Cameron earmarks half of UK aid budget for fragile states

David Cameron's remarks will ring alarm bells among the aid community [Brett Jordan/Flickr]

At least half of the UK’s £12 billion (€17 billion) aid budget will be spent on supporting fragile and failing states, Prime Minister David Cameron has said ahead of the spending review in a major foreign policy speech at the lord mayor’s banquet.

In a speech in which he likened the battle against extremist Islamism to Winston Churchill’s second world war fight against Adolf Hitler, the prime minister also defended the use of hard power and his willingness to engage with regimes with questionable human rights records.

As part of the government’s “full-spectrum response” to the threat posed by Islamic State, George Osborne will announce the creation of a new National Cyber Centre as he says the government is to double cyber investment to £1.9 billion (€2.7 billion).

In the first speech by a chancellor at the headquarters of GCHQ in Cheltenham, Osborne will warn that Isis’s “murderous brutality has a strong digital element” as he says that they are seeking to kill through attacks on the UK’s cyber infrastructure.

The prime minister highlighted the impact on the change in government spending priorities in his Lord Mayor’s banquet speech when he outlined a change in priorities on aid spending.

This represents a minimum £2 billion switch in the aid budget since at present only 20% is spent on fragile states. His remarks will ring alarm bells among the aid community worried that a cash-strapped government is preparing effectively to raid the aid budget to bolster defence and security.

Although aid spending is governed by OECD guidelines, both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office for more than a year have been enviously eyeing the relatively large aid budget to see if the definitions of aid spending can be blurred to allow their departments to take some of its cash.

Announcing the shift in aid priorities, Cameron said: “We are going to enhance that capability by refocusing our aid spending so we will target at least half of DfID’s [the Department for International Development’s] budget on stabilising and supporting broken and fragile states, and do much more to help refugees closer to their homes.

“This will make our aid spending an even more fundamental part of our strategy to keep this country safe.”

He added that the commitment “will help to maintain Britain’s position as number one in the world for soft power. And yes, it may be called soft power but whether it’s saving the lives of refugees by stopping them from having to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, helping the Lebanese build defences against Isil [Isis], or using our expertise to help countries establish the building blocks of democracy, justice and the rule of law, soft power packs a real punch”.

Cameron has been a long-term believer in the UK aid budget, repeatedly defending the decision to ensure 0.7% of gross national income is spent on overseas aid. Until recently, DfID had said its target was to commit a third of its spend to fragile states, suggesting there is going to be a further £2bn switch.

The chancellor has also agreed the government would break new ground by using the aid budget to support refugees in their first year in the UK. He said: “The foreign aid budget can provide the support in the first year for these refugees, could help the local councils with things like housing costs. We will deploy the foreign aid budget to help with the costs of these refugees.”

In his speech at the headquarters of GCHQ, the chancellor will announce that the new National Cyber Centre at Cheltenham will house the first “cyber force” to handle cyber attacks. Ministers will also lobby internet service providers to work with the government to divert more malware attacks and to block “bad addresses”, the Treasury said.

The chancellor will say: “Isil’s murderous brutality has a strong digital element. At a time when so many others are using the internet to enhance freedom and give expression to liberal values and creativity, they are using it for evil.

“Let’s be clear. Isil are already using the internet for hideous propaganda purposes; for radicalisation, for operational planning too. They have not been able to use it to kill people yet by attacking our infrastructure through cyber attack. They do not yet have that capability. But we know they want it, and are doing their best to build it.

“So when we talk about tackling Isil, that means tackling their cyber threat as well as the threat of their guns, bombs and knives.”

Cameron insisted the size of the aid budget made the UK the fastest country in the world to react.

He also defended his decision to engage with the leaders of Egypt, India and China, saying it is a strategic choice to engage with countries where there are concerns over their records on human rights.

“You can’t conduct foreign policy by press releases and pious statements in parliament. You have to engage and build the alliances that can make a difference.”

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