Boris Johnson’s Heat Level: Getting hotter, as national interests and foreign policy take over British foreign aid

  • + The UK’s aid office, Department For International Development, is merging with the Foreign Office.
  • + Aid now has foreign policy objectives alongside ending global poverty. 
  • + This move is part of a scheme for Britain now that it stands “alone” internationally. 
Source. Downing Street

Why is Johnson’s heat level getting hotter? 

Answer: He has been able to reshape the nation’s aid approach.

Last week, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the merger of two important foreign policy offices in the UK: the Department For International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Office. This merger and the general reduction of foreign aid budget has been long called for by right-wing media and a considerable number of MPs in the nation’s Parliament. Basically, the Prime Minister wants to give the Foreign Office more say in how Britain spends the 15 billion pound budget the DFID has and to ensure the projects the UK funds are aligned with its national security objectives. However, it is difficult to comprehend how the two different mandates of these organizations, one to reduce poverty globally and the other to advance the UK national interests, can coincide in the same office. 

While reconciling the objectives of the two offices is tricky, so are the new rules that would apply to British aid. For example, under the code of the DFID, which is drafted following OECD standards, military aid cannot be financed with the aid budget. This merger may allow for this to happen. Another example is the recommendation not to send aid to middle income countries, set once more by the OECD standards. According to a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, this shift in allocation of budget from the DFID to the Foreign Office will lead to an increase in funding to middle-income countries, instead of the poorest nations, for which it was initially destined.  

The report also states funds for aid might cease to be focused on poverty reduction and be used for UK national interests instead such as security, climate change and economic goals. The UK now seems to be positioning itself more as an investment and trading partner than a traditional aid donor. 

What is changing Johnson’s temperature? 

Answer: We are talking big money. 

The United Kingdom is the world’s second largest donor of aid following the United States. Ever since the 70’s, the UN has set a target for the budget of aid within each Member State of 0.7% of their GDP. The UK, while it always agreed with this target, did not fulfil it until 2013. However, the country went a step further by making this target a legal obligation in 2015. Now, the UK has to destine 0.7% of their GDP to aid. In the past, the country has managed to achieve this target. In 2016, it contributed 13.4 billion pounds to international aid and in 2017 it was the only G7 member to meet it once more according to the OECD. 

However, what this aid looks like may change dramatically. While the law is still in place, demanding 0.7% of the GDP to be destined to aid, the budget of the Foreign Office already shrunk to 1.1 billion pounds. Aid agencies fear the definition of aid might be altered so that funds that traditionally would not be considered aid start being so. The destination of this aid could also change to align with national security “objectives”. 

Currently, around 36% of the funds from the UK go to multilateral organizations such as the UN, while the rest (roughly 64%) is bilateral aid, or funds that go directly to developing nations. The largest receivers of British aid in 2016 were Pakistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. However, a recent report found that billions of pounds never really arrived at their destinations but ended up in tax havens. A study called Elite Capture of Foreign Aid actually tracked the flow of aid funds in 22 nations and found that 1/6 of it all ended up in tax havens such as Switzerland. This is not only the case of the British aid. Mismanagement of funds in aid systems unfortunately renders valid most criticism of the sector worldwide. 

What is driving Johnson? 

Answer: Getting the most out of the money for foreign policy objectives. 

There are many reasons behind the merger of the aid office, both internal and external. Internally, Johnson’s main criticism is that taxpayers are not getting the “maximum value” when it comes to aid. The amount and direction of aid bothers Johnson and other MPs around him. Lack of transparency and controversial misuse of funds is behind the shift. Labor MP Sarah Champion believes the controversies can no longer be ignored. She stated the UK should show global leadership in this area and reassure taxpayers that their money is being well spent and that their system is actually delivering the expected results of providing relief to the world’s poorest. 

Externally, this shift has more nationalistic tones. As Brexit approaches, this move is part of a broader scheme to prepare Britain to stand alone, internationally, after their departure from Europe. For Johnson, it makes little sense that diplomatic ties are not backed by aid funding and interests are not pursued through this money. When announcing the merger he stated: “It’s no use a British diplomat going in to see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent…if the next day another emanation of this government is going to arrive with a cheque for £250m.”

On the rhetoric, the broader shift towards pursuing foreign policy objectives through aid is more evident. Aid is often referred to as soft power, and there is no doubt Britain is struggling to retain this type of power around the world. Some argue that as the budget for aid has increased in the country, soft power has actually decreased in many regions, especially Africa. Maybe aligning aid with foreign policy helps.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Nationalism is taking over yet another front. 

The aid industry is a very complicated and highly controversial sphere of international relations. The overarching objective of the system is to provide relief and foster development of the world’s poorest nations and people.

However, there seems to be a new trend which coincides with the overall tone of British foreign policy as it leaves the European Union. Aid might no longer aim at reducing poverty and suffering abroad, but instead it is becoming a tool, a wealthy tool, for the UK to promote its external affairs.

Johnson is adopting a very “Trump-like” approach to the matter, seeing aid as part of a “deal” that could be better for the UK placing national interests above the overarching mandate to alleviate poverty. This approach, if taken by other nations, is likely to harm multilateralism. Unfortunately, the world’s most powerful nations seem to be agreeing in this hot new approach to aid.

Maria Paula Jijon

Research and Analysis Intern