British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a general election campaign event in Manchester, Britain. Photo by: REUTERS / Toby Melville

LONDON — Aid-friendly politicians and civil society groups have urged the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep the Department for International Development as a standalone department after rumors circulated that the Conservatives plan to merge DFID with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office if they win a majority in Thursday’s general election.

It comes after civil servants from DFID and FCO were asked by the Cabinet Office to put together options for a merger between the two departments, as well as ways they could work more closely together as separate departments, multiple sources told Devex.

“To merge them would damage the work of both.”

— Kevin Watkins, CEO, Save the Children UK

That has stoked ongoing concerns within the aid community that Johnson intends to make good on his earlier call for Britain’s $14.5 billion aid budget to come under the foreign secretary and be spent more in line with the country’s “national interest” and broader foreign policy agenda.

UK election 2019: How do parties' promises on aid measure up?

Devex takes a look at the campaign promises of the three main parties — from the Conservatives' quiet change of tone to Labour's "green revolution," and the Liberal Democrats' plans for DFID.

After preparations were reported in the media, sources sought to reassure the aid community that it was “standard practice” for departments to prepare for various scenarios ahead of a general election and that it was not necessarily an indicator of future policy. DFID is also preparing plans for what happens if Labour wins a majority, one source said.

Devex understands that civil servants from both departments have advised against a merger and put forward a closer working relationship between the two departments as a better option.

U.K. NGOs are dismayed, but not surprised, by the news that a potential merger is still on the table. The fact that the Conservative manifesto did not mention DFID, let alone its ongoing independence, had already set off alarm bells for some.

Just last week, The Guardian published an open letter to the next prime minister, signed by dozens of NGO leaders, calling for DFID to continue as a standalone department with its own secretary of state. Scrapping or merging DFID will reduce the transparency, accountability, and effectiveness of U.K. aid, and damage the U.K.’s reputation as a “development superpower,” the NGO leaders wrote.

Insiders told Devex that if a merger does go ahead it is expected to be “slow-burning” and unlikely to happen until early next year. A Conservative source added that senior politicians within the party are trying to persuade the prime minister that DFID should be left alone.

Alistair Burt, a former joint minister for DFID and FCO, told Devex in an email that “a stand alone DFID has been of great benefit to the U.K., to its reputation, to thought leadership on development and to its delivery,” and that it had “some considerable political benefit to the Conservative Party.”

He said that a merger between DFID and FCO would need “great scrutiny” and recommended instead that an incoming government should consider how best to “reshape the structures and mechanisms of Government to ensure [its] collective foreign policy aims are delivered more effectively but keeping a stand alone DFID.”

NGO leaders are also stepping forward to defend the department. A DFID and FCO merger would be “deeply damaging for the U.K.’s ability to provide for the world’s poorest children,” and would harm both departments, Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK, said in a statement.

“Save the Children is reliant on the excellence of both the Foreign Office and DFID, but they are effective because they have distinct skillsets, culture[s] and objectives. To merge them would damage the work of both. We can and should have an effective and well-resourced Foreign Office alongside an independent DFID,” he added.

Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, the U.K. network of development organizations, said: "Any merger of the FCO and DFID could mean U.K. aid will no longer be about helping those suffering the consequences [of] climate change, and supporting people trying to survive war and disease. U.K. aid could instead become a façade for UK foreign policy, commercial interests and political objectives.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.