History of UK international aid reveals a stark political divide – Brian Wilson

By abolishing the Department for International Development, Boris Johnson is following in the footsteps of Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher, writes Brian Wilson.
Margaret Thatcher abolished the Ministry of Overseas Development in 1979 (Picture: PA)Margaret Thatcher abolished the Ministry of Overseas Development in 1979 (Picture: PA)
Margaret Thatcher abolished the Ministry of Overseas Development in 1979 (Picture: PA)

Getting rid of the Department for International Development was predictable based on history.

Established by Harold Wilson as the Ministry for Overseas Development, it was returned to the Foreign Office by Ted Heath. In 1974, Wilson restored it. In 1979, Thatcher abolished it. In 1997, Tony Blair brought it back as DfID. The ideological fault line is not hard to spot.

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At the heart of that divide is the question of what aid is for? Most of us might think the relief of poverty and giving poor countries the opportunity to improve their prospects. However, that is far from unanimous.

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Boris Johnson ridiculed the fact “we give as much aid to Zambia as Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security”. As Oxfam pointed out, “more than half of Zambians live on less that $1.90 a day while extreme poverty in Ukraine is near zero”.

While Johnson wants aid money linked to European security, others prefer trade – reviving memories of the 1990s Pergau scandal when cash was poured into a dam in Malaysia whose government then bought £1 billion of UK arms.

Separating overseas aid priorities from other departments can create problems but putting them all into one big foreign policy pot ensures far more – and jeopardises the “soft power” respect DfID has won for the UK around the world.

Incidentally, I was amused to hear the SNP’s Ian Blackford blustering about the wickedness of what is proposed since the merger of aid into a Foreign Office is exactly what their 2014 White Paper promised for an independent Scotland. I suppose Mr Blackford’s line of defence could be that nobody was expected to believe anything which appeared in that infamous document.

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