According to this morning’s Times, Boris Johnson has renewed his drive for the Foreign Office to assume greater control over the British aid budget.
The Foreign Secretary has apparently announced that more money will be spent to support the UK’s broader foreign policy, rather than being directly strict at poverty relief.
At a time when the Party is hugely unlikely to abandon the progressive virility test that is the 0.7 per cent spending floor, greater Foreign Office influence over the aid budget would be a sensible reform.
The aid budget is – or should be – a substantial pillar of British soft power, and it would be sensible to harmonise the Government’s overseas spending with its foreign policy objectives.
Such a policy would also recognise that aid is not somehow ‘apolitical’. Such spending can have an enormous impact on the economies and politics of recipient countries, so it makes little sense to have the Foreign Office pursuing one, official, foreign policy in a given country and the Department for International Development directing funds according to an entirely different set of priorities.
Although Theresa May declined Johnson’s call to merge the two departments (although she has created some cross-departmental ministers), such a move would be in line with her own instincts – revealed in the ill-fated manifesto – to assume more ministerial discretion over our overseas development spending.
Broadening the scope of the aid budget might also help to ensure that the 0.7 per cent is spent more effectively. As I wrote last year, DfID has previously suffered for being mandated to spend, spend, spend regardless of whether or not it can identify sufficient worthwhile projects. If the introduction of Foreign Office priorities puts new, better spending options on the table that would be all to the good.
Finally, it is worth noting that Johnson is also tying this ability to Brexit:
“He added that Brexit would give the UK more control over how aid funding currently handed to European Union projects is spent. “We are 25 per cent of EU aid spending,” he said. “We’re a massive player in these things. In spite of our bulk and our overseas aid projection, we never got the influence in the European Commission that we needed,” he said.”
This is an important point. If the Tories are to ‘win the peace’ on Brexit, they need wherever possible to link the powers brought back from Brussels to tangible gains on issues that important sections of voters actually care about.
Michael Gove has been doing this on animal welfare, and now the Foreign Secretary is following suit, but it must be adopted as a conscious strategy across the Government if it is to have any chance of really making an impact by the next election.