Future of DFID hangs in the balance after Conservative landslide

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street after meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace to seek permission to form a government. Photo by: REUTERS / Dylan Martinez

LONDON — The fate of the U.K. Department for International Development appears more uncertain than ever after aid-skeptic Boris Johnson’s Conservative party secured a decisive majority in Thursday’s election.

The landslide victory, which saw the Conservatives win 365 seats in parliament — the party’s biggest majority since the 1980s — reignited fears that the prime minister could merge DFID with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Johnson has previously said he wants 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.” Last week, Devex reported that civil servants from DFID and FCO had been asked by the Cabinet Office to draw up plans for a potential merger between the two departments, as well as ways the two departments could work more closely together while remaining separate.

DFID and FCO draw up plans for a potential merger

Civil servants and Conservative politicians are said to be trying to convince Prime Minister Boris Johnson to protect DFID's independence if the party wins a majority in Thursday's election.

Members of the aid community are now watching to see whether Johnson appoints a secretary of state for international development as part of his new government on Monday, taking it as an indicator of DFID’s future.

The department’s previous boss, Alok Sharma, managed to hang on to his parliamentary seat — despite a challenge from the Labour Party — but it is not clear if he will be reappointed to his Cabinet position. Meanwhile, former junior minister Zac Goldsmith, who had worked across DFID and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, lost his Richmond Park seat to the Liberal Democrats.

However, senior Tory and civil society sources told Devex that a merger between FCO and DFID, if approved, is unlikely to take place until early next year.

“A possible merger seems more likely next year, not next weekend,” one source said.

Pro-development Conservative politicians and civil society groups have been lobbying Johnson to keep DFID as a standalone department, arguing that it strengthens the effectiveness of U.K. aid.

Senior civil servants at both FCO and DFID are also understood to be against a merger, preferring instead to improve cross-departmental collaboration on development.

The chief executives of the U.K.’s major NGOs are due to meet with DFID on Tuesday to discuss the implications of the election and ongoing business, including the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit, which is scheduled to take place in January.

Despite the concerns about the future of DFID and U.K. aid, a number of experts told Devex there are still reasons to be hopeful after the election result.

“The Conservative manifesto has some really positive commitments in it from an international development perspective … on girls’ education and maternal, new-born, and child health,” Alastair Russell, senior public affairs adviser at Save the Children UK, told Devex.

The party’s manifesto was light on detail and new commitments around aid, but did pledge to maintain the target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and vowed to “end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030, and lead the way in eradicating Ebola and malaria.”

For Stephanie Draper, CEO at Bond, the U.K. network of development NGOs, the best way to deliver on those commitments is by “retaining a standalone Department for International Development, with a Secretary of State for International Development, that [has] the expertise, reputation and credibility to get the job done,” she said.

Ian Mitchell, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the aid community should focus on its strategy, rather than departmental structures alone.

“The ultimate aim of development policy should be … poverty reduction — as the U.K. law makes clear. An independent DFID is likely to be the best way of achieving that but the underlying ambition, policies, and effectiveness are what really matter,” Mitchell said.

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.