Opinion: British prime minister's decision to end UK aid's focus on poverty smacks of racism

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo by: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unilaterally decided to end the Department for International Development’s independent mandate and, with it, the practical means through which the country achieves its written and legal commitment to poverty reduction. The way in which the decision was taken ignored procedural precedent and smacks of racism, as do the steps being taken to dismantle oversight and accountability over future aid decisions.

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The decision puts at risk the clear focus on poverty reduction and duty to report through a dedicated department and secretary of state, built up through the International Development Act 2002, the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, and the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. There will no longer be a Cabinet-level minister whose primary responsibility and accountability will be to ensure 0.7% of gross national income is spent on the goal of poverty reduction.

Going even further in dismantling accountability for the U.K.’s aid budget, Johnson has simultaneously scrapped the International Development Committee, which has carefully scrutinized the effectiveness of aid spent by the country’s government for decades. In my opinion, aid expenditure had been more thoroughly examined than any other area of government spending. In addition to the National Audit Office, U.K. aid spending also had its own specific auditing and evaluation body: the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The need to formally address racism in decision-making is not abstract and will be relevant in the aid prioritization decisions yet to come.

Far from finding that DFID’s aid spending is, in Johnson’s words, a “giant cashpoint in the sky,” ICAI has found consistent evidence for DFID’s strong impact on poverty and the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. It is likely that the prime minister wants to avoid this sort of scrutiny because ICAI and the select committee have, in recent years, criticized how departments other than DFID — including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office — have spent a growing portion of the aid budget. Indeed, it seems that Johnson would prefer to use the aid budget to win favors for strategic advantage or to sweeten trade deals without the prying eyes of the media and the British public — and minus scrutiny from Parliament.

This abandonment of aid for poverty reduction and its accountability structure is not only wrong, it is racist. The newly updated definition of “racism” — coined by Kennedy Mitchum and being considered for adoption by the Merriam-Webster dictionary — is “prejudice combined with social and institutional power.” This is a clear example of this at play.

The decision to close DFID will likely impact the health of millions of poor and vulnerable people of color, many of whom are living in countries that were formerly colonized by the U.K. and where the skin color of these populations — among other things — was used as a false justification for their exploitation and abasement.

And yet this decision was taken in haste, primarily by an elite, white, male leader — Johnson — without consulting Cabinet or Parliament, let alone any organizations or governance mechanisms in which people of color are represented. Even if Johnson’s track record on addressing racism was faultless — which it is not — leaving such an impactful decision to one white man who consulted only a handful of white colleagues, all of whom are inevitably prone to unconscious bias, should be severely criticized as poor governance.

The need to formally address racism in decision-making is not abstract and will be relevant in the aid prioritization decisions yet to come. Johnson suggested a change of focus in the future — from poverty reduction to security — stating that “we give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security. We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling.”

Previously, decisions such as these would have been put through a value-for-money options analysis, looking at the “four E’s”: economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and equity. As soon as equity is considered, it becomes quickly clear that the relatively low number of marginalized people in extreme poverty in Ukraine — with 6.4% living on less than $1.90 per day in 2015 — compared with Zambia — with 54.4% — means that switching aid in this way represents poor value for money. Stepping back from the technocratic terms, this means that more people living in extreme poverty will die in countries like Zambia than if the aid had not been switched away.

Furthermore, there should be consideration of the extent to which the U.K. carries historical responsibility for the structural causes of poverty in territories that it previously colonized, such as Zambia. When such decisions are taken by white, British politicians and officials, they could well be characterized as demonstrating racism. If this is indicative of a future where aid prioritization decisions are taken remotely — with little involvement of those who are representative of the people of color affected — this could be seen as institutional racism.

Steps for the UK government to take

In the time of Black Lives Matter — and as the U.K. government seeks to promote the new concept of a “global Britain” — Johnson and FCO, which is now responsible for the aid budget, need to lead from the top on anti-racism. This should include taking proactive steps to address Britain’s historical relationship with ex-colonies, including its role in slavery and white supremacy.

Aid prioritization decisions should not be rushed and need to be carefully considered using evidence and the established value-for-money criteria. Furthermore, the profiles of who is involved in key decisions must be considered and proactive steps to address racism and unconscious bias should be taken with speed.

This will require an examination of how decision-making processes involve those representing the people who will be most affected by such decisions, especially when lives are at stake. U.K. aid should leave no one behind and ensure that decisions are taken based on the principle of “nothing about us without us.”

In practical terms, the government should unambiguously restate that the purpose of the aid budget is poverty reduction and set up an oversight process that is truly representative of the people and countries being supported with that aid. This should be mirrored by arrangements at the country level so that local people and representative organizations can scrutinize and hold U.K. ambassadors to account for their decisions.

The power of this oversight should be reinforced with effective scrutiny by ICAI and a new parliamentary committee with responsibility for ensuring that the provisions of the International Development Act and the focus of aid on poverty reduction is upheld.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tim Boyes-Watson

    As global director of alliances and advocacy at Humentum, Tim Boyes-Watson is responsible for creating an influential global network of those working to improve how organizations achieve social good. Before the merger of InsideNGO, LINGOs, and Mango to create Humentum, Boyes-Watson served as Mango’s CEO.