Tony Blair: UK aid cuts and DFID closure a 'long-term strategic mistake'

Tony Blair, former U.K. prime minister. Photo by: Paul Kagame Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Closing the U.K. Department for International Development and cutting the aid budget was a “long-term strategic mistake,” according to former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain’s development sector “was a major calling card” for the country internationally and “it was a big part of our identity, the fact that we were leaders in aid and development,” Blair told Devex.

Blair, who represented the Labour Party as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, repeated his opposition to the current Conservative government’s aid cuts and the “abolition” of DFID — which his government established shortly after being elected in 1997.

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While he acknowledged that the government of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron enshrined the 0.7% aid spending into law, he said the COVID-19 pandemic had given Boris Johnson’s government “cover” to cut it, and to “get rid of DFID” altogether.

The current government’s decision to reduce the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income has left a gaping £4.5 billion ($6.2 billion) hole in the official development assistance budget, leaving myriad projects in jeopardy. The country’s donation to relief for Yemen — described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — was cut by nearly 60% this month, and more reductions are expected for other crises where the U.K. has been a significant donor.

“It's a long-term strategic mistake, because DFID was established as a major arm of soft power for the U.K. [DFID] was regarded as the premier development agency in the world … at least arguably.”

— Tony Blair, former U.K. prime minister

The U.K.’s development sector has also accused the government of withholding information about the aid cuts. “It doesn't surprise me that they're not being very transparent about it, because … they don't really regard the sector as partners,” Blair said. “They regard them as, you know, irritating pressure groups.”

While Blair said he understood the “politics behind” the government’s actions, he continued: “It's not a decision that will be unpopular in broad political terms in the U.K. But it's a long-term strategic mistake, because DFID was established as a major arm of soft power for the U.K. [DFID] was regarded as the premier development agency in the world … at least arguably.”

“And, you know, a lot of people in the U.K. don't really see this but I mean, there are millions of people that have been helped,” Blair added.

He said there were “legitimate questions around DFID” including on how it could better coordinate with the U.K.’s diplomatic arm, previously housed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The two departments were merged in September, to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. But “all of these could have been answered within the existing structure,” said Blair.

He continued by saying that while the effects may not be obvious immediately, “over time, it will become obvious that [the U.K. has] downgraded our position in the development space.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.