How to stop the Foreign Office gobbling up DFID?

January 8, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

File under ‘sounds boring, but is really important’: sources inside the UK Department for International Development (DFID) recently told the Guardian that they fully expect the department to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) after Brexit (end of this month), as part of a wider effort to slim down government and in line with the Prime Minister’s previous criticisms that DfID has gone rogue, behaving like ‘some independent Scandinavian NGO’.

The consequences of scrapping the Department run much deeper than simply removing another chair from around the cabinet table. Aid professionals and former Tory DFID ministers such as Alasdair Burt and Andrew Mitchell, are concerned about the dilution of DFID’s anti-poverty mandate and potential damage to the ‘soft power’ accruing from a respected and professional aid department. Over 100 charities have also expressed their concerns. In a recent Telegraph piece, Save the Children’s Kevin Watkins brilliantly captured the nature of that soft power (and its limits) in the case of the UK’s role in Yemen.

Already, other priorities have been encroaching – about 30% of the £14bn annual aid budget is now spent in departments outside DfID and in cross-government funds such as the conflict, stability and security fund. Parliamentary scrutineers are not impressed with the way that money is being spent.

As a free-standing cabinet-level aid ministry, DFID resembles a global ‘last of the Mohicans’, as Australia, Canada, Norway and New Zealand, among others, have all folded respected aid departments back into their foreign ministries in recent years. A well-researched piece on Devex explores the experiences in the first three of these, and reinforces the concerns over what could be lost along with DFID’s separate identity. As other countries have fallen away, DFID’s international status has grown.

It is well documented from the UK’s Independent Commission on Aid Impact, Publish What you Fund and others that DFID is the most transparent, robust and effective administrator of UK aid.

But sadly, having evidence on your side does not win you many political arguments these days. Banging on about aid effectiveness will mainly persuade the already-persuaded.

The case for scrapping DFID is being made not on those grounds, but from a ‘policy coherence’ perspective – to align spending better with UK foreign policy – and to boost the prestige of the Foreign Office as part of “Global Britain”.

Here too, however, the argument does not hold water. Dragging DFID into the Foreign Office is unlikely to help. Especially since the reforms in Australia, Canada and elsewhere DFID is a respected and strategic voice in the international development system, bilaterally and in multilateral fora such as the World Bank and UN –
in particular, it is seen as the number one player on Low Income Countries.  It is DFID’s reputation and capacity that help make the UK a surprisingly influential ‘cluster’.

And what happens after the merger? A bit of history here – DFID was founded in 1997 in large part because of the disastrous consequences of housing the UK aid programme in the Foreign Office. In particular, the government of John Major suffered a major embarrassment in the courts – the Pergau Dam judgement. Hundreds of millions of pounds in UK aid for the dam were linked to a major UK-Malaysia arms deal, even though the project was deemed hopelessly uneconomic by officials in both countries.

In his book about that case, Tim Lankester,  the senior civil servant in charge of UK aid at the time, argues that without its own cabinet minister, the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) – the Foreign Office department in charge of aid at the time – was too weak to defend its corner. Meanwhile, the government’s aid-for-trade policy brought increased pressure from business, which saw the aid budget as a honey pot.

The Pergau arms-for-aid scandal paved the way for the International Development Act, which makes poverty reduction the focus of DFID’s work, and effectively outlaws tying aid to British commercial interests.

Were DFID to be taken back into the foreign office, ‘policy coherence’ would be highly likely to become a smokescreen for the kind of horse trading that disfigured Britain’s reputation pre-DFID, creating a very real risk that the Government could soon be back in the courts if there is any suspicion that the primary purpose of aid expenditure is no longer development. If the Government decides it has to repeal the International Development Act to avoid that, the damage to Britain’s international reputation could be considerable.

Update: Just as I finished this, the Daily Mail reported that the Government has changed its mind and won’t be scrapping DFID after all. Great news. But I thought I’d post the piece because:

a) I’d written it anyway

b) I have a nasty feeling this isn’t going away

c) At some point in the future, the timeline may be blurred enough for me to claim attribution – see how they fear FP2P? Just as long as I don’t tell anyone, of course. Doh.

Update on the Update. Blimey that was quick (the not going away bit). The Times is reporting (paywalled, soz) that ‘Whitehall insiders said that Boris Johnson was considering preserving DfID but scrapping its secretary of state and handing ministerial responsibility to the foreign secretary….DfID would continue to operate its own offices in places that receive aid from Britain, but they would report to the UK ambassadors in those countries.’

January 8, 2020
Duncan Green