U.K. aid leadership woes, Syria cross-border relief, and Australia's bushfires: This week in development

Volunteers and rescue officers contain a bushfire south of Ulladulla, Australia. Photo by: AAP Image / Dean Lewins / via Reuters

U.K. aid in limbo, a last-minute agreement on Syrian assistance, and the international response to Australia’s bushfires. This week in development:

Rumors are still swirling about the fate of the U.K. Department for International Development under the leadership of newly empowered Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While aid advocates have found some relief following reports that a plan to fold the U.K. aid agency into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has been scrapped, they now harbor new concerns that Johnson might eliminate the role of secretary of state for international development. That position, which is currently filled by Alok Sharma, could see its responsibilities handed over to the foreign secretary, currently Dominic Raab, The Times newspaper reported. Aid advocates have balked at that idea. “Diverting aid towards U.K. foreign policy, commercial and political objectives would undermine the U.K.’s global influence at a critical moment, and this remains a real risk if DFID is merged or loses its dedicated Secretary of State,” wrote Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond. One worry is that other agencies are less transparent than DFID about how they spend U.K. foreign aid money. According to the latest findings from campaign group Publish What You Fund, while DFID scores “very good” on the Aid Transparency Index, seven other agencies fail to meet the U.K. government’s targets for transparent aid spending.

The United Nations Security Council reached a last-minute agreement to authorize cross-border aid to Syria on Friday but eliminated two border crossings and halved the duration of that authorization — from 12 to six months — in the process. While there had been fears the Security Council might fail to reach an agreement altogether, aid groups widely criticized the compromise arrangement, charging that it risks cutting off lifesaving assistance to millions of people affected by the war in Syria and, more recently, by Turkey’s incursion across the northern border. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, called the agreement “a striking step backward for the people of Syria and for the reputation of the Security Council.” Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has played spoiler to Western countries’ efforts to keep the border crossings open, arguing that aid can be delivered from within Syria now that the government has retaken control of most of the territory once held by opposition forces. Humanitarian organizations say there is no viable alternative to the relief supply chains that the U.N. has been able to coordinate. “If an alternative is not found, major medical facilities will be impacted because they do not have supplies and it is impossible to get the supplies through Damascus,” said Sahar Atrache, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International. The pared-down agreement comes as aid groups face heightened security and access concerns in the wake of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

International disaster responders are looking for ways to support the firefighting and relief effort in Australia — and meeting mixed reactions from Australian authorities. In response to a request for assistance from the government of Australia, the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known for disaster response in low-income countries, has deployed four advisers to Australia and authorized $100,000 from the agency’s International Disaster Account to help assess needs and support emergency response efforts in affected areas. “While high-income countries often have the resources to manage the majority of disasters on their own, disasters of a substantial magnitude can test the capacity of any country, as evidenced by USAID’s response to the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, and the 2017 floods in Canada, among others,” acting USAID Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala wrote to Devex. In contrast, Australia has so far declined offers of assistance from the European Union. “The Australian minister sincerely thanked us for the EU's readiness to help but said that for the moment it is still not needed, [though] they might reconsider in the case of identifying additional needs in the future,” an EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to commission rules, told Devex. Bushfires have so far claimed 28 lives, burned an estimated 10 million hectares, and left the country’s biggest cities breathing hazardous air for weeks.

Brussels Correspondent Vince Chadwick contributed reporting.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.