DFID and UK aid still under threat, experts warn

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech outside Downing Street in London. Photo by: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development is still at risk of being merged, scrapped, or having its budget plundered by other departments, despite having survived the first week of aid-skeptic Boris Johnson’s premiership, aid experts have warned.

The U.K. aid sector breathed a sigh of relief last week when Alok Sharma was named as DFID’s next secretary of state, dispelling fears that the new prime minister would make good on his earlier calls to merge DFID back into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and reposition aid spending so that it “coheres much better with UK political and indeed commercial objectives.”

However, while Sharma’s appointment may have secured DFID’s status as an independent department for the immediate future, many in the sector fear the department is not yet out of the woods.

They called on the aid community to keep pushing the government to maintain DFID’s independence and the U.K.’s reputation as a “development superpower.”

“I don’t think we should be complacent … or think that the threat [to DFID] is over … there’s a lot to fight for and we must keep reminding everyone of the importance of an independent DFID so the U.K. can continue being a top quality aid donor,” Claire Godfrey, head of policy at the U.K. NGO network Bond, told Devex.

According to a number of sources, some of whom spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties, Johnson’s decision to retain DFID does not necessarily signal a change of heart about the value of an independent aid department — he is simply too busy dealing with Brexit to focus on aid.

“The government doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth to do a ministerial restructuring at the moment, all the focus is on preparing for a potential no-deal Brexit,” one veteran DFID contractor said, although “DFID seems safe in the short term.”

Johnson may also gamble on a general election in the coming months — in hopes it would give the Conservatives a larger majority — before moving to change Britain’s aid set-up, according to another insider.

A former senior DFID official described its new ministerial team as “staggeringly inexperienced” — in terms of time spent working in development, in DFID, and in other ministerial jobs — and worried that other government departments could use this as an opportunity to “raid” the aid budget. The Home Office and FCO — two departments that have spent official development assistance in the past — are now run by ministers who have previously criticized the need for DFID or U.K. aid and will be quick to draw on the budget, the former official warned.

“The real threat is going to be further erosion of DFID influence over ODA. The department is in a particularly vulnerable spot with an inexperienced ministerial team facing fierce opponents in other departments … [who will be] champing at the bit to get more DFID money,” the source said, adding that Johnson is unlikely to be sympathetic to DFID’s cause.

The fact that DFID tends to move slowly compared to its counterparts is another disadvantage, meaning “ODA could be taken to the cleaners quite quickly,” the former official said.

DFID’s portion of the ODA budget has been declining in recent years in response to the government’s 2015 cross-government aid strategy, which calls for up to 30% of aid to be administered by other government departments by 2020.

The upcoming spending review — scheduled for autumn — will be an important signal of how ODA allocations are playing out. DFID’s top civil servant, Matthew Rycroft, said in November that he would defend DFID’s share of the budget during the spending review process and ask for the department to control at least 75% of the budget.

The increasing threat of a no-deal Brexit means a strong and independent DFID is more important than ever, according to Gareth Wallace, government relations manager at World Vision UK.

“If the U.K. dissolves DFID and weakens the legislation [protecting the aid budget] ... then what do we have to offer on the international stage?” he said.

Members of the development community have been speaking out in support of DFID, including David Miliband, former member of Parliament and head of the International Rescue Committee, who wrote in The Times newspaper on Tuesday that “a well-resourced and independent DfID working closely with an engaged and principled foreign office is our best contribution to global stability and humanity.”

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.