LONDON — The proportion of the U.K.'s aid spending on the poorest and most conflict-affected countries will not be reduced, despite the closure of the Department for International Development, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday.
Raab, who will lead the department that DFID becomes part of in September — the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office — answered questions from politicians following the surprise announcement of the merger this week. International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan was not present at the session.
The prime minister's speech raised several red flags about how official development assistance will be used by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
In a marked softening of the government’s tone — and without references to using aid for security objectives, which were heavily present when the prime minister announced the decision — Raab reiterated the U.K.’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance and to pursuing girls' education programs.
Harriett Baldwin, a former minister of state for Africa, asked whether Raab would be a strong voice in the Cabinet for the world’s poorest, prioritize girls’ education, and reassure politicians that “the proportion of [the] aid budget spent in poorest and most conflict-affected countries will continue to be significant and at least where it is now.”
“It’s a yes on all three counts,” Raab replied. “Indeed, one of the first things I did yesterday was to speak to professor Paul Collier, one of a number of experts in the field, to look at how we can really maximize our aid effort alongside our foreign policy, our trade, and our wider security international objectives.”
DFID currently spends around two-thirds of its country-specific bilateral ODA in least-developed countries — far more than other ODA-spending departments.
Other questions around other key aspects of U.K. aid policy went unanswered during Thursday’s session. More than once, Raab was asked about the U.K.’s adherence to the rules set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee — which develops the guidelines on aid spending for most of the world’s major donors — but he did not acknowledge the question.
Later in the day, however, Conservative Peer Baroness Evans did address the question in the House of Lords. “I can confirm ... we will continue to spend ODA money according to legal requirements and continue to abide by the OECD-DAC rules for aid,” she said.
Asked about the dangers of pursuing tied aid and the possibility of repeating the 1994 Pergau Dam scandal — the incident that led to DFID being formed as an independent department in the first place — Raab said, “The world has moved on, policy has moved on, accountability and governance has moved on since the 1980s.”
Raab was also asked several times about the future of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, a government agency for monitoring ODA that was created in 2011 by Andrew Mitchell, DFID’s then-secretary of state, and that has received widespread acclaim for its role in improving U.K. aid spending and procedures.
Again, the foreign secretary did not mention ICAI in his responses, saying only that “we will want to maintain — if not increase — maximum scrutiny over the aid budget and indeed the functioning of this merger.”
Another key component of the machinery for monitoring and scrutinizing ODA — Parliament’s International Development Committee — is also under threat, with the government saying it should be dissolved alongside DFID. The committee’s chair, Sarah Champion, received a letter Tuesday from Raab and Trevelyan informing her that the group would be closed, although Raab acknowledged Thursday that the decision ultimately lies with Parliament.
Update, June 18: This story was updated to include new information.