Photo by: DFID / CC BY

LONDON — Staff members at the U.K.’s Department for International Development have spoken out about the dissolution of the department, expressing fears over the potential for U.K. aid to be misused and irritation at learning of the news from the media.

Political journalists in the U.K. began reporting the planned merger of DFID with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office several hours before Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the official announcement in Parliament on Tuesday. He said DFID and FCO will become the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September.

DFID merged with FCO

Opponents say the announcement marks the culmination of a slow-drain on DFID's influence, and worry about what it means for the future direction of U.K. aid.

Johnson’s speech was “a real kick in the teeth,” one DFID official told Devex, speaking anonymously to protect their job. The source said the prime minister’s derision of U.K. aid as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” during his speech was “seen as a bit offensive” within the department.

An all-hands meeting with DFID acting Permanent Secretary Nick Dyer took place shortly afterward. One of the first questions from staff members was why they were left to discover the news on Twitter.

Dyer spoke “through gritted teeth,” the official told Devex, and said he had only found out 48 hours previously, showing no enthusiasm for the merger. The meeting also left DFID officials with “no answers” as to what the restructuring would mean for local staff members working with the department overseas.

The account contrasts with the upbeat tone of a written message sent by Dyer to DFID’s staff before the meeting, in which he said that “It is clear from the name [of the new department] that the intent is genuinely to bring development into the mainstream of our international posture and how our world sees us.” He wrote that there would be no compulsory layoffs.

Johnson also wrote a letter to staff members, thanking them and offering reassurance that his objective was “to fortify your great work by uniting the UK’s international effort and overcoming the distinction between overseas development and foreign policy.”

With the U.K. economy forecast for recession — which means a drop in the U.K. aid budget — and having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, DFID has been going through a challenging period. It comes on top of years of successive losses in its share of the aid budget. Staff members were already looking at how to trim budgets, according to the official.

But while the timing was unexpected, the news came as little surprise to some. “We have been moving [in] that direction for months,” said another staffer, also speaking anonymously. The staffer said meetings and preparations for a merger, and working toward a “one government” template, had been happening “for a while.”

The official said: “The big question will be internal reporting lines and policy tensions if the U.K. interest conflicts with global best practice and our international responsibilities.” Another key question will be whether DFID staff members become ambassadors in aid-focused posts, the official added.

DFID — despite its world-leading reputation — has not been without its weaknesses, according to the source, who said it has suffered poor senior leadership and overly complex systems in recent years. “It did need a shake-up,” he said.

He added the department has also suffered huge disruption unrelated to the merger, with “too much focus on grand global commitments and announcements [such as vaccine research] and not on needs of partner country response.”

But the official now expected some staff to leave DFID and highlighted the fears of many in the development sector: that the U.K. would now pursue aid overtly in the national interest and that the quality of aid — for which the U.K. is renowned — would worsen. “It will be Pergau mark two,” he said, referencing the Pergau Dam scandal in the 1990s, when a poorly conceived aid project was revealed to be linked to the sale of fighter jets to Malaysia.

About the authors

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.
  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.