The most significant concern for ministers managing the impending merger of the U.K. Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office should be the impact of these changes on the poorest and most vulnerable people.
Despite the prime minister’s rhetoric, the experience of other countries that have merged foreign affairs with development departments has been mixed. The critical question is how we can ensure that a merged department is able to deliver on multiple objectives, including those set out by the International Development Act 2002 — addressing and promoting poverty reduction.
The decision to close DFID was met with a chorus of condemnation, but a handful of development experts are taking a more optimistic outlook.
The prime minister has set great store on the new department being able to deliver more “than the sum of its parts,” emphasizing that this is a merger and not a takeover. If so, there are certain areas that must be focused on to ensure that the new department is fit for purpose.
This provides an opportunity to reenergize coherence in U.K. missions across the globe. DFID’s cadre of in-country professionals brings to the merger both a deep cultural understanding of need as well as insights into how support can be best provided. This remains a key resource that can help drive coherence. This expertise must not be lost, nor must the transparency around U.K. aid that DFID has started to develop in recent years. Aid spending must continue to be tracked to ensure that aid is getting to those who need it most.
In any country where development support is at the heart of the U.K. relationship, the ambassador or high commissioner for the country must be someone with strong development credentials.—
Departmental mergers do not, in themselves, bring about greater efficiency. However, they do create a potential opportunity to review, reprioritize, and redevelop a strategic vision. The upcoming integrated review of the U.K.’s international policies provides this. We can hope that the merger will enable the systems and processes that underpin DFID’s effectiveness and transparency to be shared with FCO. Increased oversight of FCO spending, drawing on DFID expertise, will also make a huge difference.
It is important to remember that the merger will take place at a time when there will be a significant reduction in the level of resources allocated to development. It is therefore vital to have a transparent process to ensure that development funds are fully utilized for targeted delivery. Savings can be made through an increased use of shared services and reduced duplication. These resources should then be used to fund new initiatives or address unfunded priorities, leaving the remainder dedicated and focused on addressing poverty and other shared objectives.
There should be a focus on what is needed on a country-by-country basis, giving development a louder voice on the world stage. In any country where development support is at the heart of the U.K. relationship, the ambassador or high commissioner for the country must be someone with strong development credentials. U.K. missions need to have a good understanding of the country context — hence the importance of DFID’s locally based staff — and be in a position to respond to articulated demand for U.K. expertise and partnerships, rather than pushing a dated and colonial model of donor-recipient support.
The development of a strong country platform should not be limited to the expertise of DFID and FCO, but embrace all U.K. departments that have an in-country presence, including those covering security and trade portfolios.
The creation of a new department provides an opportunity to rebuild public trust and reset the dialogue around development. Domestic prosperity requires a level of engagement in the outside world — economic instability, the spread of pandemics, and the impact of climate change do not respect borders.
Public support for development can be generated both from a strictly altruistic stance, as well as on the issue of mutual prosperity and resilience. A renewed and revitalized department focused on poverty reduction, delivering results and impact, is good for the world and for the U.K.’s standing. We need to hold the new department to account to ensure it delivers on its commitments to poverty reduction and to ensuring that the U.K. shapes and influences the development discourse for years to come.