With a weakly argued statement to parliament, Boris Johnson has enacted one of his dreams, removing the Department for International Development (DFID) and merging it into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to create a super Whitehall Department briefly termed as the ‘Foreign Commonwealth Development Office’.
DFID’s history has been written by a good range of sources, some gated due to academic journals, others free to read such as: Owen Barder’s article Reforming Development Assistance: Lessons from the UK Experience or Barrie Ireton’s book, Britain’s International Development Policies: A history DFID and Overseas Aid or parts of Clare Short’s – Short was the inaugural Secretary of State for International Development – book An Honorable Deception? New Labour, Iraq and the misuse of Power.
Back to the debate, Johnson was a nice debater but one with terrible facts. Below are excellent comments by opponents of the merger. All of them are of course MPs:
Clive Efford : “but back in 1994, when that dividing line did not exist, we ended up with the Pergau dam scandal”
Mary Kelly Foy: “What consultation did the Government carry out with humanitarian and development experts, as well as leading aid organisations, before the decision was made?”
Carol Monaghan”:”DFID has funded outstanding research projects with partners in the developing world.”
Stephen Crabb: “I always remember Malcolm Bruce, the former Chair of the International Development Committee, saying, “The thing about DFID is that it’s not as good as it thinks it is, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its critics say.”
Of course, the media quickly published articles on Johnson’s move and speech. The Times picked up on one part of his speech, “We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security” – aid to Ukraine is not ODA! ODA, or Official Development Assistance is ‘aid’ for least developed countries and Ukraine is not one of them while Zambia is. The Times article further states “The merger is said to have the backing of both permanent secretaries at the Foreign Office and DFID” – There is no permanent DFID Permanent Secretary at present; Nick Dyer is only acting while Sir Simon McDonald is permanently in place. Interestingly, McDonald used to be a DFID Perm Sec, so it is very strange he would have agreed with a DFID-FCO merger. Another lie from Mr Johnson?
The anger over this merger or elimination is still raging in the media and social media. One key reason why is DFID’s excellent performance in producing outcomes and ensuring almost no levels of corruption, contrary to public opinion. You can view ICAI’s report on DFID’s work, published just in 2019, here. Another strong reason for the anger is the secrecy over this move, although many would have expected it. Boris Johnson paused his ‘comprehensive’ Integrated Review due to the COVID-19 outbreak yet he announced this merger without even publishing the whole Integrated Review. Secretary of State Anne-Marie Trevelyan never reported in her evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee on this merger and in fact agreed that separate DFID and FCO Secretaries would be best, although it is reported on twitter she knew her job would not last for very long.
DFID, across its 23 years of existence, is not perfect. Under the Labour Party, it produced for white papers and since its 2010 White Paper, the subsequent White Papers propose UK development and ODA to be centred around neoliberal, free-market policies instead of inclusive policies to improve development. DFID has not had a stellar record in its work in conflict states. UK ODA under DFID has mainly been used for ‘quick-wins’ or rather targets like x number of mothers saved from still birth, y number of girls in school or its best, z number of people vaccinated. That is short-term development, not long term. In a wider-lens, the UK should not be fixated on the 0.7% aid target, which is outdated and forced this merger.
I could ramble one but now move to questions for this new department, with a weird acronym FCDOFF – don’t laugh.
1) Will the UK still provide foreign aid as in aid for national security purposes or still ODA?
A department, under Dominic Rabb, the Foreign and Development Secretary or whatever new title, will be as stated, use ambassadors as the in-country judge for providing UK development aid. UK aid is legally protected as ODA based on the International Development Act 2002, the International Development Act 2002 (Commencement) Order 2002 and the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006. With this new department, the contents of these legislations with have to change but more importantly, will UK aid always be for the purpose of development or, with a foreign-policy oriented secretary and team, now be for political and national security means first, development second?
2) Will UK aid or ODA will remain as effective and transparent as it has been since 1997? I say effective because OECD peer reviews applaud the DFID Cabinet-level and independent ministry model while do not place such praise on other OECD-DAC donors-again another lie Boris Johnson makes. Transparency is also another talked about issue. NGO campaigners and organisations like the OECD and other donors look up to DFID as a model for transparency and accountability. A foreign-policy centred department, already that of the current FCO, will unlikely wish to make all of its external financial assistance known to all, often citing security interests.
3) On the multilateral front, it will be messy. DFID’s independence means its Secretary of State sits on the World Bank’s Board of Governors while his or her counterparts often are the finance minsters or foreign ministers, not development-centred politicians. With this new department, will the UK head back to the past, posting the Foreign Secretary or the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the World Bank, a key deveelopment organisation?
4) What will the global community say, after praising DFID for years of excellence in development delivery, research and organisation as opposed to other models? Given the criticisms of merging development departments into foreign ministries, see this great ODI report, will the global community–not just other countries but communities and international organisations–look up to the UK? The OECD has constantly praised the UK model for development, aid and DFID as a whole, what will it say now with this merged foreign policy department?
The Westminster system allows the reigning party in the House of Commons to enact changes and laws with the opposition only to oppose by debating and voting. This end of DFID — it is an end whatever Johnson says — brings up uncertainty and conflict.
Update: The House of Lords debated the PM’s speech on 18 June. A very well-knowledgeable debate.