LONDON — Figures from across U.K. civil society have disputed the prime minister’s claim that the government ran a consultation on the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Development professionals told Devex they would have raised serious concerns if a consultation had taken place on the merger, which will see DFID merged with FCO to become the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September.
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.
After making the announcement in Parliament, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked by Mary Kelly Foy, a member of Parliament with the Labour Party, if the government had carried out any consultation with humanitarian and development experts and aid organizations.
“I can assure the honorable lady there has been massive consultation over a long period of time,” Johnson replied.
But numerous development experts and groups told Devex they were unaware of any consultation taking place.
A merger has long been feared, and many expected it would happen following the government’s integrated review of international policies, which has been paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. Observers were caught off guard by the decision being made before the review is complete, denying aid groups the opportunity to contribute evidence.
“The integrated review was clearly the process by which stakeholders would be engaged and consulted on the right approach to foreign policy, and this absolutely preempts the conclusions of that review,” said Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “There’s been a public debate but not a public consultation,” he added.
Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, the U.K. network for aid nongovernmental organizations, said the merger went ahead “with no consultation and against the advice of aid scrutiny bodies, as well as our development sector.”
The International Development Committee, a cross-party group of politicians tasked with scrutinizing U.K. aid spending on behalf of Parliament, recommended just days ago that DFID should remain independent.
“This proposal did not come as a result of a consultation with those who want to focus on the poorest.”— Neil Thorns, head of advocacy, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development
Neil Thorns, head of advocacy at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development aid organization, wrote to Devex: “We’d like to know who the PM [prime minister] believes was consulted on this. We severely doubt whether it was with those who are most affected, the poorest communities and those who work closely with them. This proposal did not come as a result of a consultation with those who want to focus on the poorest.”
Save the Children, one of the U.K.’s biggest NGOs, was also in the dark. “Certainly there hasn’t been a consultation as far as we’ve been aware. It hasn’t involved us … on what our views would be on the merger of DFID and the Foreign Office,” said Alastair Russell, public affairs adviser at the charity.
Like other NGOs, Save the Children had been calling for a government consultation with “external stakeholders” during the integrated review process. “Any way you look at this, it's a bad move,” Russell said.
He said a proper consultation would have revealed that the government was “getting rid of the department with the highest levels of transparency, highest levels of scrutiny, the most experienced expertise approaching aid in the places it can make the biggest difference, in favor of giving that to a department [FCO] that has a much worse level of transparency and low levels of scrutiny for its aid spending and — crucially — doesn't have the same objectives.”
While it is too early to tell what the impact will be on the NGO’s programming, Russell said Save the Children’s biggest concern is that the “objectives of international development and humanitarianism will be playing second fiddle to the national interest.”
Stewart Wood, chair of the United Nations Association – UK, said it would have been “sensible” to wait until the integrated review was complete and it was “worrying to see an announcement be made like this seemingly without meaningful consultation or regard for a broader strategy.”