August 20, 2019

The End of 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.”

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