The real and present threat to DFID: why it matters
Rumours abound that Prime Minister Johnson will fold the Department for International Development (DFID) into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), dispense with a Cabinet seat for International Development and use this reorganisation as a means of aligning aid and development policies to support the UK’s own interests more closely.
There has been no statement to this effect from the Treasury so rumours are all we have. They are not new. They gained credence when Johnson, on leaving the FCO, told the Financial Times that if “Global Britain” was going to achieve its “full and massive potential” then DFID should be brought into the FCO. He is quoted as saying: “We can’t keep spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO.”
According to an article in the Daily Telegraph in December Johnson is now drawing up plans with his advisors for abolishing or merging Whitehall Departments. One of the goals of this shakeup is to improve the UK’s capacity to influence international relations once we have left the EU. To this end, according to the Telegraph, it is very likely that DFID will merge with the FCO.
Why does this matter?
FCO and DFID have completely different objectives. According to their websites: “The FCO promotes the United Kingdom's interests overseas, supporting our citizens and businesses around the globe” and “DFID leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty”. A merger might spell the end of poverty eradication work where there is no clear link to the promotion of the UK’s interests. This would fly in the face of international co-operation, a field in which the UK has led, not least through its role in negotiating the agreement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015 and pushing for the promise to ‘leave no-one behind’.
Good development entails co-operation with and between nations, hence the rationale for contributing to multilateral organisations such as the UN agencies. It also demands putting the needs of recipient countries first – responding to their development priorities not our foreign policy objectives. The Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation bases its work on four shared principles agreed by more than 160 countries in 2011. They are: ownership of development by developing countries; a focus on results; inclusive partnerships and transparency and accountability to each other. None of these align with promoting the UK’s interests overseas.
DFID, and by extension the UK, has built a strong reputation worldwide for both the quantity (through its commitment to providing 0.7% of Gross National Income) and also the quality of its aid and development. If DFID were to lose the distinct expertise and experience it has developed since the agency was created in 1997, this would diminish its achievements. As we enter the final decade before the SDGs should be met in 2030, not only does the UK Government risk downscaling its own commitment to these universal efforts, it also places at risk the power of its example to others. It is widely accepted among the community of donor nations that the UK has been an exemplar. It would be tragic, in these particularly crucial times for our world, if we should choose to step back from leadership by example in our efforts to create a safer, more sustainable and fairer world by 2030.