DFID country directors told to report to the Foreign Office

DFID country directors will now report to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Photo by: PA Images / Reuters

LONDON — Department for International Development country directors around the world must now report to Foreign & Commonwealth Office officials in an “alarming” revelation, insiders said.

Instead of reporting to DFID’s U.K. headquarters, DFID officials in its country offices will answer to British ambassadors or high commissioners, who work for FCO, according to a memo sent to senior management this week.

FCO is the department long favored by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take control of DFID. It is believed the decision will give it greater control over DFID budgets and will cast yet another shadow over the autonomy of the department.

Already this year, DFID saw the unprecedented merger of all its junior ministers with FCO, and is now facing the prospect of a far-reaching, integrated foreign policy review, which some observers believe could spell the end of the department.

The news marks another knockback for DFID, renowned as one of the world’s best development agencies, where morale is low and staff disillusionment with leading officials has become starker.

"DFID senior management seem not to have put up much of an opposition, most being recent appointments with little background in development," said one long time staffer, speaking anonymously to protect his job.

As an example, the source cited DFID’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, who joined the department in 2018 having previously served as British permanent representative to the United Nations and chief operating officer at FCO. He also raised questions about how the set-up will work in practice.

One country director told The Times newspaper: “The number of times the ambassador tried to get me to fund stuff, and I was politely able to say no, is countless. This will change all the dynamics. Apparently we still have accountability for delivery and the ambassador has responsibility. So, basically, they decide what happens and we get in trouble if it doesn’t get delivered.”

Civil society representatives reacted to the news with shock.

“Reports that DFID staff are being told to report directly to the Foreign Office are alarming and suggest the outcome of the integrated security, defence and foreign policy review has been decided before it has even taken place — with zero consultation with humanitarian and development experts,” said Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, the U.K. network for NGOs.

“Aid is increasingly at risk of becoming politicized, a move which will make it less effective at reducing global poverty and inequality. The British taxpayer cannot afford for aid to be redirected towards vanity projects where there is little evidence that it will reach those who need our support the most,” he added.

FCO currently spends about 4.5% of the U.K.’s aid budget but has been criticized for the opacity and weak impact of its aid spending.

The Labour Party also flagged fresh concerns this week as the government declined to specify that the integrated defense, development, and foreign policy review would include a commitment to poverty eradication when asked in a parliamentary question.

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director at ONE Campaign, said: “We’re really concerned about DFID directors in-country reporting to ambassadors; for us, it is a step towards a DFID merger with the Foreign Office. DFID has expertise and a track record in-country of delivering aid programs well, and we absolutely want to see that protected. But reporting into ambassadors is a step in the wrong direction.”

Rumors that DFID could be merged with FCO later this year continue to be reported.

A U.K. government spokesperson said Prime Minister Johnson “is clear he wants all aspects of the government’s international operations to be integrated fully to promote Global Britain. DFID ministers retain authority over spending decisions and accountability for all financial resources remains within existing departmental lines.”

About the author

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    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.