LONDON — The U.K. does not “see a divergence between our moral interest and the U.K. national interest,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told politicians Wednesday as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office launched.
His comments echoed a new description of the department’s work on the government’s website, which states that: “We pursue our national interests and project the UK as a force for good in the world. We promote the interests of British citizens, safeguard the UK’s security, defend our values, reduce poverty and tackle global challenges with our international partners.”
FCDO opened its doors as news reports circulated about the fate of the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid and the possibility of using official development assistance for military and intelligence purposes.
Raab branded the reports about using aid for security as “tittle-tattle” going on before the review of the U.K. budget and said that “not an element of it has reflected or characterized the conversations that I’ve had across government.”
Pressed on the matter, he later added that “ODA can already be used for some MoD-related activity,” referring to the Ministry of Defence. “You wouldn’t expect me to comment on operational intelligence matters.”
Further key appointments within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office emerged on Monday as a news report raised questions over the future of the 0.7% spending commitment.
He said the government was “absolutely committed to harnessing our aid budget and development expertise to help the most vulnerable around the world. ... I think there was … agreement across the House on this that we don’t see the divergence between our moral interest and the U.K. national interest in that regard.”
The Conservative Party government has long advocated spending aid in the national interest, but it is often a controversial concept among development professionals.
Raab also said the 0.7% aid spending target is a “manifesto commitment, and it’s enshrined in law,” adding that the prime minister was “very clear” on the matter. Asked if the U.K. would continue to adhere to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee rules — agreed on by many of the world’s major donors to govern how they spend aid — Raab said the rules were an “important part of the global infrastructure” but made no further commitments.
Government ministers have also reiterated the priority areas for development — which are protected from the £2.9 billion cut to this year’s aid budget — as climate change, girls' education, COVID-19, poverty reduction for the world’s “bottom billion,” and “Britain as a force for good.”
Raab told politicians that this last category includes a “freedom agenda” involving a media campaign being carried out with the Canadian government and Magnitsky Sanctions, which are targeted against human rights violators internationally.
FCDO’s mission statement and full organigram have not yet been made public, and it is not known if they already exist in their final form. The department will employ around 17,300 staff members in 280 locations globally, with British civil servants accounting for roughly a third of them and the rest locally employed.
A research and evidence division has also been established, which will “develop and deliver high impact research” and “new technologies and innovations that can help solve pressing development challenges,” as well as “test high potential interventions” and “support the delivery of UK government objectives.”
Raab reiterated that he will maintain overall political responsibility for development work and that there will not be a separate minister. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who previously led the Department for International Development, has returned to the backbenches.
In addition to a senior leadership team revealed two weeks ago, Nick Dyer — DFID’s last permanent secretary, who was notably absent from the lineup — will become special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs “to make sure we’re coaxing and cajoling other countries to follow our lead, because that’s the way we deliver the greatest impact and help alleviate the potential suffering a second wave and all the famine that would bring,” Raab said.
A £119 million ($159 million) aid package for coronavirus and famine relief in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel, South Sudan, and Sudan was also announced as FCDO opened.
In an email to staff, permanent undersecretary Philip Barton named six directors general and a political director for the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.
Despite direct questions, Raab did not commit to the continued independence of ICAI and denied that specific “deficiencies” had sparked the review. But he told politicians: “We are keeping and reinforcing ICAI. I pay tribute to the work it does. … It was not so much that it was deficient, but actually that it could do even better. …
“The illustration that I would give … is not just providing critical analysis, but with a renewed and additional focus — so not subtracting, but adding — on practical policy recommendations. What I really want … is critical scrutiny, practical advice on how we can make sure in the combined FCDO we combine maximum impact, particularly in the dispense of precious taxpayers’ money.”
The fate of the parliamentary International Development Committee, which also monitors U.K. development work, is still a “matter for the House,” Raab said.