June 12 was my last day as a governance adviser to the Department for International Development in Pakistan.
Over eight years, I had been proud to contribute to projects that meant more children went to school, supplies of vital medicines improved for even the most remote health units, and millions more pregnant women benefited from safe deliveries in hospitals. There is no doubt in my mind that the work we were doing saved hundreds of thousands of lives and changed even more for the better.
"Boris Johnson has decided to dismantle one of the most effective development organizations and subject it to the consideration of short-term British interests," writes Clare Short, the former leader of DFID, in this op-ed.
Over the years, I witnessed DFID become a household name among ordinary citizens, as well as in Pakistan’s corridors of power. And this was not all about money, appreciated though that undoubtedly was.
Even at its peak, the U.K.’s aid spending on education and health in a country of 212 million people never exceeded more than 2% of the government’s own budgets. And yet politicians and officials alike would welcome delegations from DFID with open arms, valuing the team’s technical expertise and political savvy as a critical ingredient in their own problem-solving.
Together, we worked on strengthening many aspects of public service management, from resource management and revenue generation to transparency in recruitment and procurement processes. DFID used its influence to help provincial governments tackle some of Pakistan’s most entrenched equity issues — such as adolescent girls’ ability to learn in a safe environment.
Much of this work has stood the test of time. Recently, the government used mechanisms established using U.K. finance almost a decade ago under the Benazir Income Support Programme to provide cash safety nets to 12 million of the poorest households throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns.
I was often struck by the passion, expertise, and dedication that my U.K. colleagues displayed for their work. Many have criticized DFID for failing to market the U.K. through its work. I would argue that prioritizing active problem-solving over branded photo opportunities is precisely why DFID was considered first among equals in most of these countries.
The focus on poverty reduction and practical solutions had a big impact on our working culture, too; in contrast to other international organizations, the DFID Pakistan office was characterized by respect for the expertise and knowledge of locally engaged staff members — most of whom had qualifications from the world’s best universities and a deep commitment to development. We worked in an atmosphere of mutual trust and a collective desire to make a difference, whether in discussion with senior officials or on a surprise visit to a rural health center to check on the availability of doctors and medicines.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there had been a "massive consultation" about merging DFID with FCO. Aid groups say if there was, nobody told them.
And yet the U.K prime minister ended 23 years of largely excellent work with a stroke of a pen on June 16. In my exit interview, the possibility of a merger between DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was the main reason I gave for leaving after eight years. While consultation on the final decision was scant, there appear to be four arguments for the merger, none of which I believe is valid.
The first is about aligning the U.K’s foreign policy and international aid objectives. Yet much of DFID’s success lay in its ability to find common ground between its priorities and those of the governments it worked with.
It would be naive to imagine that recipient governments will not notice the shift in emphasis. At the very least, the U.K. can expect a more guarded reception from counterparts and an end to the collaborative problem-solving approach that has been so successful.
Second, references to “some independent Scandinavian NGO” and a “giant cashpoint in the sky” suggested some feel DFID was not a team player. These statements were difficult to hear for staffers who have striven to safeguard aid funds and worked to reduce corruption and strengthen financial management processes in recipient countries.
And the argument is spurious. DFID was run by U.K. civil servants and therefore subject to the same checks and balances as any other government department. All DFID programming was included in an integrated delivery plan, and country directors already reported to the ambassador.
Third, the same references play to the popular view that the U.K. should abolish the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, particularly at a time when hundreds of thousands of citizens may lose their jobs. But the merger does not achieve that; it simply redistributes the international aid target among government departments. While the symbolism of dismantling DFID may play well in the tabloid press, it will not lead to more money being spent on the priorities of the British public.
Finally, the prime minister raised questions about where to spend development finance, asking why the U.K. gives as much or more to Tanzania and Zambia as it does to Ukraine and the Western Balkans. This argument does not befit the stature of a country that will host the Group of Seven industrial nations next year and that continues to aspire to be a leading player on the international stage.
Increasing support to Ukraine may well have merit. It is very hard to see, however, why this should be at the expense of the poorest communities in Africa and South Asia.
A large proportion of DFID’s work takes place in countries formerly colonized by the U.K. Ordinary people across Africa and South Asia continue to suffer to this day from colonial rule and its distorting effects on their societies, and I would also argue this is an important reason why the U.K. should continue to invest in the development of countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Kenya.
I fear this merger, like so many in the corporate world, will destroy value rather than create it. I do not expect many of my former colleagues to remain in their posts for long, scattering the “world-class expertise” referred to in the prime minister’s announcement. And I believe the open and collaborative bilateral relationship DFID had with counterpart governments will quickly be replaced with something much more transactional and formal.
Some commentators have pointed out that this is not the first time the U.K’s international development work has been absorbed, and they hold out hope for a reversal in the future. But it takes time to build an institution, as well as care and diligence to ensure it succeeds consistently.
With this merger, the U.K. government has abolished a brand that firmly linked it to many of the improvements made in public services across the globe. The end of DFID signals a reduction in expertise, less space for development at the top table, and ultimately less respect for the U.K.
The era of soft power is over — for now, at least.