In June, the British foreign policy apparatus made an announcement that surprised everyone, and no one, at the same time. The Department for International Development (DFID), which for over twenty years served as the government's primary agent of its global development policy, was to be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's past remarks highlighted his aversion to development aid and his desire to have DFID report directly to FCO. But given the twin uncertainties of Brexit and a global pandemic, even close observers were surprised by the timing of the decision that DFID would be no more.
Donor agencies around the world have long envied DFID for its robust commitments to the cause of global poverty eradication. This included a ring-fence around the aid budget and more recently, a legally binding fiscal target to spend the 0.7% of GNI as official development assistance. DFID has had an outsized reputation in the global development field, respected internationally in the marketplace for its staff and ideas, and admired for its robust domestic development ecosystem that unites practitioners, researchers and policy-makers. And yet, even these qualities and allies were not enough to protect its abolition.
To be fair, DFID's influence had been in decline since the last UK Aid Strategy. Launched in 2015, the aid budget was subject to double-counting exercises that topped-up university research budgets and commercial supports to British business through the creation special purposes funds managed outside DFID. As aid budgets diverted to other departments and agenda-setting power shifted towards the National Security Council, DFID became one among several departments influencing the direction of aid policy. Moreover, it was feebler compared to a decade ago, suffering from unstable political leadership with no less than six Secretaries of State for International Development serving between 2015 and 2020. Ultimately, problems of the government’s own making hastened the conditions under which merging DFID became tenable in the first place.
Just one week before the merger's announcement, the UK International Development Select Committee released a report that unequivocally recommended maintaining an independent DFID. Relying on 15 oral testimonies and 69 written submissions, it concluded there was a high risk a merger would subordinate the ultimate purpose of British overseas development enshrined in the 2002 International Development Act – namely to contribute to poverty reduction – which could threaten the UK's reputation and influence overseas. The British government decided to shift Whitehall deckchairs even before the ink on this report was dry, and much before the findings of its Integrated Review of its Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Even senior British Conservative figures suggested a UK merger would be wrong-headed, representing a Foreign Office power grab for DFID's resources, influence and reputation.
As one former Minister has admitted, safeguarding British interests and values could have been delivered within the separate administrative structures of DFID and FCO, with far less cost and upheaval. While Canada is often cited as an example of a successful merger, administrative consolidation occurred alongside the election of a Liberal government in 2015 with progressive liberal internationalist tendencies. Even then, the Canadian merger remains a work in progress. Upon the announcement of the DFID merger stories emerged of incredulous reactions among development officials at Global Affairs Canada still grappling with the 'bureaucratic nightmare' of amalgamation. "Didn't they learn anything from us?" they asked.
In the corporate sector, mergers occur to diversify products and services, increase capabilities, cut costs and increase market share. In the case of bureaucratic mergers, there are parallel logics used to defend mergers, including greater efficiency, performance improvements and better policy coherence. And while the allure of overcoming bureaucratic silos and addressing multi-faced global challenges with a multiplicity of instruments and skills has excited some UK observers, the evidence for these positive consequences in Australia and Canada after their mergers is weak, at best.
From early on, a range of concerns about the content and implications of the merger have popped up. This includes a clutch of senior appointments drawn from mainly the diplomatic side of the house, and a questionable commitment to international aid spending rules, including the possibility of changes to the 2002 Act that ties British aid to the objective of poverty reduction. Nevertheless, even vocal critics recognise that challenging the merger is little more than 'shouting at the moon.' The UK development establishment is now turning its efforts to shielding its priorities, capacities and ambitions from dilution and distortion, to make lemonade out of its lemon. And yet, with this merger, the political modernisation of British development policy is likely to be subject to a heavy dose of transactional realist foreign policy, as most of these erstwhile critics will admit in private.
Current proposals on the table include a differentiated strategy for aid allocation based on three categories: country needs, the opportunity for impact and the UK's national interest. Many countries, including Australia, Switzerland and Denmark have variations of these managerial 'tests' to tailor the content and location of their overseas engagement. Clearly, what's important is the British filter through which these distinctions are understood and how they are then applied. British interests, properly served, target the long-term goals of global sustainability, economic stability and human security, not the short term windfalls of a commercial contract or new ally. To address needs and have impact, Britain will need to dissect whose needs are being prioritised and champion local decision-makers and problem-solvers. Ten years ago DFID country offices had three times as much spending authority (roughly £15m) than they did at the time of the merger to support decentralised decision-making that allowed for some understanding of these complexities. Recently, even projects under the £5m threshold have escalated back to London for approvals, undercutting UK traditional comparative advantages as a flexible and responsive donor.
A renewed political commitment for development does not arrive with a snappy tagline calling the newly baptised Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to 'be a force for good in the world'. The FCDO needs to have clear criteria by which its success will be judged. Scrutiny bodies like the Independent Commission of Aid Impact and the International Development Committee should define these benchmarks, monitor successes and seek remedial actions where necessary. A more transparent reflection on what the merger achieves, and where it has fallen short, might be an opportunity to build a more mature relation with its taxpaying citizen and overseas stakeholders, as well as resolving remaining operational challenges at this pandemic-induced crossroads.
Either way, a merged ministry will become an institutional reality that will be hard to dislodge. In the long run, however, a merger is reversible. One hopes by the time a political opportunity for separation presents itself in the UK, the strength of the government's commitment to the world's poorest makes a de-merger wholly unnecessary.