“Whatever the theoretical potential benefits of more coherence and alignment, the realpolitik is ... that this will get eaten up in non-development-orientated purposes.”— Emma Mawdsley, academic researcher, University of Cambridge
Relief among development professionals at the news that DFID would retain its independence was short-lived; soon after Anne-Marie Trevelyan was announced as DFID’s new secretary of state, it emerged that all of the department’s junior ministers would now be working jointly for FCO, a Whitehall power rival. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously threatened to merge the two departments.
Although that didn’t happen, the shake-up of the ministerial team was branded “integration by stealth” by one former senior DFID official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is a clear statement of intent on the role development assistance is to play in foreign policy,” he said.
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Previously, DFID shared just two of its four ministers with FCO. The change — under which DFID now has seven ministers, which are all shared with FCO — leaves questions over accountability, policy coordination, and even where the new ministers will base their offices. Longtime Whitehall observers said it was the first time that two departments had shared their entire junior ministerial staff.
The development community has expressed strong opposition to any merger between DFID and FCO, saying it will have a detrimental impact on U.K. aid. Media reports suggest that possibility is still on the cards for later in the year.
Some experts said the joint ministers were to encourage “joined-up” governance between the two departments, which would better serve the government’s Global Britain agenda following Brexit.
“The move towards joint DFID-FCO ministers has been happening for a while,” said Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. Ministers with portfolios across the two departments were first introduced in 2017, under then-Prime Minister Theresa May.
Who’s who in DFID’s shared ministerial team?
► Wendy Morton
Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas
► Baroness Sugg
Minister for Overseas Development and Sustainable Development
► James Duddridge
Minister for Africa
► Zac Goldsmith
Minister of State for Pacific and Environment. He also holds a portfolio with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
► Lord Ahmad
Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth
► Nigel Adams
Minister of State for Asia
► James Cleverly
Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa
“Clearly, Johnson — and Theresa May before him — want more join-up across international departments as part of Global Britain,” Mitchell continued. “This is another step in that direction. It can mean more coherent geographical ministerial responsibilities … [allowing] shared political or ministerial advice.”
But the former DFID official said the move could harm a joined-up approach. “The big challenges will be how each minister receives instructions from their two bosses and how they give views upwards based on advice from possibly two conflicting sources: the officials in each department,” he said.
Ensuring that only advice agreed upon between the sets of officials reaches a secretary of state would likely take up more time with negotiation and debate, the source said. He added that differing time priorities between the two departments could also interfere with coordinated policy implementation and that it was unclear how the junior ministers’ different financial responsibilities would be signed off.
Since new Secretary of State Trevelyan “doesn't look … likely to fall out with the 'governing hand' … [it] could be a risky time for the DFID troops trying to preserve the current positions against new FCO — and No. 10 — influence,” the official said.
Behind the official press releases welcoming the new ministers to their roles, NGOs were not optimistic about the move, with widespread speculation that the maneuver showed DFID’s independence was still at risk.
“It’s essentially the same question as before, and it's dragging on,” said one civil society professional, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties. “There’s still speculation the ministers’ [joint duties] could be a precursor to later merge.”
Emma Mawdsley, who researches the politics of international development at the University of Cambridge, shared a similar sentiment.
“It's not as bad as it might have been, and at least there is still an independent [secretary of state],” she said. “But of course, that’s been the strategy all along — to grab from within rather than reduce or close. It's not a surprise; it's more of the same.”
Mawdsley added that FCO has “an interest in poverty reduction, global public goods, and intelligent strategic response to global issues.” But she continued: “A lot of people have concerns. Whatever the theoretical potential benefits of more coherence and alignment, the realpolitik is ... that this will get eaten up in non-development-orientated purposes.”
Update, Feb. 17, 2020: This article has been updated to note that some media reports suggest a full DFID/FCO merger is still on the cards for later in the year.