How the UK Government is Politicising Foreign Aid and undermining Humanitarian Organisations

Updated: Jul 18, 2020



Just a few days ago Boris Johnson announced the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) with the UK’s foreign office. Previously, the DFID was an independent organisation responsible for the distribution of foreign aid. They were subject to scrutiny from Parliament, and were somewhat decentralised. However, the recent merger will now allow Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to have the final say on which countries receive foreign aid.


Johnson defended his actions claiming that the distinction between overseas aid and diplomacy were “artificial.” He drew on examples, asserting that the current system is flawed for committing ten times as much aid to Tanzania compared to Western Balkan countries vulnerable to Russian influence. What will this mean for aid in the likes of Tanzania where only 7% of students reach the international benchmark for reading and 25 million people live on less than $1.90/ day? Will the government still be committed to foreign aid, or is this simply an excuse to prioritise diplomacy at the cost of millions of lives?


In 2018 Trump cut $65 million of aid to Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), later cutting $300 million more: the entirety of the US’s commitment to UNRWA. This was seen as a political ploy to get Palestine to come to the negotiation table, but at what cost? 5.4 million refugees in dire need of schooling, hospital access and food lost out on $365 million of aid, simply because the foreign aid process in the US is politicised. A prime example of a country valuing diplomacy over humanitarian aid.


However, the negative consequences of such actions are not simply humanitarian. After all, an action motivated by political desires will undoubtedly result in political consequences. Cuts to UNRWA have enhanced the hardships faced by the Palestinian people, allowing groups such as Hamas to capitalise on the lack of presence of western support. When western powers stop funding for countries in dire need, local governments struggle to keep control and provide for their people, causing civil unrest and the empowerment of violent insurgents, who later look to threaten western countries. Today’s Yemen crisis was derived from a failure to bring about stability after the Arab Spring, a time where opposition groups and non-state actors thrived on the government’s inability to maintain control.


The UK is now extremely vulnerable to falling into the same trap as the US, because this merger creates a clear path for using aid as a tool to yield political and diplomatic improvements. This will result in the continuation of humanitarian crises and the creation of new political crises. There is a solid line between fundamental humanitarian principles and the need for political gain, and Boris Johnson has just managed to step over it in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. The United Nations core principles include: neutrality, impartiality and independence while the Red Crescent’s code of conduct states that aid should not be utilised to favour particular political standpoints. How will humanitarian organisations continue to work with a country that goes against its very principles?


A lack of decentralisation and neutrality in foreign aid means that the lines between a government’s political and humanitarian initiatives will continue to get blurred. Consequently, aid workers will no longer be able to rely on the shield of protection that their neutral position once offered. Countries such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria are all recipients of aid, yet do also suffer from civil unrest and the presence of insurgents. These insurgents look to target people that not only oppose their cause, but also ones that will cause the most political noise. As the perception of aid workers begins to change from ‘caring do-gooders’ to the face of a government’s political initiatives, it is likely that they will be targeted more so than they already are.


The anticipated politicisation of aid that this merger not only throws aid workers into the wildfire, allowing them to become targets, but subverts the current goals that humanitarian organisations strive to achieve.


“Too many cooks spoil the broth” is a phrase that sums up the government’s alleged reasons for the merger. They claim that currently there is a lack of oversight, and subsequently, money is not being efficiently spent. However true this may be in the case of foreign aid, too many cooks may surely spoil the broth, yet one cook could just as easily spoil it on their own. With this new merger, the government will have overarching power, a move that completely reverses the cherished decentralisation that governments in the past have pushed for.


By Abbasali HR Merali, BSc PPE Student at King's College London

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