The Cost of Losing DFID

Last week, the Prime Minister and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings delivered their first fundamental shake-up of Whitehall departments, subsuming the Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign Office (FCO). The changes mean that the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will now be in direct control of the £14 billion aid budget and ensure its spending is in line with UK foreign policy.

This decision, taken during a global pandemic with no consultation, will have huge implications for both the charity sector and the UK’s reputation abroad. This is the third time the two departments have merged since the establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Development (ODM) in 1964. The Prime Minister justified his decision by saying that it will ensure “maximum value” for taxpayers, adding that it would mean aid spending better reflected UK aims. But in reality,  the merger is likely to result in a loss of policy and practical expertise in the civil service around international aid, less voice for development at the top table, and less respect for the UK overseas.

Earlier this week, I interviewed the Director of the Catholic international development charity, CAFOD, Christine Allen. CAFOD are an international aid agency working to alleviate poverty and suffering in developing countries. In their statement, they described these plans as “seriously misguided”. Allen said that the merger will have a massive impact on the people that international development charities help, adding that there is already an issue of the bulk of the money allocated for international aid (0.7% of national income) reaching multilateral institutions, NGOs and for-profit contractors. Allen explained that incorporating UK aid into the Foreign Office will mean less money will be available for those who need it at a local level, if tackling poverty is subsumed into an agenda of pursuing British interests abroad.

Allen described the merger as an example of levelling down, particularly with regard to the standards, quality and transparency of DFID, in comparison with the FCO. The ‘2020 Aid Transparency Index,’ published Wednesday by the Publish What You Fund (PWYF) campaign, found that DFID is one of the world’s most transparent donors, rating it as ‘very good.’ The FCO, on the other hand, languished near the bottom of the index, with a rating of ‘fair.’ Gary Forster, CEO of Publish What you Find (PWYF), described the amalgamation of the two departments as causing a “serious transparency challenge” for UK aid, adding that it is difficult to see how the new office will reconcile the competing mandates of poverty reduction and UK foreign policy interests. Therefore, giving the Foreign Secretary oversight of aid would mean less transparency and accountability of how the money is spent, and is likely to mean that money would be diverted to address UK foreign policy interests, rather than alleviating poverty.

The Prime Minister announced the merger within the context of delivering his vision of a “global Britain”. But diluting the focus of international development and depriving it of a separate voice in the cabinet means the UK loses the soft-power benefits of being a global force in this important field. Whilst cross-governmental coordination is absolutely necessary (the pandemic has demonstrated this), this should not be done at the expense of aid quality, for which the world’s poorest will pay the price. As Mark Sheard, the CEO of World Vision UK puts it, “Diverting funds from the world’s poorest communities under the guise of taking back control in the UK would be a dereliction of our responsibility as a nation.” It will send a worrying signal that the eradication of poverty is no longer the primary aim of UK aid.

It is no secret that reforming the civil service has been a long-held ambition for Dominic Cummings, and he has always been frustrated by the processes of Whitehall. Some see the merger as a way of coordinating the policy objectives of helping the vulnerable whilst promoting Britain abroad. However, confusing aid objectives with foreign policy decisions will drive us even further backwards.  In fact, at a time when international cooperation is absolutely critical, the best route to positive influence for “Global Britain” is to maintain its leading development role — and keeping it as an independent department. Stripping DFID of its independence and downplaying its significance by absorbing it into the FCO negatively impacts both people in poverty and the UK’s standing in the world.

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