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Downgrading DFID – How will Britain’s Overseas Development Aid Agenda change now DFID is part of the FCO?
For the last 23 years, since the birth of the Blair government, a key aspect of British foreign policy, and indeed Britain’s global reputation, has been its overseas development aid (ODA) policy. Blair’s creation of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the increasing budget for that department not only made ODA a key plank within Britain’s foreign policy, but also massively increased Britain’s visibility within the development field, building new relationships with developing nations and many former colonies. By increasing investment in the developing world, Britain was able to create new trade opportunities, rehabilitate its international reputation in the developing world and push its international priorities within a soft power agenda. However, the ODA budget has been under increasing pressure for over a decade, now being reduced to 0.5 per cent GNI following the Autumn Spending Review for the foreseeable future, because of both economic pressures and ideological disagreement in some quarters, primarily the political right. Boris Johnson announced in June 2020 that DFID would be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), a move long favoured by many within the FCO and the Conservative cabinet. This article will consider what the implications of this change are likely to be and how the good work of DFID can be continued within the FCO, or whether it will be fatally undermined.
The aims of merger
For supporters of the merging of DFID and the FCO, it is logical for both departments to work as one. If the FCO oversees Britain’s policy ‘overseas’ then Britain’s relationship with developing nations should be part of that. As Johnson highlighted in his speech announcing the merger ‘we tolerate a risk of our left and right hands working independently’. The potential for mixed messages, alongside concerns over value for money are both longstanding arguments for the merger and were both mentioned by Johnson in the House of Commons announcement. With two separate government departments, both acting with different priorities at their heart, the possibility for mixed messaging and conflicting activity is evident. Johnson argued that this conflict, coupled with an overly generous ODA budget meant that UK aid was a ‘giant cashpoint in the sky’.
With the merging of the FCO and DFID, the newly created FCDO will have a much larger budget than the previous FCO even with the reduction to 0.5 per cent GNI, allowing the UK to strategically spent aid money, not necessarily in the poorest countries or on projects, which address the most pressing global need, but on projects which advance the UK’s interests overseas. Quoted in the Guardian newspaper, Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah stated: ‘Effectively what he’s saying is, we’re going to use our aid budget to pursue security and diplomatic aims. Those are noble aims, but that’s not what aid is for’. For the Johnson government, aid is another tool at their disposal for pushing Britain’s global agenda and interests, which may be unpalatable for some supporters of Britain’s previous ODA policy, but are not necessarily out of line with the actions of many other Western nations, including Canada and Australia, where self-interest and ODA are very closely linked.
The path forward for aid
The merging of DFID into the FCO has two potentially huge implications. Firstly, by removing the DFID Secretary of State (with those former responsibilities now falling to the FCDO Ministers), the influence and power of Britain’s development aid agenda is reduced, becoming one voice amongst many competing voices. Secondly, the budget of DFID has dwarfed the FCO budget since its creation (standing in 2019 at £15 billion for DFID and £2.4 billion for the FCO). It is likely that this departmental merging will allow the FCDO to spend money allotted to ODA spending in a wide variety of ways, some development orientated, some less so. If the British government want to preserve their hard-won developmental credentials, and that is not necessarily the case, they could ring-fence the newly reduced development budget ensuring that the FCO elements within FCDO do not either directly or indirectly influence ODA spending. However, that seems unlikely considering Johnson’s comments that he wants to the two hands of overseas Britain to work together.
Another potential option for the new department, which might benefit both Britain and the developing nations which it donates aid to, is an explicit statement of Britain’s interests and priorities. ‘Joined up government’, as described by previous Prime Ministers, is a laudable aim, with different government departments working in unison to achieve a singular policy agenda. One way of trying to achieve this is being explicit on what that policy agenda is and potential ways of achieving it. However, if your aims are not altruistic or wedded to global goals (such as the UN Millennium Goals, for example), a public statement outlining your priorities might do more harm than good. A more private statement, shared only within government, would certainly be helpful in outlining your aims, and this is something, which the new FCDO will almost certainly produce.
