The DFID/FCO Merger and the National Interest

Logo of the UK government’s UK AID programme, Department for International Development

Boris Johnson’s announcement on 16 June that he was merging the UK’s diplomatic and development ministries, the FCO and DFID, into a new ‘super-department’, the FCDO, provoked predictably strong reactions. Three former Prime Ministers condemned it as a retrograde step, development charities were unusually outspoken in their opposition, and academics expressed concern. On the other hand there were plenty of traditional critics of the UK’s aid programme ready to applaud what was presented as a refocusing of the UK’s sizeable aid budget in line with the ‘national interest’. (To put this in context, the FCO and DFID together account for less than 2% of total departmental spending.) Who is right, and does any of this really matter?

Most incoming administrations feel the need to make changes to the machinery of government in order to have a Civil Service that better supports their policy ambitions. As the party in power alternated between 1964 and 1997 a separate aid ministry was created three times and dismantled twice, culminating with the establishment of DFID in 1997. Arguably, moving the Whitehall deckchairs around achieves little of itself; however two separate Acts of Parliament, one under the first Blair government and one under David Cameron’s Coalition, gave DFID a particularly important role.

The International Development Act 2002 enshrined in law that the sole purpose of the UK’s aid budget was the eradication of global poverty. This meant there could be no repeat of the  Pergau Dam scandal, where in 1994 the UK was found to have acted illegally by using aid to facilitate arms sales. Then, following a long campaign by NGOs and others The International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 committed the UK to an annual spend of 0.7% of its gross national income on aid, the first G7 member to meet this UN target. The UK is now the world’s third largest aid donor, and DFID’s has been a powerful voice for development within government.

But in parallel to DFID’s rise the FCO has seen its budget repeatedly cut, and the size of its overseas footprint dramatically reduced. This harms the development effort as much as the diplomatic one; if aid is to be effective it must be given within the context of a deep understanding of the local political context. The developmental should be informed by the diplomatic, although not controlled by it; it will be of higher quality as a result, and because of that will serve UK interests better. So the FCO’s decline has been a matter of great regret.

The resource imbalance between the two Departments has been strikingly evident at the level of individual Embassies and High Commissions. While DFID offices were usually well resourced it was embarrassing to observe that Heads of Post sometimes had a minimal number of staff to support them in their work. Symbols also tell a story; I recall being astounded on a visit to Zambia in 2014 to see one sign outside the UK mission in Lusaka saying “British High Commission” and another, equally large, sign saying “Department for International Development”. Recent efforts on all sides have promoted a more joined up approach, but one can understand why as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson might have felt frustrated at the relative lack of resources available to him compared to his DFID colleague.

However, the law says that the aid budget must be spent on poverty eradication. It does not all have to be spent by DFID, though, and in recent years an increasing proportion has been spent by other Departments, including the FCO. A former Permanent Secretary of DFID told me he was happy with this, as it meant that political ownership of the aid budget was spread across Government. It is also important to recognise that there are direct and indirect ways of eradicating poverty – in fact most of them are indirect. From 2016-19 I chaired the Global Challenges Research Fund Strategic Advisory Group, advising the government department responsible for research, BEIS, about the best use of a sizeable portion of the aid budget that in 2015 had been allocated to academic research into global development challenges. I was proud to have that role, and it felt like an effective use of aid money, inspiring UK academia to partner more effectively with counterparts in the developing world to design and deliver research that would have a real impact on tackling poverty.

The Prime Minister’s argument that with a separate DFID and FCO “no single decision maker in either Department is able to unite our efforts or take a comprehensive overview” is strange given that, as he also said, the National Security Council, which he chairs, sets the overall UK strategy for each country. The logical extension of this argument would be that all Whitehall departments should be merged into one. It was also strange to hear him compare spending in Europe unfavourably with spending in Africa, given the huge disparities in wealth across the continents, which of necessity governs where aid funds are spent. Perhaps most bizarre was his description of UK aid as “some giant cashpoint in the sky” – a remark which prompted former FCO Minister Alastair Burt to state “This is untrue, and deeply disrespectful to countless public servants at all levels of DFID over the years.”

An optimistic view of what has happened is “to see it as opening the way to the transformation of the FCO into an organisation that focuses mainly on development programmes”. A more pessimistic view would be that merging the two departmental budgets will allow the government to use aid funds to cover departmental overheads in a way that will adversely affect external scrutiny of the aid budget by watchdogs such as the Independent Commission on Aid Impact – ICAI – which may or may not have a future under the new setup. The Civil Service will certainly face a huge management challenge in merging two organisations with different cultures and systems, not to mention terms and conditions of service of its staff. One is reminded of the bolting together in 2004 by Chancellor Gordon Brown of the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise; it took several difficult years before the new department, HMRC, started operating truly as one.

Having spent half of my executive career in the world of diplomacy and the other half in the world of development I am a strong advocate of co-ordination and co-operation but not necessarily of integration, which can create more problems than it solves. So far there is no indication of how the new Department will be structured. Will the old DFID become a new Directorate within the new FCDO or will everything be integrated across all geographies and functions? If it is the latter, will there be ‘development’ experts sitting alongside ‘foreign policy’ experts in King Charles Street or will everyone be expected to be multi-skilled? Will the incoming DFID personnel become members of HM Diplomatic Service – a distinct branch of the UK Civil Service – or a separate cadre within the FCDO?

Although important, these are essentially management issues. The more fundamental one is about ‘the national interest’ and how broadly or narrowly we define it. Do we believe it is best served by the UK’s being seen as a generous, effective, influential aid donor – acting in general from altruistic motives – or do we see it more in terms, as the Prime Minister said, of “the diplomatic, political and commercial priorities of the Government of the UK”, which the aid budget should support? That is the real question.

This post was updated to correct the date of the visit to Zambia referred to from 2011 to 2014