In amongst the political noise this week, Tuesday marked the fourth anniversary of the murder of my friend, Jo Cox. On the same day, Boris Johnson chose to reinforce the Conservative’s nasty party reputation by announcing they are abolishing the Department for International Development. Jo was a champion for international development, a humanitarian who made it her mission to protect civilians and fight poverty, working across political parties to achieve this.
As Labour Leader Keir Starmer said in the Commons, Jo would have seen right through Johnson’s tactics.
The creation of DFID as an independent department is one of the great achievements of the last Labour government. Labour set the UK on the path to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, helping lift 3 million people out of poverty each year.
As Labour’s Campaign for International Development says, by law, UK aid is meant to be focused on poverty reduction, not for any other reason. The best way to ensure that is through an independent department, with a Secretary of State around the Cabinet table. Aid spent by other UK Government departments is consistently rated poorly by independent auditors for its transparency, value for money, and most importantly, its effectiveness.
And when development agencies sit under the Foreign Office, that focus gets subverted. Before the department was created by Labour, the Pergau dam scandal saw Tories spend hundreds of millions of pounds in UK aid linked to a major arms deal.Having a Secretary of State around the Cabinet table is also essential, because it increases the prospect of development issues being discussed at the highest levels of government. So when the Cabinet discusses the UK’s approach to a global crisis or G20 or G7 summits, the Secretary of State is there to push for international development issues to be part of the agenda.
In the middle of the current global crisis, the UK and the department for international development, with its two decades of international expertise, the latter recognised and admired around the world, should be playing a leading role in the response to the crisis. Not only is the current UK Government absent from the required global leadership, it decides to side-line the very people who have the skills, experience and expertise to help, making the situation worse.
For Jo, and for the many millions of people who have been and still are helped by the UK’s life-saving aid, we owe it to them to make sure that continues. The 0.7% aid spending target remains, enshrined in law, and must be protected. Ensuring accountability and transparency on how UK aid money is now spent is essential, scrutiny will be vital.
This weekend, the annual Great Get Together weekend in memory of Jo, will obviously be different, but it’s a time to consider and reinforce Jo’s legacy as a humanitarian and a champion for international development, the very embodiment of showing that we have more in common than that which divides us.