Could the line between UK aid and defence spending become blurred? | Foreign policy

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David Cameron was long committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid as a way of demonstrating in the early part of the decade that the Conservatives had changed, although the pledge was not always popular across the party.

It is a target that has been hit every year since 2013, enduring throughout the premiership of the first of Cameron’s successors.

But a recent series of briefings suggested the £12.9bn budget is coming under more severe pressure, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, tries to tackle the £30bn-plus cost of helping Britain through the coronavirus crisis in the run-up to the November spending round.

Over the past few days it has been suggested that any new defence spending, such as on drones or cyberwarfare, would have to be funded from the aid budget – and even that the 0.7% target, enshrined in law, could be under threat.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, was quick to defend the 0.7% target as the newly merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office began work on Wednesday, and dismissed rumours of a switch from aid to military spending as “tittle-tattle”.

Defence insiders were similarly sceptical. “We are not getting money from the aid budget,” said one source, who said there was no diktat from the Treasury that new defence spending would have to be paid for from aid.

Conservative commitments mean defence is particularly well funded. The party’s election manifesto promised not just to hit the longstanding target of 2% of GDP but to increase spending by 0.5% above inflation, a commitment the Ministry of Defence is still working towards.

That means that while the overseas aid budget has already been cut by £2.9bn in July – with a massive knock-on impact on the aid sector – the defence budget is relatively stable, and is expected, if the pledge is met, to be a little over £42bn in 2021-22.

Yet for all the financial stability, the MoD is struggling financially. It has a shortfall of £13bn in its 10-year equipment budget, which officials are trying to close amid a debate about Britain’s post-Brexit role in the world.

A defence and foreign policy review has restarted after being stalled because of coronavirus. Last week it emerged that the military was giving consideration to mothballing the army’s ageing Challenger 2 tank fleet, which is at the point of obsolescence.

Experts say ministers needs to be clear about what the definition of the UK’s national security is. Britain has become embroiled in wars that it started in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its involvement in combat operations in the last of those ended in 2010, and expensive conventional wars using costly kit appear unlikely in the future.

Prof Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, said: “It’s not clear the UK needs to have a division-size force on standby for deployment in three months’ time in a foreign war; what’s needed is the ability to put a few hundred in a crisis zone in a few days.”

Simply repurposing aid spending on drones or cyberwarfare to bail out the MoD would appear impossible to achieve, as the UK adheres to international definitions on aid spending that rule out spending on military equipment, services or counter-terrorism spending.

But a more subtle blending of aid and defence spending is already under way. The £1.26bn Conflict and Stability Fund, launched in 2015, runs programmes in Lebanon, Colombia and Pakistan, part of a previous attempt to placate critics of the size of the aid budget.

And there are some examples where it could make good sense: effectively tackling the migrant crisis in west Africa at source in countries such as Mali, Niger and Chad could justify additional integrated spend on aid, policing and reconnaissance capability.

Old Whitehall hands say they detect the beginnings of a familiar game. “It’s like a judo bout, where everybody is trying to get a grip as the negotiations with the Treasury begin,” said one. “Leaks are starting, partly to see what the other side will wear. It’s not over yet.”

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