Photo by: Rich Taylor / DFID / CC BY

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Tuesday — confirming the U.K.’s development sector’s widely-held fear that he would do away with a standalone development department.

The two departments will become the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The move has been long advocated for by Johnson, along with other senior Conservative politicians, but was met with widespread condemnation by civil society and opposition politicians, as well as some within Conservative party ranks.

Opponents say it marks the culmination of a slow-drain on DFID influence — with the official development assistance budget increasingly doled out to other departments — despite the department being regarded as a world leader in aid and responsible for the U.K.’s status as a “development superpower.”

“One cardinal lesson of the pandemic is that distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated,” Johnson said.

He said the merger will “unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring together our international effort.”

The Foreign Secretary will be “empowered to decide which countries receive — or cease to receive – British aid, while delivering a single U.K. strategy for each country, overseen by the National Security Council,” Johnson told parliamentarians. Ambassadors will oversee all the U.K.’s work in-country.

The prime minister said the U.K. was following the examples of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which also implement their development programs through foreign ministries.

The merger comes just days after parliament’s development watchdog recommended that DFID retain its independence, and warned that any change to government structures would be highly disruptive.

But a merger of the two has long been a Damocles sword hanging over the department. It was preceded earlier this year by a merger of DFID junior ministers with FCO, and an order for DFID country directors to report to FCO officials. While the ODA budget will remain at 0.7% of gross national income, its cash value is expected to fall as the U.K. economy contracts.

There was surprise over the timing over the decision, as the U.K. struggles with the coronavirus and the prospect of a severe economic downturn. An integrated review of international policy — which some expected to be a roadmap for the merger — has been paused because of the pandemic.

There are also concerns about what it could mean for the future direction of U.K. aid. DFID was originally spun out of FCO in 1997 to protect the use of aid for poverty reduction purposes. It followed the Pergau Dam scandal, in which a poorly-conceived aid project was revealed to be linked to the sale of fighter jets to Malaysia.

Over the years, DFID has garnered a strong reputation for transparency, impact, and value for money in aid spending, but foreign aid has become unpopular with the media and some elements of the Conservative party.

Meanwhile, FCO — which currently spends around 4.5% of the ODA budget — has consistently scored poorly for its transparency and delivery of ODA. Efforts to boost the department’s resources have taken on renewed significance since the U.K.'s decision to enact Brexit and embark on a new “Global Britain” foreign policy agenda.

About the author

  • 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. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.