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How Foreign Office and Development Aid Cuts Are Damaging Britain’s Reputation as a Serious Partner on the World Stage

Government cuts post-Brexit have led to drastic cuts in foreign aid and the selling-off of embassies. Much of the chaos is Boris Johnson’s fault, writes Iain Overton

Anti-Brexit, anti-government protestors on a traffic island near the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London. Photo: Paul Biggins / Alamy
Brexit was meant to create ‘enormous opportunities’ – instead it has badly damaged the UK’s reputation. Anti-Brexit protestors are pictured above near the Houses of Parliament in London. Photo: Paul Biggins/Alamy

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In 2019, then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph promising “enormous opportunities across the world” when the UK left the EU. “We will be a champion of the basic freedoms… and a doughty defender of the rules-based international system,” he claimed. 

This was off the back of a Foreign Affairs Committee report, in which the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), had predicted a growing focus on Africa, a stepped-up engagement with Latin America, and the promise that the FCO would become “best equipped to meet our national security objectives”.

It all looked so promising.

Fast-forward five years, with a full-English Brexit, a pandemic, an invasion of Ukraine, and a 14% drop in the value of the pound against the dollar since the Conservatives first came into power (in May 2010, it was $1.45 to the pound. Today it stands at $1.25), the promises of yesteryear seem lacklustre in the cold light of today.

Dominic Raab promised that the UK would be a “defender of the rules-based international system” after Brexit. Photo: Ian Davidson/ Alamy

In a letter on 16 April this year, Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) wrote to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee on the subject of Overseas Development Aid (ODA) reductions.

In it, he detailed “the damaging impact on relationships with partner governments and other donors and the overall damage to the FCDO’s reputation as a reliable donor” that Government cuts had had in recent years.

Barton outlined how, in 2022-23, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe received between £14.7 million and £39.8 million less than their initially allocated funds. Afghanistan’s ODA was initially set at £286 million but was reduced by 14%. Sudan saw a 40% cut, Ethiopia an 18% reduction, Nigeria a 17% decrease, and Zimbabwe a 35% decrease in funds.

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In early 2024, the International Development Committee’s report on ‘the FCDO’s approach to sexual and reproductive health’ noted that the UK had “slashed its spending” on the issue, with devastating impact. The report described budgets cut “with little to no notice” with “the deepest impact on the most marginalised”. It concluded that this had damaged the “UK’s reputation as a credible and serious partner”.

Last year, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) also detailed in its report “UK aid under pressure” the past five years as being of “extraordinary turbulence”.  Not least this was because “many UK aid officials were redeployed to support Operation Yellowhammer, the government’s contingency planning for a ‘no-deal Brexit’”.

Despite Raab’s promises of 2019, then, the real impact of Brexit was – the ICAI report outlined – the FCDO’s de-prioritisation of a range of development activities “including the UK’s engagement with United Nations (UN) agencies on humanitarian crises”.


Diverted Budgets

One of the reasons for these cuts and curtailments is that the UK Government paused all ‘non-essential’ overseas aid spending for four months in 2022, due in part to the Home Office takeover of the budget for domestic asylum costs.

The Home Office then spent £2 billion more than initially allocated. As the ICAI noted, “aid spending on asylum seekers and refugees in the UK rose to £4.3 billion in 2023, constituting 28% of the (ODA) budget”.

This came at a time when the total ODA budget to the FCDO itself dropped between 2018 and 2022 by some 34% – down £3.8 billion. This has had a very real world impact. ODA funds to Africa are down 57%. Pakistan, once recipient of £331 million a year in aid in 2022 only received £58 million. The African Development Fund was cut from £177 million to £27 million. 

As the latest 2022-23 FCDO annual report notes, managing “ODA budget pressures… has generated a level of uncertainty this year” which has “impacted FCDO staff around the world”. 


FCO and DFID Merger

A good deal of the chaos can be laid at the feet of Boris Johnson.

In the early months of the pandemic, on 16 June 2020, the then Prime Minister announced the merger of the FCO and the Department for International Development (DFID) into the FCDO. He did so with the aim of streamlining the UK’s international engagement by combining diplomacy and development under a unified strategy. However, the transition appeared to have been chaotic and hurtful to Britain’s global diplomatic missions. 

Ambitious integration plans were scaled back due to resource constraints, and the merger led to a loss of development expertise as many quit their posts or were laid off.

Critics have since raised concerns about reduced transparency, diminished focus on development outcomes, and an overarching impact on the quality and effectiveness of UK international aid as a consequence.

In June 2022, Boris Johnson announced the merger of the FCO and Department for International Development (DFID) into the FCDO. Photo: American Photo Archive/ Alamy

In previous comments to the Public Accounts Committee, Permanent Under-Secretary Barton has outlined how the merger led to a postponement or scaling-down of major British diplomatic initiatives designed to fulfil climate commitments, address health disparities, and promote economic reform around the world. 

It’s little surprise that, in February 2022, the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) found the FCDO’s agenda to be “overambitious and unachievable”.


Selling Assets

This accompanying squeeze on public finances has meant that the FCDO now stands accused of selling off its family silver – with sales of embassies in prime real estate getting eyed up for short-term debt repayments.

In 2018, the then FCO sold its Bangkok embassy for some £420 million to move into a modern tower block, leased until just 2034. Given there seems no apparent core maintenance budget for FCDO property, the profits from the sale were reported to have gone into new electrical wiring in the Paris embassy and refurbishments in Cairo, New Delhi and Washington. 

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In 2021, it was also reported that a chunk of the British embassy in Tokyo was sold to the Japanese firm Mitsubishi Estate Group. At the time, the details were not made public but, in 2023, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee was informed that the deal was for £685.7 million. The sale, in “one of the most prestigious areas of Tokyo”, led Japanese press to speculate that the land could be used for luxury apartments likely to sell for more than £30 million each.

The latest FCDO accounts also note some £10.4 million further assets “held for sale”, on top of “£3.4 million from the sale of property in Dar Es Salaam and £1.5 million from the sale of surplus land in Skopje”.

Meanwhile, costs to renovate the British Embassy in Washington were reported to have more than doubled, to £118.8 million, in part fuelled by asbestos removal fees. As the annual report notes, “the risks to maintaining our global estate… remain high”.


A Lack of Ministerial Support

Given the parlous state of the FCDO’s funding, it is strange, then, that FCDO Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan was last heard calling for more funding – not for her department but for the Ministry of Defence.

In March, Trevelyan, the Minister for Indo-Pacific, wrote with Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat on LinkedIn that, “protecting ourselves requires investment”. She did not, however, appear to call for her own department to be given more funds.

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With a seeming lack of leadership from the political sphere, it has led to disenchanted one-time FCDO stars to speak out.

Moazzam Malik, former director-general at the Foreign Office, recently co-penned a report that called for the UK “to do foreign affairs slightly differently, to modernise our approach”, including rebranding and facing its colonial legacy “head-on“. 

Others – still in the FCDO and speaking to Byline Times under conditions of anonymity – describe a depressing world of chronic under-investment, with more budget cuts looming with regards to staffing, travel, and other core costs. 

All of this seems a far cry from the hubris of Dominic Rabb just five long years ago. 

“When we leave the EU, there will be enormous opportunities across the world,” he claimed.  When such opportunities will be realised, seems – at the moment – anyone’s guess.


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