Options for UK Aid: DFID survivor Tom Wingfield responds to last week’s posts by Andy Sumner

February 27, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

Tom Wingfield got in touch after reading last week’s posts on the future of UK aid, building off his recent post on LinkedIn

Before we shut the door on reversing the DFID/FCO merger (See DFID 2.0…? Part 2 of Andy Sumner’s Crystal Balling on the future of UK aid | From Poverty to Power (, we need to be clear-eyed about the risks to the UK’s credibility on international development.

In thinking about the trade-offs, I start with two disclaimers:

– First, when it comes to discussing Whitehall architecture, I have a lot of baggage: until 2021, I was a civil servant in DFID/FCDO for almost two decades. While I was  completely ‘institutionalised’ and part of the system, I spent a lot of emotional energy trying (and usually failing) to reform my own department (see DFID is changing its approach to better address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict).

– Second, I was one of the few optimists in DFID when the merger was announced. I’d seen the dysfunctions of two government departments with competing objectives, values and incentive systems working at cross-purposes in the same country too many times. I saw the merger as an opportunity to resolve this tension and combine ex FCO’s understanding of politics with ex DFID’s understanding of institutions and the structural causes of poverty, conflict, and inequality.

With these caveats aside, it’s important to start with the reality and political economy of the ‘merger’.  First and foremost, it wasn’t a merger but a hostile takeover. Almost all key positions of power are occupied by former FCO officials. The leadership, culture, and incentives are driven by ex FCO – which is upwards facing (how can I improve my visibility in London) and short-term (what can we deliver for the UK today). International development has been devalued and instrumentalised. There are fewer incentives now to think long term and this is changing the nature of the UK’s relationships with partner countries.

So, if this is today’s reality – what are the potential options and trade-offs for a Whitehall architecture that is able to reconnect to the world in a meaningful way and think long term?

1. Preferred option: Reverse the merger and create a new Department for Global Partnerships, Development and Equity

A key mistake of the Conservatives was believing that development was not in the national interest, so they undermined one of the most important levers and areas of UK comparative advantage. As Lisa Nandy – Labour’s new Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development – put it so eloquently in her defence of multi-culturalism in Britain – “If you’re worried about people fleeing persecution, war, climate change, why did you abolish DFID and trash one of the best things that this country has ever been able to give the world?”

BBC One – Question Time, 2023, 28/09/2023

This option would not mean going back to the future. The new Department would need the incentives, culture, systems, and instruments to replace a failed development orthodoxy (see Addressing the Failures of UK development policy). Part of this reset requires a recognition that Britain too is facing poverty, inequality and lack of voice and that there is much we can (and need to) learn from the Global South – particularly on Constitutional reform and devolution.. With a Minister in cabinet, an independent department would have the agency to challenge the development status quo and end donor-recipient hierarchies which reinforce structural inequality. It could create the space for genuine partnerships of equals and cross-learning between the UK and Global South.

It would begin with humility – recognising Britain too is facing poverty, inequality and lack of voice and that there is much we can learn from the Global South particularly on Constitutional reform and devolution. It could rebuild UK credibility and leadership on global commons – climate change, safe migration, pro-poor trade, and conflict mitigation.

Change would be signalled by dropping DFID in favour of a new name. The Department for Global Partnerships, Development and Equity is one option (but I am sure there are better ones).

The case for de-merger:

  • Unpicking the two departments, recognises that the tension between DFID and FCO was a healthy and honest one.
  • Separation will allow the types of compromises and contradictions of the past which created space for both long-term development (which was in the UK national interest) and short-term UK interests.
  • It would help stop the haemorrhaging of technical development staff (approximately 200 technical advisers have left since the merger) and allow a return to a credible international development policy.
  • This would not be costly or a drain on the budget as long as DFID and FCO maintain the shared IT system and co-location overseas.

What are the risks?

  • The biggest risk is the impact on staff who have been through a perpetual ‘change management’ processes since 2020 alongside aid cuts and a constant churn of ministers (four in as many years).
  • The second main risk is that it could signal a return to the ‘old DFID’ and the outdated development orthodoxy.

