This week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab appeared before the International Development Committee (IDC) to respond to concerns around aid legislation changes, budget cuts and new departmental priorities.
This was Raab’s first meeting since it was confirmed that the IDC would continue to operate as a parliamentary scrutiny body, after fervent advocacy from the international development sector.
Ahead of the session, Bond joined Development Initiatives and Publish What You Fund in calling out the UK government for shrouding its aid budget cuts in secrecy. We called on the UK government to reveal which aid programmes are being cut and how decisions are being made.
In what was a mammoth session, we’ve rounded up Raab’s most pertinent and concerning points.
The FCDO’s priorities
When asked about his vision for UK aid, Raab professed to always being a believer in aid and development. Through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), he wants to “integrate all the tools they have available”, such as trade, defence and aid to ensure a more impactful foreign policy.
When pressed for his priorities as foreign secretary, Raab said that as the UK government will be hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) this year, his “absolute top priority” is climate change and biodiversity. He also mentioned work on global health, including Covid-19, tuberculosis and malaria, as well as the secondary impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, such as famine and conflict. The upcoming integrated review, the foreign secretary believes, will bring much more focus to other ambitions of the department.
Aid cuts lack transparency
The chair of the IDC, Sarah Champion MP, pressed the foreign secretary on recent media reports that lead diplomats in charge of aid programmes across the world have been told to cut 50-70% of their aid budgets in the next three weeks. She also questioned whether these rumoured cuts would impact the department’s priorities.
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In a vague response, the foreign secretary denied the accuracy of the figures and stated that the FCDO is focusing on its strategic priorities, rather than “salami-slicing” all aid programmes. However, Raab later defended the CDC Group, despite recent claims that the investment entity continues to invest in fossil fuel programmes, and confirmed that the CDC will not face any budget cuts.
Raab’s comments come after Bond, Development Initiatives and Publish What You Fund criticised the UK government for making the aid cuts without proper scrutiny, transparency or consultation with NGOs.
Uncertainty around 0.7% legislation
Towards the end of last year, Raab and chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the government’s intention to change legislation protecting the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid and development, to just 0.5%.
But Raab gave very little information when pressed on the government’s next steps. Saying that he would rather get it right than act quickly, Raab hopes to present his plans to the IDC and the House of Commons soon. Just last week, more Conservative MPs and former prime minister Theresa May promised to vote against the government’s plans to cut the 0.7% target.
Raab insisted the cut would be temporary, but gave little information on how the government would return to the 0.7% target, repeating his ambiguous line to review when the “fiscal situation allows.”
New priorities linked to the SDGs
Raab reassured the committee that, while recognising that the pandemic has made the challenge of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) much harder, the FCDO will use the goals to set specific targets and KPIs.
Raab highlighted the synergies between the new department’s strategic priorities and the SDGs, asserting that all priorities were rooted in a commitment to reduce poverty. He said that the government will use their chairships of the G7 and COP 26 as moments to galvanise support for the goals.
Gender equality strategic vision abandoned?
When asked whether FCDO will embed DFID’s “Strategic Vision on Gender Equality”, the foreign secretary gave a non-committal answer, which sparked concerns from development experts.
The foreign secretary confirmed that girl’s education and the prevention of sexual violence initiative will be key priorities for the G7. But he failed to commit to a holistic approach to gender equality for the new department.
Some nutrition programmes protected from cuts but not all
The foreign secretary reaffirmed that famine response, and particularly the intersection of famine, conflict and Covid-19, is a core priority of FCDO.
When pressed by the committee on whether the aid budget cuts would affect nutrition funding, Raab said that famine work would be protected from cuts, as would other high-impact programmes, but that he “has to find the cuts somewhere.”
Safeguarding still a priority
The FCDO will continue to prioritise safeguarding in the aid and development sector. The foreign secretary stated that the FCDO takes a zero-tolerance approach to sexual abuse and exploitation, and highlighted that the pandemic had exacerbated the issue, saying that his department would not lower its guard.
The chair of the committee then pressed the foreign secretary on whether the government would expand DBS checks to include aid workers – something that Bond and members have been calling for since 2018. Raab asked the chair to follow up with him personally on this matter, so that he can take it forward.
More questions than answers
We learnt very little from the foreign secretary’s first appearance in front of the IDC. While it is encouraging to see that climate and biodiversity will be front and centre of FCDO’s priorities ahead of COP 26, big questions remain as to whether the government will continue to champion gender equality – beyond just girls education – as fervently as DFID did. And the sheer lack of transparency regarding the aid cuts means that we leave this session with more questions than when we started it.
For more information on what Bond and members are doing to hold the government to account on policy issues, such as the aid cuts, please sign up to the Bond Policy and Lobbying Group.