The end of DFID as we know it?

Julie Henri and Ibrahim Zafar

As the dust has settled on the announcement of the merger, Ibrahim Zafar and Julie Henri explore how the new Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office will shape Britain’s role in the world

It has been five weeks since the Prime Minister’s controversial decision to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).  Although many have seen the move coming since Mr Johnson entered office, the decision brings into question the definition – or re-definition – of the UK’s development mission, and what its aims and motivations should be.  DFID’s primary purpose is to end extreme poverty and to this end the Department intervenes in areas such as poverty and disease, mass migration, insecurity and conflict.  So, should UK Aid be independent in the sole overarching purpose of ending extreme poverty or should it be incorporated into the UK’s wider global and national strategies?

Work on the merger is already underway, but the new Department – to be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – is not expected to be officially launched until September 2020.  In this blog, MHP looks at what the Government hopes to achieve from the merger and why history may be an indication of what’s to come.


The next step for Global Britain 

The merger is at the heart of the Government’s strategy to work towards the ambition of a ‘Global Britain’.  Merging UK Aid and foreign policy will reassure those most sceptical of UK Aid, ensuring that it ’bring[s] value for money for the taxpayer’.  Although long spoken of, the ambitions of a global Britain have not yet been outlined.  However, this announcement indicates the direction of ambition the Government wishes to take, with the UK’s development policies now due to be tied into that of its foreign policy and the UK’s diplomatic ambitions to ‘maximise British influence’.

The Government sees the merger as an opportunity to empower the Foreign Secretary to make decisions on aid spending in line with the UK’s priorities overseas.  It is hoped that a joint department could better implement its strategies in difficult contexts where DFID representatives do not hold pre-existing relationships.

The long-term hope is that trade and investment decisions will be more effectively integrated with development policy. The UK is not alone in this ambition; the Chinese government for example has long used national aid to advance its trade priorities (notably in Africa), but the timing of the decision does imply that Britain is more conscious than ever of the need to maintain its global influence and interests abroad.

The seeds of a potential merger were sown several months ago.  DFID’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget had been increasingly moved to other departments, and earlier this year, DFID junior ministers were absorbed within the FCO, with DFID country directors ordered to report to FCO officials directly.


The community response 

Although the move was in some ways expected, it was not welcomed by the international development community, and notably the charity sector.  Many NGO leaders have expressed their concern, including Save the Children, UNICEF, Oxfam, ONE, Bond, World Vision UK, and Concern Worldwide.

The central argument of many organisations is that the merger will undermine the reputation and expertise of DFID, and that a shift towards ‘commercial diplomacy’ will diminish the UK’s capacity to support key poverty eradication initiatives – which was the primary focus of the department’s remit as set out in the 2002 International Development Act. The timing of the announcement, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been questioned.


Looking back, and looking forward 

Since DFID’s independence from the FCO in 1997, it has helped turn the UK into a highly effective actor on the global development scene.  UK Aid is relied upon by millions of people across the world whilst DFID is consistently ranked among the most transparent and open Departments in Whitehall.

Although seen as a successful actor globally, a joint Department could solve one of DFID’s long standing reputational issues within the UK.  Decades of negative tabloids on the UK’s spending on overseas projects have fed into a debate on the nature of the UK’s development mission, and whether the money spent on aid could be better spent at home.  A joint department with development goals more closely linked to that of the ‘Global Britain’ could see public opinion turning with more people seeing the benefit of UK Aid.

Changes to the machinery of Government have not always been unsuccessful.  In 2016, then Prime Minister Theresa May merged the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Business.  At the time, there was backlash against the potential of climate change dropping down the Government agenda as a result of the merger.  Yet four years on climate change only increased in importance.  The Government has declared a climate change emergency and passed a net zero emission law which requires the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.  If the Government is truly committed to international development, as it is to climate change, a merger could see benefits.  However, this depends on whether the new Department can stay clear of controversy.

But history is potted with examples of where things can go badly wrong.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the insistence of Margaret Thatcher and her Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, aid was committed to a dam in Malaysia in exchange for an arms deal with the country.  Despite its cost (£234 million) and the advice that the dam was not cost-effective, the project went ahead.  What resulted was years of turmoil for UK Aid, resulting in the British High Court ruling in 1994 that the deal linked aid directly to commercial contracts and was unlawful.  Although aid will now be tied to the UK’s diplomatic aims, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must ensure that there is a degree of separation from the goals of other Government departments.


What next? 

Following the merger announcement, the Government has committed that aid spending on the poorest countries will not be reduced.  This is welcome news.  However, many fear that if the Government fails to learn from the past, we could soon see the erasure of the hard-earned reputation that Britain’s development policy has spent decades building.  If the Government truly believes in a new, modernGlobal Britain’, the lessons of Pergau must not be forgotten.