FCDO prepares to open its doors amid uncertainty for UK aid

Former DFID chief economist Stefan Dercon, is appointed as the policy adviser to Secretary of State Dominic Raab. Photo by: Chatham House / Flickr / CC BY

LONDON — Two key appointments to the U.K.’s new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office were met with broad approval by development professionals on Monday, as the department prepares to open its doors.  

But the final days of the Department for International Development were marked by a government threat to end its legal commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and to “review” a key body scrutinizing how it is spent.

The U.K. Parliament returned from recess on Tuesday to a busy term, as the government deals with domestic political battles and civil service reform, along with the launch of its new international department, the opening of which was quietly pushed back a day to Sept. 2.

The initial FCDO leadership team was revealed to staffers last week, leading to disappointment among some development insiders over the lack of DFID faces in the line-up.

On Monday, however, it emerged that DFID Chief Economist Rachel Glennerster would continue her role within the new department, becoming the first chief economist at FCDO.

She previously worked at the International Monetary Fund and served as executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a research center.

“I'll be working with a great team to combine the very best of Foreign Office and DFID into one of the great economic ministries of the UK and to be a force for good in the world,” Glennerster wrote on Twitter.

She said there was “lots of potential to combine different instruments — trade, diplomacy, investment, research, and aid — to have a greater impact on the world. Aid flows on their own will always be small compared to the impact of policy, investment, and remittances but they can be [an] important catalyst.”

She cited the work of Baroness Liz Sugg, the U.K. government’s special envoy for girls’ education, and the U.K.’s recent work on COVID-19 vaccine research as examples “of this potential.”

The appointment was “fantastic news” according to David Moinina Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s minister of education and chief innovation officer. He tweeted: “Your ground level and hands-on approach will be instrumental in this new role.”

Another former DFID chief economist, Stefan Dercon, will become policy adviser to Secretary of State Dominic Raab, advising him in a civil servant’s capacity “on all matters related to development spending and policy in the new FCDO,” Dercon told Devex via email.

Dercon has been working as a professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford, and recently wrote about the need for FCDO to have a “culture of innovation and impact, driven by internal and external accountability.”

He is “very smart, bright, thoughtful and on the right side of the argument” in the battle over aid, according to one former DFID insider.

But there were some voices of dissent on the new candidates. “They are qualified individuals, but there is no reflection, including from the ‘development bubble’ where everybody congratulates everybody on their appointment,” said one aid watcher.

“I understand the notion of continuity, but it still smells a bit like old-boys-Oxford networks ... I'm wondering whether U.K. civil society will be afraid to speak up,” he added.

Any optimism about the appointments was also overshadowed by news reports highlighting the possibility of the government overturning the legal commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, throwing into doubt repeated ministerial assurances that the commitment would be safe. Politicians closely connected to development told Devex the government was likely using the media to test reaction to the idea.

It was met with immediate opposition from within the Conservative party. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee group of members of Parliament, called it “shortsighted.”

He tweeted: “Cutting aid also fuels instability which impacts on the UK. Let’s think strategically.”

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has since denied there will be any changes to the 0.7% commitment, and The Telegraph newspaper quoted a senior official as saying: “Whoever is suggesting this doesn’t know the mind of [the] Foreign Secretary.”

In addition, the government announced a surprise review of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact — a highly-respected aid watchdog — in the autumn. It will examine ministerial engagement with ICAI and how U.K. aid spending and impact can be improved, according to a government statement.

“We are integrating our aid budget with our diplomatic clout in the new FCDO to maximize the impact of our foreign policy,” Raab said. “That’s why I want to reinforce the role of ICAI, to strengthen further transparency and accountability in the use of taxpayers’ money and relentlessly focus our Global Britain strategy on policies and in areas that deliver the most value,” he added.

The foreign secretary wants ICAI to be a “committee for what works” in development, according to the statement.

However, there was some surprise among development professionals at the move, as the commission is already widely regarded as a core pillar of U.K. aid scrutiny and is credited with having improved the quality of spending. The announcement comes after the government repeatedly dodged questions about ICAI’s future.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary fight over the future of the International Development Committee, a group of politicians who monitor government aid spending and which forms another key element of scrutiny, is set to continue into the new Parliament.

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.