2. The high risk, low gain fudge option: Create a separate development agency along the lines of USAID or Swedish SIDA

This is the ‘hybrid’ option where the FCDO would have overall responsibility for policy while a separate executing agency would lead on implementation guided by the International Development Act. This set up is the most common international model with USAID and Swedish SIDA probably being the most relevant to the UK (see Do organisational and political models for development cooperation matter for development effectiveness?). Of the two, SIDA has greater independence with a cabinet minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade.

Source:  Nilima Gulrajani, , Merging development agencies: making the right choice, ODI (2018)

While this would likely be more of an upheaval for staff since the UK would be moving to something completely new, the gains would be marginal. In the US context we’ve seen how the separation between the State Department and USAID has allowed a degree of tension and balance between short- and long-term thinking. USAID is sometimes able to fight the long-term development corner.

What are the risks?

  • The change would be more disruptive for staff than de-merger, but with only marginal gains.
  • Separating policy from implementation could further instrumentalise development and lead to a continuation of short-term transactional aid.
  •  The energy of New Ministers will be spent on a huge overhaul of the Department with only marginal gains.
  • A UK Aid Agency siting under, within, or adjacent to the FCDO with a shared Cabinet Minister would not address the underlying political economy problem – incentives would still be stacked against thinking long-term.
  • It may not retain or attract the calibre of technical development staff needed for the UK to rebuild its reputation.

3. The status quo option

Despite a compelling rationale for bringing development and foreign policy together in a single department, sustaining the merger is the worst possible option. While the merger might have worked – the power dynamics alongside the top-down change process didn’t give it much of a chance. Given the current internal political economy there is no straight forward way to ‘fix’ the FCDO and re-establish a long-term development focus.

What are the risks?

  • This is the highest risk option.
  • The overhaul to incentives, accountability lines and change that would be required would likely be more difficult and more disruptive than separation.
  • The energy of new Ministers will be spent trying to fix something that is unfixable.
  • Status quo will not be enough to restore the international credibility gap.
  • It may not retain or attract the calibre of technical development staff needed for the UK to rebuild its reputation.


The FCDO is fast losing any credibility in the development space. Since the merger long-term relationship building – which is inherent to the development approach – has been trumped by short-term, transactions which are in the immediate UK interests. Writing as a former DFID / FCDO civil servant who was optimistic about the merger – I can now say with three years of hindsight that I was wrong. If a new UK Government is to reconnect with the world in a meaningful way – the merger must be reversed. This can’t be a retreat to the old DFID model and development orthodoxy. A new Department needs a radical new narrative (and a new name).

February 27, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Agree with your conclusions. One key element will be to determine the scope of the new Development department. Will it include trade, debt, peace and security, multilateralism, aspects of environment and climate policy etc.. not just aid and humanitarian policy? How will the new Department work alongside other Government Departments? Clarity on these issues from the start will be vital. It will be a long journey to re-establish the development reputation of the UK – but the process must begin.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. However, what is missing is an appreciation that development policy today involves more than just the distinction between “long” and “short” termisms. Climate change, food security, migration, trade, etc. all involve traditional foreign policy considerations as well as development policy interests. The days of complete separation of the two are long over. Hence, those concerned with ensuring development considerations have a place at the table should focus on ensuring that the foreign ministry mandarins have internalized the development implications of such issues.

    Whether that is best done by a merged operation or a development agency receiving policy guidance by the foreign ministry will depend on the political economy of the particular country. I cannot say what is right for the United Kingdom, but the modus vivendi worked out between the Department of State and USAID over the past three decades has proven much more effective than those who advocated for complete merger or complete separation back in the 1990s when the debates were particulary venomous.

  3. I love it when people are willing to admit they were wrong! I tend to agree too. But, can we say a bit more about what we would do differently in terms of incentives, culture and systems in a demerged organization, beyond a simple name change? As you know better than most, DFID struggled with short term accountability upwards way before the merger so wouldn’t it be helpful to outline how, once merger reversed, the new organization would be significantly different in therms of strategic operations, beyond a name change?

  4. Tom’s argument here, and in his linked piece from last August, is completely compelling in my view. It gets real weight from its continuity with what he and others advocated from within DFID drawing on decades of deep engagement with the real world of development. I hope the next government will heed his advice and give him a top job!

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