The subsuming of DFID into the FCO raised concerns amongst those in the development field. Indeed, in response to Johnson’s announcement of his plans, 188 charity organisations wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider his decision as it was an ‘unnecessary and expensive distraction’. To date, there has been little work by the Johnson government to allay these concerns but it is possible that, once the complex issues of COVID-19 and Brexit have been dealt with, a clarification of Britain’s development aid agenda may be developed. However, there has been no indication that the Government are keen to allay fears or that the merging is simply an administrative reshuffle. Instead, the merger has been presented as a policy change, meaning that the Johnson government may well have abandoned many of the priorities and relationships, which DFID has focused on since 1997. The reduction in ODA funding certainly seems to be playing to the Conservative base and indicates that Britain’s relationship with the developing world is not one which they prioritise, even after Brexit.
Inevitably, Johnson will eventually leave office, as will the Conservatives. Looking beyond the current government, the future of Britain’s relationship with developing nations will be extremely important in a post-Brexit world. While, to some, development aid may be driven by altruism, charitable urges or even colonial guilt, one advantage of Britain’s donor status has been the impact on Britain’s bi-lateral relationships. By building (or buying) good will and strong working relations, ODA funding is a way of Britain creating new markets and new trading links in a strong global marketplace. Any future government will need to consider how important these linkages are, and how much they are willing to pay for them in the future. Once that decision has been made, they will then have to sell that idea to the British public. The 0.7 per cent spend on ODA is enshrined in law, but the reduction to 0.5 per cent GNI ODA under Johnson, with no specific date on when the figure may rise, suggests that development aid is no longer universally accepted by MPs from both main parties as being beneficial to the UK. It is possible, particularly in the light of the financial hardships, which are expected following COVID-19 and Brexit, that a future government might argue that development aid spending was a luxury which Britain cannot afford permanently. The real question is – is Britain’s ODA policy a luxury, which Britain cannot live without?
It seems likely that the merger of DFID and the FCO will eventually enable or encourage a strategic plan on British foreign policy. The merging of the two departments happened while the current strategic planning exercise was ongoing, rather than waiting for its recommendations on completion. Such a planning exercise would be incredibly useful, allowing Britain to really ‘join up’ some elements of its foreign and development aid policy. While altruism is a noble pursuit, many nations have, at least in some part of their ODA policy, an element of self-interest, and ODA and self-interest do not have to run counter to each other. The situation in Yemen had demonstrated the strange juxtapositions, which governments can so easily fall into. Why would a nation such as the UK provide development aid to a nation ravaged by war, while at the same time, providing the very weapons which are being used to terrorise the population? Securitisation has become a key battleground within the developing world and there is some disquiet over developed nations, such as the UK, using their ODA budgets to ‘clean up’ their military activity overseas. Without a clear line of sight, a clear commitment to the developing world and a desire to deal with short-term problems and ‘bumps in the road’ in the pursuit of longer-term benefits, these two policies usually end up being uncomfortable bedfellows, and unfortunately immediate financial benefit usually wins out over longer term potential benefits, even economic ones.
As we enter a new Brexit world, the issue of ‘Global Britain’ also needs some attention here. If Britain is, as successive Prime Ministers have suggested (for example, May at the Conservative Party Conference, Johnson as reported in the New York Times), keen to build trade linkages with members of the Commonwealth and the wider world, cutting development budgets or downgrading the importance of aid projects could be hugely counterproductive. While conditional aid was eliminated from DFID practices in 1997, it would be foolhardy to believe that the spending of millions of pounds of British money in developing nations on important infrastructure projects and societally vital programmes has not been in Britain’s long-term economic interest. Indeed, in 2012, the coalition government introduced a new design for aid being sent from the UK. Each sack, box or pallet was emblazoned with a new ‘Union Jack’ flag, with the words ‘UK Aid’, ensuring all recipients knew who to thank for their charity. The developing world is a growing market and that means there is more competition than ever to monopolise new markets. Without the relationships which DFID and British aid have nurtured, those relationships will be much harder to come by. Even if aid funding returns to the 0.7 per cent level, it is likely that different priorities and accounting will change the nature of funding without a Secretary of State to defend it, meaning that the ‘Global Britain’ brand, and the associated benefits which Johnson is so keen to collect, may well be damaged, the very opposite of his intentions in subsuming DFID into the FCO.
