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Johnson’s Win Is a Loss for British Power

Having secured an electoral mandate, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will likely barrel ahead with previously outlined plans to abolish the country's foreign-development agency and assign its duties to diplomats in the foreign office. But while diplomacy and development are both crucial to British soft power, they are hardly the same thing.

LONDON – With Brexit dominating the United Kingdom’s agonizing general election this month, a number of momentous policy proposals have received little to no discussion. Chief among these is right-wing Conservatives’ plan to abolish the UK Department for International Development. Now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has secured a parliamentary majority, the DFID could soon be subsumed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which would then take charge of administering Britain’s £14 billion ($18.6 billion) annual aid budget.

As I pointed out earlier this year, the Conservatives’ plan would essentially solve one big problem – the rundown of Britain’s diplomatic service – by creating a much larger problem: the loss of Britain’s soft power. The UK’s pathbreaking commitment to ending world poverty yields far-reaching benefits, and its aid program is one of its most valuable global assets. Since the DFID was created 22 years ago, it has lifted millions of people out of poverty, helped millions more children go to school, and saved millions of lives – not least by leading an initiative to vaccinate 700 million kids. Most recently, the agency has become a world leader in providing development aid to poor countries facing the effects of climate change.

Johnson is anticipating that a post-Brexit UK will need a stronger FCO through which to wield influence abroad. Yet rolling the DFID into the FCO will undermine the UK’s global position, while yielding no gains in efficiency. Unlike diplomacy, which often depends on secrecy and thus leaves scant audit trails, development efforts demand transparency, and are most effective when subjected to external scrutiny.