion’ will remain a priority.
But we know more is needed to make this a reality.
Concern will continue to push, alongside our colleagues across the development sector, for the highest possible standards in aid. We hope our supporters will stand with us and join us in taking action in the coming weeks.