In the much longer term, as is so often the case in government, it is possible that this newly merged department may once again be two separate ministries. DFID could be resurrected again as it was in 1997 (the original Overseas Development Ministry had been created until Wilson but was merged by Heath into the Foreign Office in the early 1970s). However, to do that you would need to have a party and a leader, as you did in 1997, who are really committed to their ODA policy and are clear about what they want that policy to achieve. Without such a commitment, and the money and political capital required to push through such a separation, particularly in the light of resistance from the FCO which would be extremely likely, any plan for separation would fall apart quickly, potentially disabling Britain’s ODA plans.
The merging (or subsuming) of DFID into the FCO was a move long expected by those within the development world. Relentless pressure has been put on DFID since 2010 (and perhaps before), driven by external economic pressures on Britain, cuts in domestic spending, reporting of corruption or the mishandling of DFID funding and ideological objections. Spending large amounts of money overseas is a difficult policy to justify when children are slipping into poverty in the UK, even if that poverty is relative. It certainly is real to those experiencing it. Despite this, DFID and its 0.7 per cent funding has been relatively protected, first by the Cameron government and then the May government, despite expectations to the contrary. The merging of DFID into the FCO was, in some senses, inevitable, and it seems likely that this is a practical outcome of a downgrading of the development aid policy, with the Johnson government keen to pursue more direct investment opportunities. The reduction in the aid budget to 0.5 per cent GNI certainly suggests that foreign aid is not central to the wider foreign policy priorities of the Johnson government. This means the longer term, but potentially more sustained, building of good will, which ODA funding produces, appear to be being sacrificed and downgraded.
With the economic damage of COVID-19 and Brexit, Britain’s ODA budget is already expected to contract in the financial year 2020/21 and the long-term financial future of the policy could be in jeopardy. Like so many projects, its future is dependent on how long Johnson remains in Downing Street and how long the Conservatives remain in office. A Labour government might well be expected to be more sympathetic to protecting and ringfencing ODA funding and policymaking. Commenting on the proposed merger of DFID and the FCO, leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer tweeted that ‘abolishing one of our best performing and most important departments diminishes Britain’s place in the world’. However, with worsening economic conditions and global uncertainty, even that is not guaranteed, and it may well be that the merger of DFID and the FCO becomes a permanent feature, at least for the next decade or more. With other nations waiting in the wings to build relationships in developing nations and reap the financial rewards, the developing world cannot and will not wait.
Dr Victoria Honeyman is an Associate Professor of British Politics at the University of Leeds. She writes extensively on the Labour and Conservative parties, particularly focused on British Foreign Policy and Britain’s Overseas Development Aid Agenda. Her last article focusing on the Blair government, ‘New Labour’s Overseas Development Aid Policy: charity or self-interest?’ was published in Contemporary British History. She also works extensively with the media appearing on programmes on BBC Radio Four and Five, BBC Breakfast and France 24.
 Amy Jones and Harry Yorke, Boris Johnson scraps overseas aid department, heralding end to ‘giant cashpoint in the sky’, Daily Telegraph, June 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/06/16/lockdown-uk-news-update-boris-johnson/
 Heather Stewart and Patrick Wintour, Three ex-PMs attack plan to merge DFID with Foreign Office, The Guardian, June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/16/foreign-office-and-department-for-international-development-to-merge
 Peter Stubley, Boris Johnson urged to reconsider ‘unnecessary and expensive’ DFID merger by almost 200 charities, The Independent, June 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-dfid-foreign-office-overseas-aid-charity-a9578321.html
 Theresa May calls for ‘truly global Britain’, BBC News, October 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-37535867; Mark Landler, Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’: Inspired vision or wishful thinking?, The New York Times, July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/world/europe/johnson-brexit-hong-kong.html
 New logo: Flying the flag for UK aid, Government website, June 2012, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-logo-flying-the-flag-for-uk-aid
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