LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic aid agencies in Britain have reacted with alarm and disappointment over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that he will merge the Department for International Development (DFID) is to merge with the Foreign Office.

Although the UK international development agency has sometimes been placed under the Foreign Office in previous Conservative governments, there has been a bipartisan consensus that it should be a separate Cabinet department since 1997. This has given independence to the UK’s international aid activity, making it one of the most admired departments in the world.

“The Prime Minister’s announcement on maximising British influence through aid is seriously misguided. We believe the aid budget’s sole focus should be on helping the world’s poorest people, and that is how Britain will get the respect of other countries and their people,” said Christine Allen, the director of CAFOD, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Britain has made a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of Gross National Income on international aid. Only Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, and Sweden spend more. The UK has met this target since 2013, and it was made legally binding in 2015.

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According to Publish What You Fund, which measures the level of aid transparency of international development agencies, DFID is rated ‘very good’ and the Foreign Office is rated ‘poor.’

Allen noted that DFID has consistently been one of the leaders of global aid transparency rankings, and said she wants all aid spending being subjected to the same standards of transparency.

“Our support for our brothers and sisters living in poverty shouldn’t be contingent on what we as Britain can get out of it – we must have a clear distinction between our aid budget and money spent on British interests,” she said in a statement.

“Increasingly issues such as climate change, the destruction of nature and the spread of COVID-19 demonstrate unequivocally that global issues can only be tackled through increased global cooperation, and that progress can be reversed through retreating into approaches based on national interest,” Allen continued.

“UK aid is recognized worldwide for its commitment to reaching some of the poorest people and communities, through actions such as responding to Ebola and coronavirus, reaching people in war zones and after natural disasters, and supporting civil society groups to strengthen accountability for spending on healthcare and education. This commitment must be at the heart of all UK aid to avoid it being spent according to narrow political interests,” she said

Meanwhile, SCIAF – the development aid agency of the Scottish bishops – said it was “extremely alarmed” by the announcement of the merger, adding that for DFID to “function effectively,” it must remain an independent Cabinet-level office.

“Aid, which has the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and reducing extreme poverty must not be made subordinate to foreign policy, the purpose of which is to promote British interests,” the agency said in a statement.

SCIAF said the Foreign Office and DFID “serve two very different purposes” and expressed concern that the delivery of international development aid and the British response to humanitarian crises “will no longer be independent of our foreign and commercial policies.”

“The Prime Minister said abolishing DFID would mean aid spending better reflected UK aims. That’s the basic issue at stake. Should aid serve the world’s poorest people and help them escape the poverty they live in, or should it serve the UK’s interests? It can’t serve two masters. If it tries to, sooner or later it will have to choose,” the Scottish Catholic aid agency said.

SCIAF said the timing of this announcement “could not be worse,” given the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Following a disturbing trend globally, prior to COVID-19 the Government had launched an Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy. That was on hold, and it appears this latest announcement has circumvented this process, which again is very concerning,” the agency added.

“SCIAF strongly urges the UK Government to reverse this decision and maintain DFID, which plays an enormous role in providing humanitarian assistance and lifting people out of poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries,” the statement concluded.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome