British Queen celebrates

Britain on Wednesday insisted it would maintain its hefty aid commitments despite lawmakers' anxiety that cuts are looming after the overseas development department was swallowed up by

the foreign ministry.

Britain's £15-billion ($19-billion) budget for international aid could be raided to help foot the soaring economic bill of the coronavirus pandemic, or fund other priorities, according to reports.

But on its first day of operations, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said it was "committed to spending 0.7 percent of our national income on aid".

"The formation of the FCDO today will make sure our diplomatic influence and development expertise are combined to the best effect on the global stage," it added in a statement.

Details of the merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development were announced in June.

Unusually, it prompted former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron to publicly criticise the move. Conservative Cameron warned the merger would result in Britain commanding "less respect" on the global stage.

Agencies such as Oxfam said it could hit the world's poorest while lawmakers called for the aid budget to be ring-fenced.

The Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that finance minister Rishi Sunak was seeking to divert billions from the aid budget to pay for upgrades to intelligence capabilities and military hardware.

Former international development minister Andrew Mitchell, another member of the governing Conservatives, warned of trouble if the government tries to dip into the aid pot.

"With the ink hardly dry on our manifesto, I don't think the House of Commons would easily agree to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world," he said.

- 'Global Britain' -

As a percentage of gross national income, Britain's budget for official development assistance is the highest among the elite G7 economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It was the only G7 nation to meet the UN-mandated 0.7 percent target last year, OECD data show, and eliminating the benchmark would require a change of law in Britain.

But opponents led by right-wing newspapers argue the funding regime is often wasteful and open to corruption.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government argues that UK aid needs to be allied more closely to geopolitical threats, particularly from China and Russia.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab marked his expanded portfolio by announcing £119 million in new funding to tackle the coronavirus outbreak and famines affecting more than six million people in the world's poorest countries.

They include Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel region, South Sudan and Sudan.

Raab also appointed a senior civil servant to be Britain's first special envoy for famine protection and humanitarian affairs.

"Coronavirus and famine threaten millions in some of the world's poorest countries, and give rise to direct problems that affect the UK, including terrorism and migration flows," he said.

"'Global Britain', as a force for good in the world, is leading by example and bringing the international community together to tackle these deadly threats, because it's the right thing to do and it protects British interests."

Britain takes over the G7 presidency next year, and the UN climate change conference known as COP26.

Raab promised to use both to urge other countries to help the developing world, as "Global Britain" embarks on a new chapter following its Brexit divorce from the European Union. AFP