Another controversial governmental merger!

As of yesterday (August 31st), the Department for International Development (DFID) has been merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, from which it was originally spun in 1997 to protect the use of aid for poverty reduction purposes. 

There has been surprise and alarm over the timing over the decision, as the UK struggles with the current Coronavirus pandemic and the prospect of a severe economic downturn. An integrated review of UK foreign policy  – which some expected to be a roadmap for the merger – has been paused because of the pandemic.

The original ambition of DFID was to halve the proportion of people living in poverty globally, get all children into primary education, improve access to reproductive health care as well as reduce infant, child, and maternal mortality. The report also proposed making mutual agreements with our development partners, improving coordination of assistance in support of locally-owned development strategies, and a determination to achieve coherence between aid and other policies that impact developing countries.

DFID has also achieved significant influence by persuading the world to commit to the Millennium Development Goals, which led to a united global effort to systematically reduce poverty, improve healthcare, and get all children to school. It also worked to resolve conflict and to improve the effectiveness of the international system in dealing with humanitarian disasters.

There are concerns about what the current merger could mean for the future direction of UK foreign aid. Just at a time when the world is facing a global health emergency and an existential threat from climate change, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have decided to dismantle one of the world’s most effective development organisations. Does this make sense, or will it have negative implications for the health of men, women and children around the world?

Comments (6) Add yours ↓
  1. Nicholas Wade Technical Author

    Hi, I tend to play the devils advocate simply out of boredom of one sort or another and that’s the direction my comment comes from. When you extol the virtues of DFID I just have to get on my high horse and start doing a Google search. I’ve just looked at the last DFID Annual Report and Accounts 2018/19 and frankly, to my eyes, it looks like DFID are into more pies than the UN and I wonder whether they can actually be doing that much good? This led me to another report, this time by someone who goes out to those areas and so sees on the ground the effectiveness of DFID. The author’s blog calls into question the whole DFID experience:
    I’ve no idea whether Mr Murray is competent to adjudicate on DFID but I do think the glowing DFID Annual Report a little too good to be true..

    September 2, 2020 Reply
  2. Stewart Fleming Former US Editor Financial Times

    When three former British prime ministers, Labour and Conservative, (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron) question the wisdom of the government decision to move DIFD into the maw of the Foreign Office their comments cannot be lightly dismissed. Cameron’s judgement was particularly acerbic. “It will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas,” he said.

    Britain’s contribution to development aid is not to be sneezed at. The authoritative OECD, an international, government sponsored think-tank based in Paris, says total aid has been running at around $132 billion each year, with the United States the biggest donor, contributing over $30 billion. Britain and Germany are second and third respectively at around $18 billion. The European Union, fourth on the list, has been spending around $14 billion a year. But, in addition, EU member states provide official government aid of over $70 billion, making the EU’s total over $80 billion! China’s government is also a lavish spender in poorer foreign countries, but its spending is opaque and widely seen as designed primarily to further China’s interests not the borrowers’.

    So what to make of PM Boris Johnson’s decision to end DIFD’s independence? Let’s take Cameron’s last two points first. Governments are hierarchical. Prime Ministers speak to other PMs, and the same goes for development ministers. Numbers three or four in the Foreign Office will not command ready access to the top levels of foreign governments. They may end up having less influence in other lending agencies, self-evidently (since we have left) the big spending EU, but also the World Bank in Washington, the centre of the global development aid eco-system. Since co-operation and co-ordination are crucial, not least to fight corruption and get the best value for money, British aid will become less effective and British influence diminish.

    But the biggest threat comes from the government’s failure to give a clear explanation of what it is trying to achieve. Is it simply trying to save money? Or is it driven by even more questionable motives. One fear, reported by The Times this week but rejected by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, is that British pounds will now be spent with Britain’s self-interest, defence and security and also trade, becoming the top priority. The Nordic countries and Canada, for example, harvest global goodwill from their overseas aid programmes in part because they are seen to be driven primarily by the interests of the aid recipients. If the UK, like China, is now going to tie is aid to trade and the pursuit of its self-interest, its “global Britain” agenda, this will erode trust amongst other donors as well as within recipient countries. With its attack on the civil service now in high gear, it will also demoralise DIFD officials, many of whom have dedicated their lives, and risked them, doing their jobs.

    September 2, 2020 Reply
  3. Stewart Fleming Former US Editor Financial Times

    This is a fascinating insight into what is going on beneath the radar. The British public may not be paying much attention to the future of Britain’s foreign aid budget, for understandable reasons many voters think aid money would better be spent at home: and parliamentary scrutiny of aid issues rarely makes headlines. But you can be quite sure that big aid givers like Germany and the Nordic countries and institutions like the World Bank, as well as aid receivers, will be watching the Foreign Office’s takeover of the Department for International Development (DIFD) carefully, aware that it is already actively seeking ways to help some countries, including Commonwealth members, deal with the Covid threat, and wondering whether a narrower Trumpian nationalism will become the defining characteristic of British aid policy- forewarned is forearmed. They will also wonder why, with so many domestic challenges looming and with even some back-bench Conservative MPs prepared to put their names to comments questioning the government’s competence, what precisely is it that is driving Boris Johnson’s overburdened and error prone administration, at this moment, to take so radical a step as to shutter DIFD? Given his parliamentary majority and more than three years to go before the next scheduled election, stealthier tactics could surely have secured his objective with less risk, leaving him the option of a frontal assault on DIFD if they failed.

    September 3, 2020 Reply
    • Nicholas Wade Technical Author

      But this seems to be characteristic of Boris’ squirt and see who gets wet style of political management. My uniformed guess would be that he’s simply like the little Dutch boy plugging holes (hence his irrational positioning of fops to the House of Lords).

      September 5, 2020 Reply
  4. Nicola Stingelin (Dr) Ethicist: advisor to academia, commercial sector and the NHS

    To add a pennyworth to the learned comments above from another perspective:

    Is a worrying indicator of the direction of travel of the UK foreign aid and foreign policy to be found in political reactions to COVID-19 regarding ‘vaccine nationalism’? This term refers to governments acting to ensure that their own country has priority access to any vaccine or treatment that will hopefully be developed, irrespective of where global needs are highest; irrespective of national health system considerations and irrespective of what will on a global level do most to reduce transmission and health status.

    The risks of this approach are clear. As the Harvard Business Review states, the current, prevailing every nation for itself approach to obtaining potential vaccines and remedies for Covid-19 is morally reprehensible and the wrong way to reduce transmission globally.

    The indications that countries are not pursuing a collective, equitable global strategy for combating the pandemic include AstraZeneca reporting that due to the U.K.’s $79 million investment, the first 30 million doses of the vaccine it’s developing with the University of Oxford would be allocated to the UK.

    [Harvard Business Review, “The Danger of Vaccine Nationalism .“ Rebecca Weintraub, Asaf Bitton, Mark L. Rosenberg 22 May 2020

    Will the merging of DFID with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office facilitate behaviour of the UK of which health professionals can feel proud? We shall see.

    September 6, 2020 Reply

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