Boris Johnson and the Threat to British Soft Power

EDINBURGH – Since the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) was created 22 years ago, it has lifted millions out of poverty, sent millions of children to school, and saved millions of lives through vaccination programs and other innovative initiatives. Most recently, it has been a world leader in delivering development aid to poor countries facing the ravages of climate change

Yet under a proposal now being explored by the transition team of the UK’ s likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, DFID would be absorbed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The new PM would be solving one problem – the unacceptable neglect of the British diplomatic service – by creating an even bigger one: the loss of perhaps Britain’s greatest global asset today: the soft power it exercises on every continent because of its pathbreaking commitment to ending world poverty.

As other countries have discovered, incorporating their international aid efforts into their external affairs offices harms both diplomatic and development efforts. No one gains when development, which thrives on transparency and external scrutiny, is subsumed by diplomacy, which requires confidentiality and is often marked by poor audit trails.

Of course, the Johnson team thinks it is appealing to a public that, for reasons for which I and others must take at least some responsibility, is not fully acquainted with the facts about what UK development aid can achieve. When asked, British voters seem to think that around 20% of the national budget is spent on overseas aid, when the true figure is closer to 1%. British parents are usually shocked to learn that their government’s total annual aid budget comes to around 50 pence ($0.63) per African schoolchild, which is not even enough for a pen, let alone a teacher or classroom.

Saving DFID is not a partisan issue, for there is remarkable consensus in support of the UK-based Coalition for Global Prosperity, which has shown that diplomacy and development are distinct tasks of equal importance. The FCO, notes Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and Chair of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, is the country’s “principle diplomat,” and one should “no more expect diplomats to know how to steer the Queen Elizabeth than how to lead on international trade and development.”

But there is an even stronger and more urgent argument for supporting an independent DFID. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to describe the United States, Europe, and the Commonwealth as the three concentric circles of British influence. The more influence Britain had in one circle, he argued, the more it would have in the others: when the British have a strong voice in Europe, they are taken more seriously by the Americans.

Yet, in the seven decades since World War II, Britain has too often neglected a fourth circle comprising multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. These institutions’ role in global governance is now being challenged by US President Donald Trump’s administration, just when international cooperation is most needed to solve common problems. But, because post-1945 Britain feared that stronger multilateral institutions would put even more anti-colonialist pressure on the country as it retreated from empire, we often remained at arm’s length. In contrast, France has established significant influence at the IMF, and the Scandinavians have become indispensable in UN peacemaking and development efforts.

The Labour Government of 1997-2010 tried to reassert British influence in this domain. Britain assisted in the creation of two important new institutions: the G20 and the global Financial Stability Board. And if a post-Brexit UK is going to enjoy international influence and be a “global Britain,” DFID is vital, as it has established a strong track record of leading multilateral initiatives in areas ranging from health and education to the environment. In each case, it has managed to punch far above its weight by working with fellow donors and leveraging the capacities of other stakeholders.

Among other things, DFID had a hand in creating the International Finance Facility for Immunization (which has provided vaccines for more than 700 million children since 2000), Global Partners for Health, and a $1.5 billion Advanced Market Commitment fund that has financed the development of new drugs in poor countries. Through DFID, the UK is also a leading member of the Global Fund and a top supporter of the new International Finance Facility for Education that I and others have developed.

It should go without saying that in the absence of a strong DFID, Britain will lack the status to lead in important global multilateral development efforts.

The FCO cannot easily replicate DFID’s unique role in bringing countries and the development community together. Without an independent budget, cabinet-level minister, and internationally-respected leaders, the UK’s development program would lack the capacity to mobilize resources as quickly and effectively in response to future crises. Nor will it have pride of place internationally as a source of soft power.

Even nationalists must confront the security threats posed by fragile states, the explosion of refugee numbers, and the continuing scourge of poverty and injustice. When today’s most pressing global challenges – from climate change to inequality and violent conflict – do not admit of unilateral solutions, the case for multilateral action is unanswerable. A robust, institutionally independent, and well-financed DFID is needed now more than ever.

So, while Johnson is anticipating that a post-Brexit UK will need a much stronger FCO to maintain the country’s influence abroad, the relegation of DFID would undermine an even more important post-Brexit imperative – maintaining our global leadership, not least in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by all UN member states.

© Project Syndicate 1995-2019 

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